The “Madre della Consolazione” icon in the Museum of Torcello / Venice and the relation of Russian post Byzantine iconography to Italian Renaissance painting

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2019

62 Pages, Grade: excellent




Key words:


1. Introduction

2. The “Madre della Consolazione” icon in the Museum of Torcello/Venice
2.1. Catalogue data
2.2. Description
2.3. Support
2.4. Primer
2.5. Paint layers
2.6. Paint application/technique:
2.7. Surface finish:

3. Attribution

4. Iconography
4.1. Denomination and origin of the iconographic type
4.2. The Madre della Consolazione icon in Russia (Mother of God Palestinskaja)
4.3. About the mutual influences among the artistic traditions of Byzantium, Italy and Russia in the post-Byzantine period

5. Conclusion

Bibliographic references

Index of illustrations


The “Madre della Consolazione” icon, presented here, attracted my attention during the investigation of the small icon collection hosted in the Museum of Torcello/Venice1, with the unusual for the Italian-Greek redactions of this iconographic type chromatic palette, incarnate construction and gilding technique, as well as for the typically Russian and not Italian or Greek anthropological traits of the Virgin and the Child.

The painting, always kept in deposit, has never been published. The only mentioning of this work to the moment belongs to A. Rizzi2 who, in a quite summary redacted register, attributes it to any anonymous Cretan-Venetian painter of the 16th c. However, many iconographic and stylistic anomalies, examined in this paper, make such attribution inacceptable. As well inacceptable result some recent publications trying to convince us that the author of this iconographic type should be the Greek icon painter Nikolaos Zafouris and that his devotional paintings destined to Latin clientele should be icons3. Regrettably, such confusion among cultural provenance, religious and liturgical function; iconographic, stylistic, and technical peculiarities is not an isolated case. The study and presentation of Orthodox art works assimilated in Western Europe often are accompanied by similar disorientation and difficulties in the estimation of their value, exactly: if they are icons or religious paintings; if originals, copies, replica or commercial fakes. The majority of art historians and specialists in conservation restoration in Western Europe easily confuse the icon, as a typical for the Orthodox church object of worship, with any representation on religious theme.

The origin of the described anomalies and incongruence lies mostly in the legacy of the profound political division between E and W Europe. The study, preservation and management of the Orthodox heritage for decennials has followed inhomogeneous ways, headed by schools that for long periods have not or only partially communicated. Consequently, the impact of post byzantine painting on the other artistic traditions, and the opposite process, its westernization, remains a still poorly studied area, particularly in its technical-technological aspects. The situation is, however, in continuous evolution, and in Russia /Eastern Europe on this issue has already been dedicated specific research that helps to better distinguish between the production of the Orthodox workshops and the Latin ones. Unfortunately, Occidental researchers are not aware of its existence. And yet, the practice often proposes such ambiguous cases of uncertain invoice, whose correct characterization is of a certain importance, e.g. for the compilation of national inventories of cultural property or of certificates for export, of the UNESCO-WCO Model Export Certificate, or of the respective EU certificate based on the European directive 93/7/EEC of 15/3/1993 for the restitution of goods illegally exported from the territory of any member state.

To be internationally recognized, the technical definitions need of standardization: at the level of content, terminology and implied meaning.

The question is worthy of more attention, as the proper, competent and complete characteristic of the materials and technique of a work are important not only for the preparation of inventories or for the identification. They serve also a number of other purposes such as those related to the scientific study, restoration, conservation and protection. This specific information can be of importance to resolve the negotiations or court cases related to the restitution/compensation of stolen and/or damaged works. Among its potential users are governments, museums, researchers, antique dealers, police, customs, the insurance industry, law firms, judges and others.

Last but not least: it cannot be recognized that significant lacunae are still present in the study of the Italian icons of the Mother of God as regards their religious history, names, iconographic prototypes and variants, and one of the main objectives of this paper is to contribute to clear some essential points of this problematic and complete knowledge of existing sources and data.


