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The Virgin Eleousa

An extremely rare painted icon is now on view after painstaking conservation
December 31, 2012
Icon of the Mother of God and the Infant Christ (Virgin Eleousa)

Stephen N. Fliegel Curator of Medieval Art

Dean Yoder Conservator of Paintings


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. Three ornamental cross stars indicate the Virgin’s purity before, during, and after the birth of Christ. The child wears a chiton (or tunic) and a himation, a type of overgarment. In his hands is a ribbon-tied scroll, a symbol of his Gospels and Logos, the Word which became man. 


No phenomenon is more emblematic of Byzantine art than the painted icon, or sacred image, which provides its distinctive formal aesthetic and complex theology. In contrast to the veneration of devotional images in the European west during the Middle Ages, Byzantium regarded icons as important vehicles for bridging the material and the sacred worlds with a power similar to that held by relics in the West. No other culture has assigned to painting so essential a role in making the divinity available to the worshiper. Indeed, icons have been called the “motor-force of Byzantine art.” Until recently, the presence of a painted icon in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s small but distinguished collection of Byzantine art has remained elusive, though icons in other materials are represented. In the summer of 2010, the museum identified a highly important painted icon dating to the early 15th century in an Italian private collection and successfully negotiated its acquisition. Following extensive conservation, it recently was installed in the museum’s gallery of Byzantine art.

Painted on wood panel, the icon represents the Mother of God with Infant Christ. It belongs to an iconographic type known as the “Virgin Eleousa” (Virgin of Tenderness), characterized by the touching cheeks of mother and child to capture an emotive and loving moment. The icon signifies the Christian doctrine of the incarnation—Christ born of human flesh and destined to suffer and die for the sake of humankind. Of large size, it communicates this core doctrine in a deeply spiritual and powerful way. Marian images, dominant subject matter of Byzantine art, were found in mosaics, wall painting, and portable icons throughout the Orthodox Christian world. Following the Council of Ephesus in the year 431, the doctrine of the Virgin’s role in the redemption was promulgated. This central tenet held that the Virgin gave birth not only to Christ’s human form, but also his divine. Hence, she became the Theotokos or “bearer of God.” In Byzantine orthodoxy she is referred to as the “Mother of God”—an image consummately represented by the newly acquired icon.

The icon was painted by the documented Cretan icon painter Angelos Akotantos (died c. 1450). Of extremely high quality, it meets or exceeds the quality of other icons by Angelos, such as his signed icon of the Virgin Kardiotissa (Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens). The treatment of the faces and draperies is handled with tremendous fluency and skill, revealing Angelos to be a painter of great talent. The figures project both sensitivity and majesty. It is unusual to be able to attribute an icon to a specific painter before the late 15th century and even then is rare. The subject of intense study in recent years, Angelos has emerged as the preeminent artistic personality on Crete during the 15th century. His influence was widespread. The icon is reliably dated to about 1425–50, the period of his greatest activity, thus placing it firmly within the Byzantine period. It pre-dates the collapse of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.


Templon in the Church of the Theotokos, Hosios Loukas, Greece

Templon in the Church of the Theotokos, Hosios Loukas, Greece 10th–11th century. The large scale of the museum’s icon suggests it was intended for use in a setting similar to that shown here. 


Icon painting on the island of Crete often reveals a fusion of Italian and Byzantine influence, since the island was under Venetian control after 1211. Though dominated by Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, it had a Venetian governor and close ties with Venice and the Italian market. Documentary evidence shows that the movement of painters from Constantinople to Crete reached significant numbers throughout the 15th century, peaking in the decade following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Established Cretan painters like Angelos are known to have visited Constantinople as a continuation of their cultural and religious links to the Byzantine capital. For most, Constantinople remained the wellspring of artistic influence. Angelos is believed to have worked principally from a large workshop in Candia, the capital of Crete, though he is known to have also worked on other Greek islands such as Patmos and Rhodes.

