Coming Soon: Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ (Virgin Eleousa)

A rare, Byzantine and Early Christan Art icon featuring the Virgin Mary and the Christ child will be on view beginning Tuesday, December 20. Acquired by the museum in June 2010 and having undergone an extensive conservation treatment since then, the Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ (Virgin Eleousa), will make its public debut in the Robert P. Bergman Memorial Gallery.

Icon of the Mother of God and the Infant Christ (Virgin Eleousa) 1425–50. Angelos Akotantos (Cretan, active 1425–50). Tempera and gold on wood; 96 x 70 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2010.154.

“I had been looking for an icon to add to our collection for many years,” said Stephen Fliegel, curator of medieval art. “We had been searching the world for one and found the Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ in a private collection in Rome.”

This particular acquisition is also rare in that it can be attributed to a specific icon painter, Angelos Akotantos (died c. 1450), who signed as many as 30 icons and to whom an additional 20 are reliably attributed (including this work). Akotantos had a workshop in Candia, the capital of Crete, from which he supplied icons to Greek churches and monasteries on Crete, Patmos, Rhodes and elsewhere. The large size of this icon may suggest its original placement on a templon in an Orthodox church. The life and work of the artist will be explored in more detail as the subject of the 2012 Collis Lecture on September 30, 2012.

Icons of this importance rarely appear on the market, and this painting stands out as one of the most significant icons to enter an American museum collection in recent years. Icons are different than other sacred paintings because they were used in theological and liturgical occasions. Because they are handled by many hands, icons are not often found in good condition. They are also rare because many were destroyed during a controversial historic period called iconoclasm.

Still employed in Christian Orthodox church traditions, patrons use icons as a material means of communicating with the sacred. The icon signifies the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Christ born of human flesh and destined to die for the sake of humankind. Icons from the 15th century are rare and Fliegel advises that visitors take note of some key particulars when viewing the Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ (Virgin Eleousa).

“Visitors should notice the eyes of Virgin Mary. The eyes are important because the artist knew that people would focus on the eyes as they viewed this object during an act of veneration,” Fliegel said. “Also pay attention the moment of tenderness conveyed as the Virgin Mary also touches the cheek of the Christ Child.”

Conservation support of this object was made possible due to the generous donation of Al DeGulis in tribute to his late wife Helen and former Cleveland Museum of Art director Bob Bergman.

“When Griff Mann (deputy director and chief curator) approached me about supporting the conservation of the Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ, I thought this was a perfect way for ‘us’ to honor Bob, “said DeGulis. “Helen would be so very pleased that we were able to do something so meaningful for the museum, which she loved.” In recognition of this significant gift, the label for the painting will read: The conservation of this work was supported by Helen and Albert DeGulis in memory of their close friend Robert P. Bergman, Ph.D. The museum is grateful to Al DeGulis for helping to provide much-needed funding to conserve the icon.

The funding enabled Dean Yoder, conservator of paintings, to travel to Athens, Greece with curator Stephen Fliegel last January to view The Hand of Angelos: An icon-painter in Venetian Crete at the Benaki Museum. The visit allowed them to see that the Icon compared favorably to the ones included in the Athens exhibition. The funds also supported scientific research at Case Western Reserve University. Yoder estimates approximately 750 hours conserving the Icon. His work included removing old restorations to uncover the original paint and gilding and extensive inpainting to compensate for hundreds of old losses, retrieving balance and intended color harmonies.

“Seeing the exhibition was not only important in terms of comparing the quality and nuance of execution, it was also extremely helpful to see a variety of treatment approaches by Greek conservators, which dealt with similar condition issues,” Yoder said. “This gave me the ability to place the aesthetic goals for our icon treatment in a broader international context. I could then be mindful other icons by the hand of Angelos, presented in the Athens exhibition, as I proceeded with the conservation of our icon. This treatment was probably one of the most complex and gratifying experiences of my career. I hope our visitors will be moved by the grace and presence of this powerful work of art. “

He says that a portion of the remaining funds may be used for additional research to see other Icons as he and Fliegel hope to prepare an article about the object for publication.

-- Kesha Williams

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