In difference to the abundant studies regarding the religious worship of icons and the individual painting styles, the art-technical and technological peculiarities of post byzantine painting became object of study only in the relatively recent past. Their discovery started in the 20th century, and the most active phase of practical work goes back to the Soviet era, therefore we are almost contemporaries of this event characterized by accumulation of detailed technical-technological information and its analysis in the context of the art-historical and technical peculiarities4. Basing on the knowledge about the internal structure of the work, about the presence of later interventions, the materials and methods of their application, it became possible to attribute, date, establish the artistic value, and verify the authenticity of the studied works with much greater objectivity.5

Among the various investigative directions, the impact of the post-byzantine painting on other artistic traditions as well as the reverse process, the westernization of the Orthodox painting6, occupy an important position. The last embraces the technical premises and peculiarities of Renaissance and Baroque icons in respect to Western European art tradition, and the concrete responses Orthodox icon painters gave to the challenges of Western civilization, that is: what determined the dynamic of the material technical upgrading, and if the technical-technological characteristics have any relation to the place of making and to the desired significance of the image; how did traditional egg tempera evolve through mixed techniques to oil painting and how did this influence the plastic construction of the imagery; how was employed the technical knowledge going back to ancient sources?7

Properly in this research path is conceived the actual exploration of post byzantine icons in Italy, whose first phase opened the recently published Quando l’arte racconta la fede.8

For temporary circumstances that obstacle an integral scientific investigation, this paper will be limited only to the microscopic and photographic investigation of the technical-technological aspects of the original. Its objective is to contribute for a better distinguishing among originals, copies, replica, renovations and commercial fakes of the Madre della Consolazione representations known to the moment.

2.The “Madre della Consolazione” icon in the Museum of Torcello/Venice

2.1. Catalogue data

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1. Museum of Torcello/Venice. Madre della Consolazione WRC: 006255 inv. N.596 (in deposit)

Denomination: Mother of God with Christ of the type “Madre della Consolazione”

Authorship: Old Believers workshop from the Low Volga region, South Russia

Date of origin: end of 19th century

Material, support. Cypress (?) wood panel strengthened at the backside with two transversal sticks in coniferous wood (pine?).

Technique(s): egg and mixed tempera; plav’ for the incarnate. Foil gilded background (Zwischgold?); garment folds in assist gold.

Inscriptions: M[Ρ] Θ[Υ], ΙΣ ΧΣ

Measures: 55,5 x 44 x 1.6 cm

2.2. Description

On the 51 x 44 cm large icon without covceg, the Mother of God is shown in half figure with the Child Christ on her right arm. Mary lightly touches the Child's left knee with the left hand. The Child’ legs (seen from the viewer) are stretched out to the right; he holds his right arm bent inwards and blesses with two fingers, while holding a golden globe in the left. This appears to be transparent, since the horizontal dividing line between the two hemispheres is visible on both the front and rear sides. The globe is crowned by a small cross. Christ is dressed in an orange-red chimation, finely grained by rich gold chrysography, which falls down above the left shoulder and the lower body to the feet. Below is visible a sleeveless, clear blue chiton with small scattered golden/silver ornaments and decorated along the borders with a fine silver/golden pattern. He wears it over a thin white shirt, whose sleeves cover his right upper arm. His head is turned to the left, the eyes look at the viewer seriously and carefully. The dark blond hairs are placed in carefully combed curls. The Mother of God has her head easily inclined to her child, but her melancholy gaze is neither directed at the child nor on the beholder. Her face has delicate features: the nose is long and narrow, the mouth small, the eyes almond-shaped, and narrow eyebrows are drawn with an elegant swing. Mary bears a dark red brown maphorion that falls over the head and shoulders in wide curves and softly modeled deep wrinkles. In front of the chest it is held by a round clasp with an inscribed eight-pointed star. On the forehead and the left shoulder, there is always a golden star. Along the outer edges, the maphorion is adorned by a wide braid decorated with a fine golden pattern. A thin, folded cloth, the ends of which are held together by the gold clasp, encircles the face of Mary under the maphorion. The heads of the mother of God and the Child are surrounded by haloes with richly chased floral-motif embroidery and a jagged edge. In contrast to most punched haloes of Cretan icons, they are worked in a "negative" technique. This means that not the motifs themselves were punched into the gold ground as usual, but the entire surface of the halo has been roughened by the punches, while the ornaments were cut out and stand out from the punched background. In the Mother of God halo the motif is composed of symmetrically reflected sprouts, an ornament typical for the folklore of Southern Russia. The halo of Christi is interrupted by three cross beams, each of which is distinguished by eight-pointed star, the rest is covered with an unreadable motif. On the plane gold ground that circumscribes with a small board both the figures are written in red color the abbreviations for the mother of God – MR ΘΥ and for Christ – IC XC.