Cretan painting of this period is characterized not only by the penetration of Western elements but also by its late Byzantine Palaiologan quality. Compositions are idealized, highly organized, and characterized by a refined treatment of every detail and the use of thin white lines in a net or a parallel arrangement. These features derived from late Byzantine Palaiologan painting of the 14th century, as found in churches in Constantinople or other areas where there was a strong Constantinopol-itan influence or artists from that city were at work. The presence of Constantinopolitan painters in Candia, already documented by the end of the 14th century, was presumably instrumental in familiarizing Cretan painters with current stylistic trends in the capital of Byzantium. Many of the icons now associated with Angelos Akotantos bear the Greek inscription Heir Angelou (“by the hand of Angelos”) in the lower edge or on the lower gold ground, confirming them to be the work of this important Cretan painter. His impressive oeuvre clearly indicates the existence of a large workshop. Few of his icons are today located in Crete itself, with most of them found in Sinai, Patmos, the Cyclades, the Ionian islands, Athens (in the Byzantine and the Benaki Museums), and in private collections in Greece and elsewhere. Cleveland’s icon is the only known work by Angelos in a U.S. collection.

The large number of surviving icons by his hand indicates that Angelos was in great demand with Orthodox monastic centers in Sinai and Orthodox monasteries and churches in Crete and outside (such as the monasteries of St. Phanourios at Varsamonero and of the Virgin Hodegetria, both in Crete, and the monastery of St. John in Patmos), and this probably dictated his iconographic vocabulary. He appears to be associated with an impressive range of subjects, such as the Embrace of Peter and Paul, the Deesis, the Virgin Kardiotissa, the Virgin Eleousa, the Christ Pantocrator, St. John the Baptist, and St. Catherine. From his surviving work we may conclude that Angelos specialized in military saints and established as an iconographic type the dragon-slaying military saint on foot, which he adopted for depictions of Sts. Phanourios and Theodore.

Because icons occupied a central place in Orthodox belief, and because they were associated with miracles and curative powers, they were physically venerated by those who loved them. The believer would greet the icon with a deep bow and sign of the cross; icons were physically touched and kissed, candles were lit before them, and sometimes they were carried in procession. Because of this repeated physical veneration, old icons as paintings do not survive into our time without conservation challenges.

Before the icon of the Virgin Eleousa was acquired, a thorough examination was needed to determine its state of preservation. Understanding an artwork’s construction and condition aids curators and conservators in making critical decisions about authenticity and potential conservation treatments. In addition to studying the object firsthand, comparing similar technical studies can be essential to such evaluations.


Icon of the Virgin Kardiotissa

Icon of the Virgin Kardiotissa 1425–50. Angelos Akotantos. Tempera and gold on wood; 121 x 96.5 cm. Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, BXM 01552


An in-depth technical study of signed icons by Angelos Akotantos undertaken by the Benaki Museum in 2008 became an invaluable resource for the assessment of the Virgin Eleousa. The technical examination of the Virgin Kardiotissa in the Byzantine and Christian Museum was particularly helpful in identifying important similarities with the Virgin Eleousa in terms of overall construction and nuance of execution.

For reasons about which we can only speculate, the icon’s original rectangular format was altered at the top to form an uneven arch and portions of the left and bottom edges were cut away, possibly to fit into an architectural niche. Though these alterations to the perimeter are unfortunate, this type of damage is not uncommon to icons of this age. The icon had also received a number of previous restorative interventions. Large portions of the gold background had been gilded over, and many minor damages to the paint layer were covered with excessive retouching. The area of most concern, in terms of a future conservation treatment, was a 60-centimeter-long vertical band of raised gesso and paint running through the Virgin and Child’s robes. Still, the icon possessed immense potential for revitalization with a proper conservation treatment. Remarkably, most of the underlying original paint layer and much of the original gilding had survived in good condition below all the layers of grime, discolored varnish, and repaint.


Inside the Icon

Inside the Icon Overall x-radiograph of the panel showing metal spikes, fabric overlay, and the painted image


The icon is composed of three vertical planks of wood, most likely cypress (one large central panel flanked by two smaller panels), which were originally nailed together with large tapered metal spikes driven in from the outside edges. Two bands of finely woven linen fabric were laid directly over the joins between the panels to prevent cracks from transferring through to the painted surface. An overall digital composite image, taken from x-radiograph film, clearly illustrates aspects of the panels’ construction. For example, due to their density the long metal spikes at the edges characteristically appear white in an x-ray, and the woven fabric laid over the panels is visible as dark vertical bands. Traces of original horizontal cross battens, now missing, can be found on the reverse. Multiple layers of gesso, composed of an animal glue and gypsum, were applied over the wood and linen, producing a smooth surface for the application of the egg-tempera paint and gold background. Through his will (1436) and other documents now preserved in the Venetian Archives, it is known that Angelos used perforated working drawings or stencils to lay out an icon’s design. These were valued greatly, and after his death Angelos’s drawings were sold to a younger icon painter, Andreas Ritzos.

