Transfiguration of Christ
Byzantine (Constantinople?), late 12th century
Mosaic (gilded bronze, marble, lapis lazuli, glass, and wax) on wood support
52 x 36 cm
Inscribed: Η ΜΕΤΑΜΡΟΦΩCΙC
(The Metamorphosis [The Transfiguration])
Condition: Restored by Pietro da Valle in Palermo in 1790 and again in 1864.
Few objects have been called upon so consistently to lend magnificence to exhibitions of Byzantine art as this one. Its level of craftsmanship, like its inherent material richness, is superb. The individual tesserae— tiny cubes of gilded bronze marbles of many hues, lapis lazuli, and colored glass— range from 0.5 mm to 1 mm on a side. The misspelling in its title clearly cannot be seen as a sign of provincial origin. It is a work of the highest skill.
Miniature mosaics were among the most precious of Byzantium's luxury arts. Some four dozen survive, of which the great majority belong to the final, Palaiologan period of Byzantine art. Otto Demus divides them into the categories of portable mosaics like this one, ranging from 30 to as many as 120 cm in height, and the true miniatures, which rarely exceed 20 cm in height and can have been used only for the most intimate devotion and delectation. Portable mosaics begin to appear from about 1100 on, but of the twelfth-century ones, only two — this one and the image of Christ in the Uffizi in Florence — employ the virtually microscopic technique that characterizes the miniatures. Because this one depicts a feast scene, Viktor Lazarev, Manoles Chatzidakis, and Demus all propose that it was intended for a templon beam, but images of the Transfiguration also served as independent, devotional, or proskynetarion icons, and one wonders whether the very costly, attention-riveting technique of this one would have been set so far from the eye as on a templon beam.
This work was in Palermo in the eighteenth century, but though the extensive use of marble in the garments recalls the mosaics of Monreale, there is no evidence that it was actually made in Sicily, and its place of origin is unknown. Its date is clearer. The stately proportions of the figures have led some scholars to suggest a date in the early twelfth century, but more recent opinion places it — surely correctly — at the very end of the century. The tense, sharp-featured faces, especially those of Peter, Elijah, and Moses with their almost anguished gazes, and the cascading drapery of John at bottom center, with its edgy clatter of highlights, bear particularly strong resemblance, as Demus notes, to those of the late twelfth-century murals at Hosios David, Thessaloniki.
Written by Nancy Patterson Ševčenko