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"The character of the Velimezis Collection"
Chatzidakis Nano, Adoration and Passion – Icons from the Velimezis Collection, Benaki Museum, Athens 2006

The icons presented in this exhibition come from the Velimezis Collection, which was formed by Emilios Velimezis (1902-1946) during the years 1934 -1946. The Collection initially comprised approximately 90 icons from various regions of Greece, dating from the 15th to the 19th century.

The character of the Collection is essentially the same as that of the icon collections in the Benaki Museum and the Byzantine Museum in Athens.

The majority of the icons were produced in workshops of painters in Venetian-held Crete (15th-16th century), where icon-painting flourished after the Fall of Constantinople (1453). Several icons were produced in local workshops of Zakynthos or the Ionian Islands by Cretan painters who sought refuge there after the Fall of Crete to the Ottoman Turks (Rethymnon 1644-1645, Herakleion [Candia] 1669), or by their pupils. The most important work in the collection is undoubtedly the icon of the Passion of Christ -Pieta with Angels, (no 7) painted by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) and bought by the collector around the years 1935-1938.

The choice of such works is consistent with aesthetic models current in connoisseur circles during the inter-war years, which particularly appreciated attempted imitations of Italian art. Thus, the icons of the Velimezis Collection represent not only the activity of workshops in Crete and the Ionian Islands, but also the artistic preferences of the collector, and with these the prevailing taste of the most cultivated milieu of Athenian society.

Subjects and styles

One of the most venerated images on icons throughout the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine periods is that of the Virgin. Depicted mostly in bust, holding the Child in a frontal pose, as in the Hodegetria, in a tender embrace as in the Virgin of Tenderness, or alone in single figurations, the Virgin is represented on hundreds of icons of the Post-Byzantine period.

The exhibition opens with a most significant subject for the cult of icons in the Orthodox Christian world: an early 16th century Cretan icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which refers to the Restoration of the cult of icons by the Byzantine empress Theodora and her son Michael, in AD 843, after the end of a long period of struggles known as Iconoclasm. This rare subject, in which the emperors and a throng of worshippers, priests and monks are depicted in Constantinople, flanking the most venerated icon of the Virgin as Hodegetria, is encountered in wall-paintings and 16th-century icons by Cretan painters. The Velimezis icon, rendered in a conservative style, repeats exactly the iconography of an earlier (c. 1400) and better-preserved icon in the British Museum.

Another icon with significant connotations for the cult of the Virgin illustrates the twenty-four stanzas of the Akathistos Hymn, where the painter follows an established iconography of the early 16th century yet features discreet Western influences. Such influences are more pronounced in the icon of the Adoration of the Magi, set in a early 16th-century Venetian frame, which is attributed to the workshop of Angelos Pitzamanos (1467-1535), a Cretan painter who settled later on the Dalmatic coast and in the region of Otranto, South Italy.

Outstanding among the earliest Cretan icons of the Collection are the Virgin Hodegetria, in an iconographic type established in Palaiologan art, Saint John the Baptist in Prayer, the small icon of the Virgin of Tenderness, with influences from Italian art, and another icon of the Virgin of Tenderness, product of an excellent workshop close to the art of Andreas Ritzos (1421-1492). All these flank the most splendid icon in the Velimezis Collection and the most important work of this period, the Passion of Christ- Pieta with Angels, painted by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) before his departure from his native island of Crete in 1567/68. The icon can be identified with the "quadro della Passione del nostro Signor Gesu Cristo, dorato", as mentioned in a document from the Archives of the notaries of Crete, sold at auction by Theotokopoulos in Candia on 27 December 1566. This work of western character, in the form of a small altarpiece with the representation of the dead Christ upheld by three angels, a subject known only in Italian painting, has a gold ground, in the technique of Cretan icons and constitutes a landmark in the great Cretan master's artistic journey. The lavishly worked flesh of the dead Christ, at once standing and collapsing with his legs bent back and the vibrant figures of the angels with their richly draped chitons and ecstatic countenances, express in a dynamic manner the unique features of his personal style and herald his later paintings of a similar subject, such as the Pieta (c. 1570) now in Philadelphia and the Holy Trinity (c. 1577), from the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo at Toledo.

The icon depicting the Head of the Virgin, dating from around 1600 and painted in a conservative Cretan workshop, accompanies a 17th-century icon attributed to an Ionian island workshop and representing the Dormition of the Virgin, a well-known subject that is reproduced in a similarly developed iconography, including also the Assumption, on an icon by Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the island of Syros (Greece). Two other subjects related to the Passion of Christ are represented in the icons which follow, giving examples of different iconographlc types In use by Cretan painters throughout the 17th century. The Descent from the Cross, ascribed to a late 17th-century local workshop In Zakynthos, cleaves to a traditional iconography established in 15th-century Cretan Icons. The Pieta (no 10), dated 1657, by Emmanuel Tzanes (1610-1690), one of the most important painters of the century, presents a westernized iconography, reproducing models already established on 15th-century Cretan Icons and still in use in the 17th century.

The exhibition concludes with an oval icon of the Descent from the Cross by a later painter from the Ionian islands of the mid-18th century, which displays strong western influences due to the use of European engravings as models for their iconography rendered with a naïf emphasis on the gesticulating expressive figures. Finally, the Icon of the Lamentation (no. 14), of about the same date, offers a characteristic example of a conservative iconography surviving through the art of local painters who remain respectfully attached to older traditions.


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M. Chatzidakis, Icons of Patmos, Athens 1981

N. Chatzidakis, Icons of the Cretan School, Exhibition Catalogue, Benaki Museum, Athens 1983.

R. Cormack, Writing in Gold, London 1985.
From Byzantium to El Greco, Greek Frescoes and Icons, Royal Academy of Art, London, 27th March-21st June 1987, Greek Ministry of Culture, Byzantine Museum Athens, Athens 1987.

N. Chatzidakis, From Candia to Venice. Greek Icons in Italy, 15th-16th Centuries, Museo Correr, Venice, 17 September - 30 October 1993, Foundation for Hellenic Culture, Athens 1993. Byzantium, Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections, (ed. David Buckton), London 1994.

R. Cormack, Painting the Soul, Icons, Death Masks and Shrouds, London 1997

N. Chatzidakis, "Identifying the Icon of the Passion of Christ by El Greco in the Velimezis Collection", Griechische Ikonen, Greek Icons, Proceedings of the Symposium in Memory of Manolis Chatzidakis, (eds Nano Chatzidakis, Eva Haustein-Bartch), Recklinghausen 1998.

El Greco, National Gallery London, (ed. David Davies), London 2003.

K. Fatourou-Hesychakis - M. Hesychakis, Cretan Sources of Theotokopoulos' (El Greco's) Humanism, National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, Athens 2004. R. Cormack, M. Vassilaki, "The Baptism of Christ. New Light on Early El Greco", Apollo, The International Magazine of Art and Antiques, August 2005.