Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Christ of the Emerald Icons 1600c.

 English School 

Portrait of Christ of the Emerald Icons,  English School
Oil on Panel
17th Century
10 x 8 inches 25.4 x 20.3 cm
Private Collection, London Versions: Parharn Park Collection, Sussex
The Berger Collection Catalogue, ‘The Master of the Emerald Icons’ (1998), PP. 237 239.
Historically and religiously significant as an icon, an image and an object, this sixteenth century panel of Christ on a background of gold derives from a profile found on one of Christianity’s most treasured relics, a Byzantine emerald. Produced during a period of religious upheaval for the purposes of private devotion, this rendering of the ‘Emerald Icon’ is both uniquely English and recusant Catholic. A textual inscription in English as opposed to Latin attests to the object’s creation specifically for use by the literate, highborn laity in the adornment of their personal chambers or in the act of worship.

Our panel is one of six which are known to exist. The oldest of these, owned by the National Portrait Gallery was produced circa. 1500 during a time when England still bore a connection with Rome. However the subsequent group of five, in which ours is numbered was created in a very different religious climate. Painted after England’s split with the Catholic Church and during the reign of a Protestant monarch, these images became subversive ones, produced clandestinely and in defiance of edicts outlawing relic worship.

Despite the appearance of conformity to the Protestant faith many noble families during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as the Arundels and Norfoiks practised covert Catholicism. Such families would have owned likenesses similar to ours. Small and portable, they often formed the centrepiece of an altar when flanked by candles and other religious iconography. Secret Masses could be held in well-guarded chambers, able to be disbanded and packed away at a moment’s notice. It is quite probable that this icon was spared by its size and its ability to be hidden.

The mating of history and legend which surrounds the story of the ‘Emerald Icon’ is referred to in part on the inscription. As one of a number of gifts sent to Pope Innocent VIII in the 1490’s by the ‘Great Turk’, Bajazet, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the Icon has been mistakenly interpreted as comprising part of a ransom. Despite the fact that the Pope was holding Bajazet’s brother and rival Prince Dschem captive in Rome, his imprisonment was at the request of the Sultan. Contrary to the suggestion of our panel’s inscription, his gift of the icon was not so much intended as a ransom as it was a peace offering in order to maintain relations with Innocent VIII. This gift, bearing the profile of Christ as he was depicted in the scriptures with his long parted hair and light complexion was to the faithful a true likeness endowed with holiness. The image’s association with the Byzantine Empire provided it with an added veracity, as relics from the Eastern most corners of Christendom were viewed with more veneration than those accessible in Europe. These attributes made it a worthy candidate for reproduction.

There is another dimension to this image which also adds to its uniqueness as a work of art. Although this panel was clearly produced as a devotional object, it was done so for a specific ‘market’. At the time of the Emerald Icon’s creation it was one of the more authentic representations of Christ available. The painting which appears on our panel however is an attempt to copy an image of Christ and modernise it. The English inscription has been altered and the profile smoothed from the original. Pin-point accuracy was not the motivation behind the artist’s work but rather an effort to create an image to which followers could respond in their own context. In the present painting we therefore have an example of medieval relic worship modernised by Renaissance enlightenment through the mechanism of the market-place.’
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.