Icon of the Virgin enthroned between SS. Theodore and George
Constantinople, 2nd half 6th—early 7th century
Encaustic on wood 68.5 x 49.7 cm
Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, Egypt
Warping has caused the thin wood panel to split down the middle; except for this crack and certain areas of loss to St. George (most of his hair and a patch over his thigh have been restored), the impasto surface of the icon is remarkably well preserved, with only minor flaking. The icon was originally inserted into a grooved wooden frame, probably inscribed, that covered the unpainted strips along its edges.
This large icon bears a hieratic composition of the Virgin and Child enthroned, flanked by two military saints, Theodore left and George right, holding martyrs' crosses and dressed in the elaborate ceremonial garb of the imperial guard. In contrast to these solemn immobile figures, two archangels behind the throne, painted in free, broad brushstrokes in off-white shades, are shown in a quick, spirited movement, turning their heads to glance up at the hand of God with its band of light, which issues from the segment of heaven above. The composition recalls the tapestry icon of the Virgin and the Berlin diptych. The figures are fitted tightly within the frame and are placed in front of an architectural background devoid of depth.
A curious mixture of styles creates a compelling tension within the composition. The Virgin appears relatively solid and three-dimensional with her knees turning slightly to the right; although her head is strictly frontal, her eyes are sharply averted. Christ is rendered convincingly as a child, the Word Incarnate, and he, too, averts his gaze from the beholder. On both, the colors are carefully modulated and the brushwork lively. The two saints stand motionless in stark frontality, their eyes staring hypnotically out at the beholder. Their richly embroidered mantles fall in straight tubular folds, implying volume, and shadows are cast by their feet; nevertheless, they appear weightless and insubstantial. Conflicting with the stability of the front picture plane is the movement of the angels, who are fully three-dimensional. The vivid impressionistic technique of the angels indicates the strength of the classicism still prevalent in this period. At the same time, the variety of stylistic modes reflects the diversity of sources and traditions available to the artist, who used them selectively to express a variety of purposes.
The quality and stylistic complexity of the icon suggest it was made in Constantinople, but the date is still debated. An early seventh-century date has been proposed, comparing it to the pier mosaics at the Church of Hagios Demetrios, Thessaloniki and to the early frescoes in Santa Maria Antigua in Rome, placing it within the Hellenistic revival under Heraclius. It has also been argued that the classicism of the style places the icon within the classical revival under Justinian, and dates it no later than the second half of the sixth century.