Almost nothing is known about the history of this icon, its provenance and the conditions in which it has been kept before entering in the Museum of Torcello.


Wood species

The icon support is composed of two (?) old and split reddish hardwood boards (probably Cypress wood), glued together in a panel and strengthened at the backside by two symmetric transversal sticks in coniferous wood, most probably larch, of significant thickness, fixed at the back side with manually produced nails with great heads (hats). The upper transversal bar measures 5 x 38,5 cm, the lower - 5,5 x 42cm; both are 1,3 cm thick. For reference, it should be useful to indicate that in the most encountered constructions the panels are composed of 2, 3, at maximum 5 boards.9 Their thickness goes from 0,5 to 3-4 cm, very rarely – over 5 cm. To the stabilizing devices of the Torcello icon count also the so called dibli (tipli): small stabs (normally of d 0,2-0.5 cm , length – 5-10 cm) which, like nails, are fixed with hammer and glue in the inner boards of the junctions.

The Cypressus support of the Torcello icon, if analytically confirmed, could be a sign of origin from Greece, Mount Athos10 or the Low Volga Region. Usually the wood species were selected on base of the regional and geographic peculiarities of the various schools; their choice depended on what the area had to offer, and not rarely the icons were made on wood of low quality.

On the background of the collected data, the use of Cypressus results relatively rare. In general, deciduous species (Tilia, Quercus, Juglans Regia, Populus, Fraxinus, Ulmus) dominate in the area of the Central Balkans. In the southern regions instead are most spread the coniferous: Abies alba, Pinus silvestris or Pinus peuce. Their use in the various post Byzantine schools is witnessed as follows:

Cypressus sempervirens) : Byzance (14th, 15thc..), Cretan School (15th , 16th, 17th centuries)

Pinus pinea or Pinus cembra) : Cyprus, mid 13thc.

Fir tree: Cretan School (17th c.)

Larix europae) : Byzance (15th c), (16th, 17th c).

Pinus sylvestris: Cretan School (15th -16th c)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 2. Close-ups of the back-side of the icon.

Support construction

Despite the pronounced anthropological affinity of the figures on the icon in Torcello with the Russian icon painting, the construction of the support is not in the typical for the Russian Orthodox tradition manner, but - in what regards position and fastening of the back-side sticks with nails - for this of the Greek (unite) church. The finishing of the lateral borders and the thin strip of gilded background that surrounds the image make suppose that the panel had to be inserted in a frame.


It is to suppose that our icon, following the traditional processing of the wooden supports in all earlier epochs, has been scratched of the facial side and impregnated with glutinous glue (on the basis of collagen) for to allow better adhesion of the primer.

To avoid the opening of cracks on the paint layer and even the fall of the same due to climatic changes, the most expert masters usually pasted on the surface of the table a strong cloth, of linen or of jutta, with glues of the highest adhesive capacity. Some limited this measure only to the juncture between two boards glued together, where the risk of cracking is increased. The use of canvas as a sealer and surface hardener was not however a law. During the microscopic exploration of the Torcello icon, such has not been attested. For a definitive confirm is necessary a XR investigation.

2.4. Primer


The primer (levcas) serves both to receive painting, to make a perfectly smooth or rough base, to reveal or hide the structure of the base. Its thickness reaches 0.5 up to 2-3 mm. In the case of the larger icons, the glue was given on both sides and on the lateral edges to neutralize any deformation of the board. The primer or levcas is composed of filler, binding medium(s) and additional materials among which pigments.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 3. Close-up of the upper lateral border of the icon

In the Torcello icon it is about 3 mm thick and is visible in the areas where the gold foil is missing. Here, as in classical icon painting, the levcas structurally represents a layered system consisting of three or four basic elements: an insulating layer of glue, the proper primer (one or more successive layers), the second sizing and imprimatur. The surface of the icon is interested by strong crackle net as on the gold ground as under the painting. Its deformation is more stronger long the borders where the gilded primer risks to detach from the board if not immediately consolidated.


