By Venizelos G. Gavrilakis | Senior Expert Artworks Conservator & Restorer
In this captivating story, a team of experts from Venis Studios undertakes an extraordinary conservation and restoration journey to revive a rare and historically significant “Ierosolimitiko” icon found within Kuruçeşme’s Saint Demetrius church in Istanbul. The remarkable artwork, depicting Jerusalem and the Holy Land, suffered severe damage and wear over time, but through meticulous scientific research and traditional techniques, the team successfully brought it back to life.
The restoration process involved delicate cleaning, selective retouching, and careful lining interventions to provide stable support for the ancient canvas. The hidden beauty of the sacred icon was unveiled, capturing the imagination of viewers as they discover its profound religious and artistic significance. The successful preservation of this ancient treasure not only rescues memories from the Holy Lands but also safeguards tradition and history, bridging the gap between the past and the present.
This story celebrates the expertise and dedication of the conservation team, as well as the support received from the Church Committee and the Priest of Saint Demetrius. It showcases the unity of art, history, and spirituality, underscoring the importance of preserving cultural heritage for generations to come.
On the captivating Bosporus straits, amidst the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Goddess Demeter, or possibly, as per historical records, the Mother of Gods, Isis, which was later converted into a Saint Demetrius church, founders Venizelos G. Gavrilakis and Vaia A. Karagianni of VENIS STUDIOS made a remarkable religious and historic discovery.
This precious treasure is safeguarded with profound devotion and care within a pre-Byzantine church devoted to Saint Demetrius, located in Kuruçeşme, one of Istanbul’s most breathtaking suburbs on the European side. Originally constructed in the 15th century atop a verdant hill, the church underwent complete reconstruction in the 18th century, finding its present home at the foot of the same hill. As we ventured into this awe-inspiring sanctuary, the melodious resonance of a sacred spring filled the air, adding to the enchantment of the surroundings.
This extraordinary artwork is a rare historic religious map of “Jerusalem,” known as an icon type or “Pictorial Icon Stands of the Holy Land.” These artworks, steeped in tradition, were brought as souvenirs by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land since the 16th century. They depict a multitude of scenes and miniatures from the life of Jesus, Virgin Mary, Saints, Prophets, the Holy Sepulcher Church, and the Walls of Jerusalem. Historical sources trace the origin of these artifacts back to the “manuscript icon stands” of the 17th century, illustrated religious maps that served as illuminating guides for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.
The history of “Ierosolimitika” or “Proskynitaria” icons can be traced back to their origins as cartography and maps of the Holy Land and the Holy Pilgrimages. The production of pilgrimage mementos dates back to the early Byzantine period, created for those desiring to visit the Holy Land, as maps. The name “Ierosolimitika” is derived from their production in Jerusalem and exclusively refers to Orthodox Christian paintings created there. In Greek, Jerusalem is referred to as “Ierousalim,” and thus these icons came to be known as “Ierosolimitika” in plural form. They are also referred to by other names, depending on the language of the area or different traditions. For instance, in Greek, another less common name is “Agiotafitika,” derived from the Greek translation of the “Holy Sepulcher Church”.
The term “Proskynitaria” originates from the Greek term “proskynesis,” which initially denoted the adoration or worship of the Gods. Later, within a Christian context, it encompassed the veneration of holy places and pilgrimage dedicated to Jesus. The derivative “proskynesis” denotes a pilgrim, while “proskynetarion” (pl. proskynitaria) refers to the action of pilgrimage or an object associated with it. These Pictorial Icon Stands, similar to medieval maps produced in Western Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, were often found on early maps of Jerusalem. They are intertwined with historical processes such as the Crusades, the Ptolemaic revival, the Renaissance, the humanist movements, and the Enlightenment period.
The “Ierosolimitiko” icon we encountered within the pre-Byzantine church in Kuruçeşme holds immense historical, religious, and artistic significance. It offers a unique visual representation of Jerusalem and the sacred pilgrimage to the Holy Land throughout the centuries. According to the Orthodox Church, “Ierosolimitika” icons have been exclusively produced in Jerusalem since the 17th century.
While not aiming for a strictly realistic portrayal of the city, these icons provide spatial representations of sacred places in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. In essence, each work can be regarded as a conceptual map of Jesus’ life and his passages to the Holy Land.