Though a drawing may have been used to transfer the basic format of the design, there was no evidence of a preliminary tracing. Extremely fine incised lines were scribed with a sharp tool into the soft but firm gesso layer to be used as a guide for the paint layer. Thin washes of fluid egg-tempera brushwork, visible in the infrared photograph, were laid in between the incised lines. Hidden by subsequent layers of paint, underdrawing can often be thought of as the artist’s own handwriting. This confident underpainting, which was not constrained by the incised lines, is characteristic of Angelos’s freeness as an artist. In the area of the gold background, thin washes of yellow clay, also know as bole, were used to tone gesso and provide a soft base for burnishing the gold.

Once the painting was acquired by the museum, further in-depth examination followed in order to establish the best course of treatment to address the numerous condition problems. Critical to this treatment’s success was reattaching the area of raised gesso and paint. This phenomenon, called “tenting,” occurs when elevated humidity or direct contact with water loosens the bond between the wood panel, underlying canvas, and ground and paint layers. When the moisture dissipates, the panel shrinks. This compression forces the ground and paint to lift upward and away from the panel, forming tent-like shapes. To reverse this phenomenon, the affected areas must be remoistened to soften the underlying canvas and the ground and paint layers. Protective Japanese tissues were carefully positioned over the surface to hold the fractured surface paint in place while an adhesive, with properties compatible to those of the ground layer, was injected underneath. The tissue was kept in place while the treated area was gently dried with low heat and pressure, then left under cushioned weight for six weeks.

Tests and analytical work were conducted to identify original materials, as well as those used in the many previous treatments. One of the more challenging tasks was removal of multiple layers of new gilding and an underlying oil-bound fill material that had been excessively spread atop the gilt background to block a much older darkened bronze paint. Fortunately, the water-based original gilding permitted the use of gelled solvents, allowing the entire original gilt surface to be completely recovered.

Accumulations of grime and previous applications of glue, oil, and varnish were unevenly distributed over the painted areas from past restoration attempts. These were removed layer by layer until an ancient oil layer was encountered. Removal of this layer, which lies directly over the egg-tempera paint, was not required since the cleaning had already reached the desired aesthetic goals and further cleaning would have compromised the paint layers’ structural integrity.

Before the final inpainting stage, deeper losses to the ground layer had to be filled and leveled. A filling compound with properties similar to the original gesso was selected. Hundreds of losses were then leveled under high magnification and raking light with an Italian tool made for this purpose. A thin layer of varnish was brushed over only the painted surface; the gold background was left unvarnished for aesthetic reasons, since coatings over gold often compromise the desired intrinsic reflective qualities.

Choosing the correct inpainting methodology is critical to how a work of art is perceived. Because icons share a similar aesthetic with early Italian panel paintings, a refined type of tratteggio was thought to be the most logical approach to reintegrating areas of complete loss with the worn, cracked, and stained surrounding original paint. Tratteggio is an inpainting strategy that uses fine vertical lines of alternating colors. The lines create a “vibration” that is similar to older abraded paint surfaces, but can be easily distinguished upon close examination. Losses in the gold background were also inpainted with a similar tratteggio technique in order to achieve a consistent appearance over the surface and to preserve the idea that the gold’s worn surface is of historical importance integral to understanding the icon as an object of use and worship.


Original Gold and Paint Layers Uncovered

Original Gold and Paint Layers Uncovered Before treatment (left), during the cleaning process (center), and after cleaning but before inpainting (right)


After this yearlong conservation treatment, involving hundreds of hours, the icon is now displayed in the Robert P. Bergman Memorial Gallery of Byzantine Art, where it joins other major works representing East Christian Orthodox culture. 




Acheimastou-Potamianou, Myrtali, ed. Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece (exh. cat.). Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture, 1988.

Cormack, Robin. Icons. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Milanou, Kalypso, Chryssa Vourvopoulou, Lena Vranopoulou, and Alexandra-Eleni Kalliga. Icons by the Hand of Angelos: The Painting Method of a Fifteenth-Century Cretan Painter. Athens: Benaki Museum, 2008.

Pentcheva, Bissera V. Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

Vassilaki, Maria. The Painter Angelos and Icon-Painting in Venetian Crete. London: Ashgate Publishing, 2009.

———, ed. The Hand of Angelos: An Icon Painter in Venetian Crete (exh. cat.). Athens: Benaki Museum, 2010. 


Cleveland Art, January/February 2012