The primer largely determines the texture of the paint layer. The selection of the primer filler usually is determined by the local natural resources, and the texture and color of the levcas – by technological and aesthetic requirements of the epoch or school, by the individual preferences of the master. It has great importance in the plastic construction of the image. Its chemical composition can be precisely established only with laboratory analysis11. However, the exploration under microscope, too, can give important indications about filler, binding medium and method of application.

Usually southern from the Alps was used gypsum, while in the northern areas – chalk. In Russia is witnessed the use of both12. From Leskov’s novel ”The impressed angel”13 we learn that most of the Moscow icons brought to the Volga region were painted on chalk primer, while the local ones – on alabaster, the product of thermal pre-processing of natural gypsum, precisely of its dehydrate.

Of particular interest for to understand the relation of the Torcello icon to the Italian-Greek replicas of the Madre della Consolazione, and to its contemporary art technical and technological traditions in general, are the technical treatises from the epoch. Thus, from the "Erminia" of Dionysius and from Russian icon painting manuals14 it becomes evident that gypsum was burned through before used as primer filler.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 4. A section of the crackle net that covers the gilded background

This is witnessed also by the anonymous author of the "Neapolitan code" of the 14th century. Interestingly, such reliable author as Cennini never mentions that gypsum filler must be burned. And although the method of processing gypsum he describes is realistic by principle, from laboratory analyses results that the pre - heat treatment of the row gypsum apparently took place also in Italy.15


The peculiarities of the Torcello icon - the intense crackle net and the extended areas of gold foil losses - exclude the possibility that gilding was made on ochre mordant lake. On the background of what is known about the methods of Russian icon painters we have to suppose that the primer filler is alabaster mixed with animal glue, on whose surface, at least in the gilded area, has been given a layer of ochre mixed with [fish] glue, as for to impart a stronger yellow shining to the metal foils (zwischgold?), as well as for to assure its adhesion. It is reflected in the shadows of the incarnate and harmonically recalls the chrysographic ornaments and the illuminated parts of the folders. Such imprimatur is not typical for the known Italian-Greek icons of the Madre della Consolazione, where for the gilded background is always attested the use of red bolus (poliment).

One of the most complete description of the process of priming and primer composition in Italy gives Armenini (1587). This treatise summarizes the experience of painting techniques of Italian Renaissance masters of the 16th century. Because in the time of Armenini painting on wood was the more widespread, he spends (vol. 2, ch. VIII) some words on gypsum primer for egg tempera on wood panels and in chapter IX, moving on to oil painting, he speaks in detail about the treatment of "panels covered with gypsum" and about the work "on a well-stretched canvas impregnated with good soft glue":

"From the paint [grounded with light walnut or linseed oil] make up the mixture which is called imprimatur and cover with it the entire surface of the levcas, for to help paint layers to adhere on the base. Some do it with lead white, giallorino (Neappel yellow) or earths, others with verdigris16 , lead white and umber;...”

On the dried imprimatur, the excess of which was scraped off with a knife, after which the surface of the levcas seemed "shiny and smooth", was applied the design. Despite the fact that Armenini talks about gypsum levcas only in painting on wood, this method continued to be used also in the priming of canvas.

The choice of binder (type of glue, and later - oil) depended on traditionally established methods, preferred by a particular school, for climate conditions and other factors17. Judging on the visual examination of the Torcello icon, here has been used only animal glue as binder for the imprimatur. Back and lateral sides have not been primed here, whenever such tradition exists in some schools.


1 The author gratefully acknowledges support in the exploration of the collection provided by the Director of the Torcello Museum, Dr. G.Vidali and particularly to Dr. Cecilia Casaril (Museum of Torcello) and to Valentino Tagliapietra, museum custodian, without whose help this study should be impossible.

