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d’archéologie orientale - Le Caire

Bois travaillé du Ier au XVe sc.1st to 15th century worked wood

Iwona Zych

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A little noticed thirteenth-century Byzantine icon in the Church of St. Barbara in old Cairo, “The Virgin with Child Enthroned”
Société d’Archéologie Copte, Le Caire | Cairo, 1991, p. 93-103

[1201, 1300]
figuier sycomore sycamore fig (lat. Ficus sycomorus L.)
palmier dattier date palm (lat. Phoenix dactylifera)
Comprehensive analysis of the panel, its intarsia frame and character of the painting of this icon suggests an itinerant painter, possibly a Greek monk from Sinai, who designed the composition and painted the figures, while the rest of the elements may have been done by assistants, working on a panel prepared on the spot, in Cairo, to fit a specific frame. Dated to the early 14th century. Skálová speaks out in favor of a local monastic workshop in Egypt where Coptic craftsmen worked alongside traveling Byzantine masters.
Frame of icon: expensive woodwork inlaid with ivory (Fig. 1), considered by the author as “typically Coptic” (p. 94) [note 4. Hunt, Iconic and Aniconic, 1987, 39-40: “Byzantine artists would have accompanied the mission and painted the icon especially to fit this screen”. Hunt’s comment refers to the documented refurbishing of the Church of St. Barbara in Old Cairo in 1301-1302, undertaken under pressure from Constantinople; if so, the icon and the frame could have been produced at the same time on special commission.] [note 6: Hunt dated the frame to the early 14th century, Monneret de Villard to the 13th/14th century.] The aniconic, floral and animal decoration on the frame (as well as on altar screens), were meant to enhance the sacred iconic images which they framed; they resemble comparable ornamental design s on medieval Russian iconostases and Royal doors, the specific eschatological significance of which (promise of future life in paradise) was clear to the medieval believer [note 8: see L.A. Lelekov, Isskustvo Drevnjej Rusi i Vostok, Moscow 1987, 53-81].
Panel construction: cheap careless provincial technique suggestive of local production, including characteristic wavy-line brush strokes on the back (p. 96-98). Panel 125 cm by 76.2 cm to 76.5 cm, thickness approx. 2 cm, three vertical boards kept together by three half-round traverses on the back and a thin border on the front. In a few places pieces of wood added presumably to correct irregularities of the boards or to replace the lost sections of the original support. Joints filled with plaster and covered in some places on both sides, with protective pieces of palm-bark(?), which were stuck to the surface by means of the same plaster. “This served to mask the joints of the wooden support and provide a flat surface on which were imposed a series of wavy pink-brown and gray-blue brush strokes against a white painted background. This is such a rare feature in icon painting that it indicates a formula of a local workshop. This type of decoration on the back of an icon is often found, in several variations among the icons present at Saint Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai, as well as in a few icons in Cyprus (Fig. 4)”. The traverses were fastened by large-headed (1 cm in diameter) handmade iron nails driven through from the front.
The sycamore wood of the panel pieces and the palm-bark protective pieces covering the joints strongly suggest a Nile Valley origin for this icon.
Icon iconography: The throne of the Virgin in the image appears to be a wooden one with straight back and elaborately decorated with leaf motifs in black (p. 99).
- general view of frame and of position of the icon inside the church (with wooden screen in foreground), Pl. II;
- view of icon close-up, visible throne in painting and close-up of intarsia frame (Pl. I, Pl. IV:5);
- view of back with traverses and protective layer of plaster with the wavy-line ornament (Pl. III);
- view of front and back of an icon of the Virgin with (sic!) Child from the Church of St. Mercurios, Abu Sefein, in Old Cairo (48 x 251 cm) (Pl. V), mentioned as a parallel, along with six other big icons from this church, see note 30;
- close-up of throne from this icon (Pl. VI).
Egypte Egypt production
Le Caire Cairo consommation

Version 1, données dudata date 18 mars 2012March 18th 2012