A single saint, shown frontally, half length, confronting the viewer with a steady gaze, against a golden background exemplifies, if not defines, a Byzantine icon. But, for the Byzantine worshiper, an icon could be any image (eikon= “image”) that was the focus of veneration. Thus, the dramatic rendering of the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia (see BZ.1947.24) and the carved ivory panel with the Deposition of Christ from the Cross (see BZ.1952.12) are as fully icons as is this forceful portrait of the renowned Church Father, St. John Chrysostom.
St. John (340/50–407) was a native of Antioch in Syria, where he developed a reputation as a compelling preacher. He was invited to become bishop of Constantinople (398) but estranged himself from his wealthy auditors, especially members of the imperial court, by criticizing their luxurious way of life. He was banished (404) and died in exile. Nonetheless, his fame grew because of his eloquent writings. For centuries, the liturgy of the Orthodox Church was credited to him, although it no longer is.
The very ascetic face ensconced in the luxurious robes of a bishop against a shimmering gold background is attributed to a date of approximately 1325, during the early Palaiologan period (1261–1350), when the technique of miniature mosaic was developed to its highest degree. Because of the extremely small size of the tesserae, the image resembles a painting executed with brushstrokes of brilliant, reflective colors even when seen from a short distance. Unique among miniature mosaic icons, the halo of St. John has a curved surface, like many silver covers made to protect painted icons. The halo emphasizes the spiritual aspect of the saint’s head and the distinction of his verbal output, the reason he was called Chrysostomos or Golden Mouth, as inscribed on the icon.
- S. Zwirn
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