By Venizelos G. Gavrilakis | Senior Expert Artworks Conservator & Restorer
In a church on the Princes’ Islands of Istanbul, a masterpiece and Byzantine treasure awaited discovery. This unique bilateral post-Byzantine icon of Panagia Eleousa held a peculiar feature: on its reverse side, there was another painted icon from the 14th century, which had remained “hidden” for over a hundred years inside a heavy metal box, kept in the Church of Panagia Eleousa on Büyükada/Pringipos.
In the summer of 2021, Venizelos G. Gavrilakis and Vaia A. Karagianni, the founders of VENIS STUDIOS, were commissioned by Senior Metropolitan, Mr. Dimitrios Kommata, to remove the silver revetment that covered the Panagia icon for conservation purposes. The removal of the silver revetment, dating back to 1750, revealed a unique 16th-century icon of Panagia Eleousa (Virgin Mary Eleousa), while removing the old bronze box on its back uncovered a second unique Byzantine-period icon, The Descent into Hades, dating back to the 14th century.
The icon, heavily affected by the passage of centuries, wars, and human neglect, underwent a meticulous physio-chemical examination in collaboration with the Greek foundation “Ormylia” and its scientific director, Mr. Georgios Karagiannis. This examination aimed to study the stratigraphy of the icon, identify the pigments, gold leaf, and other construction materials. The study sought to analyze the technique, pigments used, and verify the exact dating of the icon. Additionally, the conservation team conducted specialized photography and conservation tests to carry out urgent conservation treatment and subsequent proper conservation and restoration treatment to preserve the icon.
After removing the silver covering, a treasure trove of coins and silver votive offerings was uncovered. These precious items had been left behind by devoted individuals and pilgrims who sought solace and divine intervention through prayers to the sacred icon, desiring blessings for their own health and the well-being of their loved ones. Of particular significance was the discovery of a remarkable gold coin belonging to Sultan Mahmud II, who reigned from 1808 to 1839.
The conclusions drawn by the Scientific Director of the “ORMILIA” foundation, Mr. Georgios Karagiannis, Professor of Byzantine Archeology and Art Dr. Athanasios Semoglou, and President of VENIS STUDIOS, Mr. Venizelos Gavrilakis, led to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that the icon is an artifact from two different time periods: the 14th and 16th centuries. The scientific team confirmed that it was originally a two-sided procession icon (litany icon) painted on both sides during the 14th century.
However, due to unfortunate events, the icon was seemingly dismembered, resulting in the destruction of its front side and the loss of the right side of The Descent into Hades. In the 16th century, during an early preservation effort, the missing wooden support was partially restored, and the Virgin Mary Eleousa and the right part of The Descent into Hades were repainted. Consequently, the scientific team concluded that this unique Byzantine icon is two-sided and belongs to two distinct time periods.
Several significant findings about the icon have emerged, including:
The icon served as a two-sided procession icon used during holy ceremonies such as Easter or the celebration days of the Virgin Mary. This is evidenced by the surviving wooden part, a rare and unique find that remains from the traveling pole.
After removing the silver revetment, coins and silver votive offerings were discovered. These were deposited by faithful individuals and pilgrims who prayed to the icon for various reasons, including their health and the well-being of their loved ones. Notably, among the coins found was a gold coin of Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839).
Mr. Athanasios Semoglou highlights that the iconographic combination of Panagia Eleousa and The Descent into Hades, The Resurrection of Christ, is a unique case.
In the lower-left painting zone, the donor of the icon is depicted kneeling in front of the resurrected Christ, seeking salvation for his soul. Mr. Athanasios Semoglou confirms that based on the donor’s clothing and facial style, it can be inferred that he was an aristocrat of the late Byzantine period, spanning the 13th and 14th centuries.
The interventions present in the icon provide valuable evidence of its restoration in the 16th century. Furthermore, every detail in the painting, including the iconographic representation of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the prophets, and their respective features, colors, gold background, clothing, and scenes, contain symbolic references.
Thanks to the call from Senior Metropolitan Mr. Dimitrios Kommata and the church committee of Panagia Eleousa at Büyükada in Prince Island, Istanbul, this unique masterpiece has been preserved. We express our gratitude for his ongoing support and contributions to all aspects of the conservation and restoration process.
This magnificent, rare, and unique artifact, often regarded as the Byzantine Mona Lisa, has endured through the centuries, conveying numerous historical, social, and artistic messages. With the expertise of a conservator, who tends to it as an art doctor, it has been safeguarded for future generations. Currently, this masterpiece is housed at the Church of Panagia Eleousa in Büyükada/Pringipos, Istanbul.
VENIS STUDIOS would like to extend their appreciation to their associates and assistants:
- Konstantinos P. Politis
- Athanasios Semoglou
- George Karagiannis
- Konstantinos Stoupathis
- Rawan Nassar Al Rabadi
- Baher Nassar Eid Al-Rabadi
- Nikolaos Stamatouroglou
- Umut Ballıkaya
- Alp Deniz Kaygin
VENIS STUDIOS is a company that specializes in the conservation and restoration of historic artworks and antiquities, combining the scientific and artistic aspects of conservation and restoration. It undertakes conservation and restoration projects of all fixed and portable works of art such as paintings, icon panels, artworks, antiques, historical monuments, etc., in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Jordan, United States, and many other nations. Its purpose is to save artifacts and artworks by combining science with art.
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