2 Rizzi, A. “Le icone bizantine e postbizantine delle chiese veneziane”, ΘΗΣΑΥΡΙΣΜΑΤΑ tom.9, 250-293: p. 288 n. 85.

3 After Constantine Scampavias, “The Virgin, Madre della Consolazione,” in: The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, ed. Anastasia Drandaki, New York 2009, pp. 58, cat. no. 13, the Madre della Consolazione occurred in the second half of the fifteenth century in Venetian dominated Crete. For detailed and updated bibliography see: Haustein- Bartsch, E. „Die «Madre della Consolazione»“, in: Griechische Ikonen. Byzantinische und nach-byzantinische Zeit. Beiträge des Symposiums in Marburg 2000. Idem, „Eine neuentdeckte Ikone der «Madre della Consolazione» von Nikolaos Tzafoures“, in: Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας, Τόμος ΚΒ' (2001), 135-140, ΑΘΗΝΑ 2001; idem “Enige Bemerkungen und Fragen zur Entstehung der Ikonen der «Madre della Consolazione»” in: Griechische Ikonen: Byzantinische und Nachbyzantinische Zeit, eds. Eleni Kotsou and Ariadne Fioretou, Athens 2010, pp. 110, figs. 1-4;idem, “Madre della Consolazione,” in: Die Farben des Himmels: 15 Kretenzische Ikonen aus einer Europäischen Privatsammlung, ed. by Eva Haustein-Bartsch and Simon Morsink, Recklinghausen 2018, pp. 52, cat. no. 5.

4 Вздорнов, Г. История открытия и изучения русской средневековой живописи. XIX век. М. 1986

5 Гренберг Ю. И. Технология станковой живописи . История и исследование. М.: Изобраз. искусство, 1982

6 Komaško, Natal’a I.; Golikov, Valery (2001). «The Technological Peculiarities of the Russian Icon Painting of Second Half of 17th-18th centuries».In: Jolkkonen, Nina; Nikkanen, Helena (eds.), Changes in Post-Byzantine Icon Painting Techniques = ICOM Committee for Conservation Interim meeting of the Icon Research Area (Copenhagen, 14-17 October, 2001). Copenhagen: The Valamo Art Conservation Institute, p. 45. Комашко, Наталья Игнатьевна; Голиков, Валерий Платонович (2003). «Русская живописная икона второй половины XVII в. Экспериментальные исследования первых русских икон, созданных в масляной технике» In: V Грабаревские чтения . Доклады, сообщения (Grabarevskie chtenia, V). Moskva: ScanRuss, pp. 272-284.

7 Recently also in Germany was carried out a project that matches some of these questions, see:Yvonne Schmuhl, Esther P. Wipfler (Eds .) . Inkarnat und Signifikanz. Das menschliche Abbild in der Tafelmalerei von 200 bis 1250 im Mittelmeerraum. München 2017 .

8 Stoyanova, M. Quando l’arte racconta la fede. Icone russe da collezioni private italiane. München (GRIN Verlag), 2018, 225 pp.

9 Sharenkov, A.. Technology and technique of the Renaissance painting. The Renaissance icon. Sofia 1992 (in Bulgarian), a fundamental systematic study on the technique and technology of the Renaissance painting on the Balkans; Filatov, V.V. . Restoration of easel tempera painting (in Russian). Moscow 1986; . Вrkiс, N.“Altserbische Ikonen und ihr Bildaufbau”. In "Maltechnik", 1967, N.4, pp.. 110—114 .

10 Sharenkov, A.. Technology(as in 9); Гренберг Ю. И. Технология (as in 5).

11 Гренберг Ю. И. Технология и исследование произведений станковой и настенной живописи . Москва (ГОСНИИР) 2000.

12 Гренберг Ю. И. Технология (as in 11).

13 Лесков, H.C. Рассказы и повести М., 1981, 88.

14 Гренберг Ю. И. Свод письменных источников по технике древнерусской живописи . 2 vols, Санкт Петербург 1995-8)

15 Gellens, R. J., Мrоse, М. Е. .” Calcium Sulphate Minerals in the Grounds of Italian Paintings”, in "Conservation", v. 1, no. 4, 1954, pp. 175—189.

16 An artificially obtained copper-based green pigment.

17 Руссо, Т. и Зонненбург, Г.. “Грунты живописи”. Сообщения ВЦНИЛКР, приложение 3, вып. 3, 1968, 38—71. “ Живописные группы.” Сообщения ВЦНИЛКР, приложение 1, вып. 1, 1963, 18—32.

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The “Madre della Consolazione” icon in the Museum of Torcello / Venice and the relation of Russian post Byzantine iconography to Italian Renaissance painting
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Madre della Consolazione. Russian iconography. Post Byzantine painting. Italian Renaissance art.
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Ph.D. Magdelena Stoyanova (Author), 2019, The “Madre della Consolazione” icon in the Museum of Torcello / Venice and the relation of Russian post Byzantine iconography to Italian Renaissance painting, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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