The Virgin and Child Enthroned - Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine

The Icons of St. Catherine's Monastery
In Egypt's Sinai

John Watson

Christ Pantocrator
The Virgin and Child Enthroned - Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine

This outstanding icon has survived in two pieces, unskillfully joined together with wire. It represents the Virgin enthroned, supporting the Child Christ in her lap and flanked by two warrior Saints, the bearded St. Theodore Stratelates on the right and the beardless St. George on the left, both standing in formal pose. Two Archangels are pictured behind the central group, their wide-open eyes staring with awe at the hand of God which descends from heaven emitting a beam of light towards the head of the Holy Virgin. Portrayed frontally, on a slightly larger scale than the rest of the figures composing the icon, the Virgin is seated on the red cushion of the pearl-studded throne, dressed in a dark blue maphorion (veil), her feet in purple shoes resting on a golden footrest adorned with pearls. An intense realism is reflected in the Virgin's white and pink face painted with ample highlights and greed shades, in her strongly accentuated features and large dissimilar eyes with their vivid glance. The Christ Child is pictured seated in a remarkably easy and comfortable pose on His mother's lap. The two Archangels, with their different haloes but otherwise perfectly uniform treatment and classical rendering, form a splendid complement to the central group.

Generally speaking, this icon presents a synthesis of the hieratic character of religious art and the profound meaning of theological doctrine. It symbolizes the mystery of the incarnation of Christ made man and the glory of the Mother of God. This justifies the intense expression of the countenances, the solemn attitudes of the Saints present at the glory of the Mother of God, the awed attention of the Archangels who "behold" the mystery of the incarnation.

The icon is dominated by the formal severity and hieratic character of monumental art in Justinian's age. It also reflects the splendor of the imperial court, particularly in the Saints' attires, and clearly betrays the continuation of Hellenistic tradition in the treatment of the Archangels. This masterpiece, therefore, has been dated by most scholars in the age of Justinian and attributed to an imperial atelier of Constantinople. However, it should be noted that some other scholars maintain that this icon is a Syro-Palestinian work.

It was painted using the encaustic technique and is believed to date to the 6th century. (.70 X .49 meters)

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