Byzantine icon, The Pieta with St Francis and St Mary Magdalen
Crete, c.1500

Room 3, Byzantine Antiquities, short case, under stairs.


Focus on the Object


The Greek word icon (eikon) means ‘image’. Not only does it mean a picture in the ordinary sense of the word, but in the Orthodox tradition it carries an additional, spiritual, meaning. Within the prevalent world view, the universe was seen as a series of stages, issuing outwards and downwards from God. Each stage was more material than the higher world, and the icon was thus a material image of a higher spiritual reality.

The Image

This icon is in the form of a triptych, a central picture with a folding door on either side. It represents an imaginary, heavenly conjunction of the dead Christ and His sorrowful mother (a group known as the pieta, most familiar from Michelangelo’s famous marble Pieta in the Vatican). To the left stands Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the mendicant order of friars known as the Franciscans. On the right is St Mary Magdalen, the repentant prostitute who was present at the Crucifixion and was the first person to see the resurrected Christ.

Content and Artist

The presence of St Francis (c.1182-1226) on what is ostensibly a Greek icon is unusual, in that he was a saint of the Latin church, not the Orthodox. It can be accounted for, however, by the fact that this icon was made on the island of Crete. For four centuries after 1204, when the Byzantine Empire fell to western attack, Crete was ruled by the Venetians. This fostered a mixture of iconographical motifs, both western and eastern. This icon has been attributed to the hand of Nikolaos Tsafouris (d. 1501), an artist who was active in Crete. He signed several icons, and his name appears in Venetian documents.