Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Christ of the Emerald Icons 1600c.

 English School 

The Christ of the Emerald Icons,  English School
Oil on oak panel
17th Century
10 x 7 inches 27.3 x 19 cm
This painting of Christ is one of a series of paintings known as the Emerald Icons, because they reproduce an impression of Christ's profile found on a Byzantine emerald, one of Christendom''s most treasured relics.

The emerald was one of several holy objects sent to Pope Innocent VIII in the 1490s by the ''Great Turk'', Bajazet, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. At the time the Pope was holding Bajazet''s brother and rival, Prince Dschem captive in Rome. Some years before, Bajazet had forced Dschem into exile because he was a threat to his power. The relics, therefore, were sent to Rome by the Sultan in the hope that the Pope would keep Dschem a prisoner.

The inscriptions traditional on these panels show that within a comparatively short space of time the original story had become confused. All known examples suggest a more humanitarian motive for the gifts, and as here the purpose is to ''redeme'' the Sultan's brother. An early version in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery compounds the error by suggesting that Dschem's son was the Pope's prisoner.

When this icon was first produced in England -the only country in which it would seem to have been reproduced- the established church was still Catholic, and such icons enjoyed great popularity. Byzantine images were especially prized, as they were believed to be more authentic than the products of more imaginative Italian and Northern hands. The profile of Christ in the emerald would have been considered to be a life portrait, just as the images of Christ and his apostles in Byzantine mosaics were also believed to be exact representations.

With the Protestant Reformation of the 1530s, and the continued suppression and persecution of Catholics in this country throughout the rest of the century, it is easy to see how a secret religion might make use of such portable and private images as these.
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