The Science and Art of Conservation & Restoration




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Rare Byzantine Icon Discovered in Istanbul Church : An Icon from Two Ages

In the summer of 2021, the conservator and restorer of works of art and antiquities Venizelos G. Gavrilakis, founder and director of the VENIS STUDIOS laboratories, received the request to take charge of a project for the conservation and restoration of a Byzantine icon painted on a support of wood in the Buyukada Panagia Eleoussa Church. The temple, located on the Princess Island of Istanbul and dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God, was founded in 1735 near the Greek cemetery on the southern slope of Isa Tepesi. Rebuilt on its present site in 1793 at the end of Fayton Meydani, it was renovated in 1871. Created with deep meaning and painted in bright colors, the icons represented images of God or Saints. These figures, which fulfilled liturgical functions, acted as a bridge between the normal and the divine, helping communication between the faithful and the deity. Venerated in churches, homes or public places, the images were made either in the form of a mosaic or painted or frescoed to cover the walls of the walls and on other supports such as wood, on which different techniques were used such as egg tempera and the encaustic.

Gavrilakis and Vaia Karagianni, co-director of the laboratories, found themselves before a different and unusual icon. The fabulous work of art that the VENIS STUDIOS conservators were preparing to restore had been preserved since the Byzantine era inside a heavy bronze chest, a particular refuge that had been guarded for more than a hundred years. Covered in a silver sleeve nailed to the wood with hundreds of tiny nails, the icon was beautifully decorated on both sides of the wood with two images that, at first, did not seem to fit. The representation of the Virgin of Eleoussa with the child Jesus, dated at first glance due to its characteristics in the fourteenth century, contrasted with what had been drawn on the back and which seemed to be an image of the "Descent into Hades", something that a priori did not make much sense since such images were not usually represented in the artistic period. The stylistic features were also completely different between the two parts of the icon. The icon on the back was reminiscent of representations of the Resurrection of Christ, typical of the late Byzantine era (16th century), something extremely rare. Despite the evidence, the restorers had their doubts and could not confirm it with complete certainty until both icons had been cleaned of the thick oxide varnish and other substances that covered most of the surface of the painting and that made it difficult to recognize the details of the work. 

The Restoration process 

The wooden support on which both representations had been made was in poor condition, forcing the restorers to first repair the support and the paint on the front. Once the first process that stabilized and consolidated the wooden support and the paint layer was finished, the specialists were able to turn the icon to begin the investigation and safe restoration of the back of the icon. As the cleaning work on the icon on the back was completed, it became easier to recognize the different details of the piece that confirmed all the initial indications that it was made in the 16th century. The conservators were faced with two pieces of art corresponding to two different chronological periods. The Byzantinologist Athanasios Semoglou, in charge of the historical research, confirmed that the left side of the icon belonged to the end of the 14th century or even the 15th century while the right side corresponded to the 16th century. The most plausible theory is that the two icons would have been united in the 16th century. Gavrilakis would come to this conclusion because of a crack in the icon that represents the descent into hell from the top to the bottom, as well as several nails on the side. The absence of damage to the Virgin was the key point for the director of the laboratories to reach the conclusion that the icon had been broken and had been joined to another later. It would not be until later that the Virgin with the child would be "repaired" and united with another Icon. “It is very likely that the icon was originally painted on both sides with the "Virgin of Eleousa" says Gavrilakis, "most likely the original 14th-century icon was broken, leaving the right side quite damaged," he adds. "It would not be until the 16th century that an "ancient restoration" was carried out with the part of the icon that had been saved, adding the other half of the missing wooden support". The "Virgin Elousa with the child" on the front that would be complemented on the back with another religious image that represents  one of the themes that were current in the 16th century. While it was quite common to find double Byzantine icons combining the Virgin and Child with the Crucifixion or with various themes of the Passion of Christ or the descent from the Cross, the Resurrection was not a common combination of the Virgin and Child, known as Theotokos, so the icon has been considered an exceptional discovery. The desire to maintain the functionality of the icons, as many of them were processional, led to many renovations being carried out at a later period which can be seen almost exclusively on the front. This is the reason for the different dating of the two faces in the icon, which could also be the case in the present work. This unique double-period icon will be put back on display in its original place so that pilgrims and visitors from all over the world can see this wonderful and unique work of art.

The History and Symbolism of Icons from Byzantium to today

The icons (from the Greek eikon, image) are an extraordinary artistic and religious testimony. These representations of Christ, the Virgin, a Saint or an event from Sacred History that normally have fixed canons were frequently used in images painted on small portable wood. The iconographers created representations in which every detail was full of special symbolism while the colors acted as attributes and created a circle of meanings. Gold was light, the center of divine life, while white and ultramarine were assigned to the Virgin. According to Byzantine tradition, the authorship of the first icons is attributed to Saint Luke. The Byzantine iconography developed from the Council of Ephesus, in 430 AD, at which time the Virgin was proclaimed as the mother of God and the cult of her figure was consolidated.