“Ierosolimitika” or “Proskynitaria” icons predominantly depict the walled city of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher often occupies a central position within these compositions, portrayed as an architectural elevation of its southern façade, featuring the belfry, the rotunda, and the catholicon. The interior of the church showcases various scenes, including the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The depiction of Jerusalem and its holy sites forms the backdrop around the image of the Holy Sepulcher, with the city walls partially or fully visible. Some icons also incorporate other buildings within the city, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Orthodox monasteries and churches in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Certain “Proskynitaria” or “Ierosolimitika” icons feature inscriptions that identify their owners, often placed in the lower part but occasionally found elsewhere, including the reverse side. These inscriptions, usually written in Greek, provide intriguing details regarding the production, date, and trade of these icons. The first part often follows a standardized formula designating the potential buyer as “a pilgrim (proskynitis) to the Holy and Life Bearer Sepulcher.” The actual buyer’s name would then be hastily added, sometimes in a different color, presumably when the object was sold, and the client wished for their name to be included. However, it was commonly written as “Pilgrim of the Holy Sepulcher Church, [date of creation]”. This suggests that many of these icons-paintings were prepared by artists throughout the year and put up for sale around Easter time. Easter is closely tied to the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem, where numerous Orthodox Christians have gathered and celebrated Easter from ancient times to the present day. The centerpiece of the celebration occurs on Saturday midnight with the resurrection of Jesus, accompanied by the ancient tradition ceremony of the “Holy Light” emerging from Jesus’ tomb.
Condition, Conservation & Restoration
The “Ierosolimitiko” we discovered in Kuruçeşme’s Saint Demetrius church suffered significant damage and wear over time, as well as from adverse environmental conditions and previous interventions. The painting surface was obscured by oxidized varnish, dirt, and pollutants, resulting in a dark and indistinct appearance, making it challenging to discern the depicted theme. Furthermore, arbitrary overpainting had concealed the authentic designs and colors, with many parts of the painting and its preparation completely lost.
Employing scientific research methods and microscopic examination, we conducted sample cleanings to determine the sensitivity of the color substances and select the most effective materials. During the process, we discovered that traditional techniques had been used, with the silver spots originally varnished with shellac to imitate gold. Subsequently, through spot-tests, we carefully employed organic solvents and surgical micro-tools to effectively remove the oxidized varnish, revealing a clear and legible depiction while exposing the original painted areas beneath the overpaint. Magnifying lenses and stereo-microscopes were utilized to ensure precise control throughout the cleaning process.
A comprehensive examination of the original canvas revealed that it had been cut along its edges, lost elasticity, and suffered from fragility and tears. Previous interventions aimed to reinforce the canvas by adhering it to a newer canvas, but the lining was inadequately done, resulting in bloating, crumpling, and folding.
To address these issues, we promptly performed a lining intervention using a reinforced canvas to provide permanent and stable support for the painting.
The lining process involved the cautious removal of the newer canvas and cleaning the authentic canvas from glues and dirt, undoing all improper interventions. We selected a new canvas of the same quality and textile, properly prepared for effective adhesion and long-term preservation.
We followed the initial traditional method for lining to ensure better connectivity and stability with the original materials of the painting, granting the artwork a long life-span.
Upon completion of the conservation works on the painting and canvas, retouching activities were meticulously carried out to restore the authentic designs and colors.
This was done selectively and with utmost respect for the original artwork, focusing on areas where it was necessary to enhance the recognition of the depicted theme. Missing parts of the painting’s preparation were initially completed using “gesso,” replicating the original technique. In areas where significant pieces were missing or insufficient evidence existed for complete restoration, the discreet Italian “Trategio” technique was applied.
After the conservation and restoration, the painting surface was protected with a special varnish, and the artifact is now displayed in a special wooden museum display case. The entire conservation and restoration process took place on-site with the generous support of the Church Committee and the Priest of the Holy Church of Saint Demetrios, Kuruçeşme, Istanbul. We extend our sincere gratitude to them for their invaluable contribution and support.
By preserving the “Proskynitari” or “Ierosolimitiko,” we not only rescue the memories brought from the Holy Lands but also safeguard tradition, history, and spirit. The journey of the painting from Jerusalem to Istanbul represents the unification of conservation and restoration on the canvas of eternity, connecting the past, present, and future.
Venizelos G. Gavrilakis is a highly esteemed senior expert in the conservation and restoration of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons, historical oil paintings, artworks, and antiquities, renowned worldwide for his exceptional expertise. With a strong academic background, Venizelos graduated from a Ministry-certified conservation and restoration faculty in Greece, specializing in the preservation of artwork and antiquities. He further honed his skills through dedicated studies in paintings restoration and conservation at the prestigious Conservation Fine Art Faculty of Palazzo Spinelli in Florence, Italy. Since 1994, Venizelos has served as a senior expert conservator and restorer, undertaking numerous noteworthy projects across the globe. His remarkable career includes managing director positions at conservation laboratories in renowned institutions, collaborations with galleries and private collectors, and contributions to conservation journals. Mr. Gavrilakis is a member of KMKD Kültürel Mirası Koruma Derneği (Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage). Currently, he is at the helm of VENIS STUDIOS, a leading conservation and restoration company headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey. The studio is dedicated to delivering exceptional services worldwide, ensuring the preservation and restoration of historical artworks and monuments at the highest level of craftsmanship.
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