Icon of the Theotokos with St. John the Theologian (Bulgarian, 1395) – T89


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Egg Tempera




National Art Gallery, Sophia, Bulgaria






This is a part of a bilateral icon with the Vision of the Prophets Ezekiel and Habbakuk on the reverse.  On this side we see the Virgin with her head bowed in great sorrow, which sorrowful expression and  clothing is very similar to how her image is shown  at times in icons of the Crucifixion.  St. John here is turned towards her, and with an open and compassionate face seems to be offering her comfort and consolation.  St. John is dressed in the robes of an ancient philosopher, which is as he is usually depicted as one of the four Evangelists.   This is a very unusual and beautiful icon.

Next to the Theotokos is the epithet “Kataphigi,” which means Refuge or Sanctuary.  This icon was commissioned by the Empress Helena, spouse of Manuel II, in honor of her father, who had been killed in the war with the Turks.  It was then sent to the Monastery of St. John in Poganova.  Helena was the granddaughter of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander.

Byzantine iconography often expresses dynamic motion through assymetry yet with balance, because Heaven is dynamic, not static.  Here in this icon this dynamism is clearly revealed.