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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 4.2 (2004) 210-225

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Harness The Dying Breath:

The 12th Century Kastoria Icon in the Christian Imagination

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Double Sided Icon, Man of Sorrows. Ministry of Culture, 11th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, Byzantine Museum of Castoria
[End Page 210]
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.1

Before us hangs a Byzantine panel icon from the second half of the twelfth century, a portrait in tempera on wood, of a male nude in half length.2 The icon is badly damaged; bare timber, having cast away its painted surface, closes in on the man from all sides. Just below his shaded sternum there is a particularly large gash in the work; a dark, knotty hole gapes at us like a wound in the man's chest.3 Where time and worship have been gentler, the colors of the image remain vivid. The few chips of border paint that linger are orange-red; the background is navy blue. The man's skin is blistered; his long, brown hair is pulled back from his bearded face. His head is cocked toward his right shoulder and ringed by a golden, cruciform halo; his eyes are shut to the light. His lips (one red, one gray), his locked jaw and furrowed brow connote one who is troubled, perhaps by dreams. Although the man's frame is erect, his arms hang limp and lifeless at his pierced side. Behind him, just above his shoulders, the horizon is marked by a dark, ominous, straight beam, stretching off the canvas, East and West. Above his head, inscribed on another, smaller piece of dark wood and barely visible through the chipping paint are the letters BACILEYC THC DOXHC (King of Glory)—a curious king. The final detail of the icon, which reveals the identity of this strange figure, lies in the small white lettering that floats on the blue background above the halo: IC XC (Jesus Christ), the crucified Savior.

Or is this the final detail? Strikingly, the panel is turned to reveal a second image painted on the back of this sorrowful king. The icon is double-sided. Again we have before us a portrait in half length, this time of a young woman with an infant in her arms. Both figures are haloed; the child, like the King of Glory, has a cruciform halo. His right hand blesses the observer; his left hand clutches a tightly wrapped scroll. His figure is exceptionally hieratic, his face [End Page 211] stern as a judge. In contrast, the women's face is anxious, the veil of "secret and hidden thoughts."4 Her right hand gestures to the confident child in her arms, while her dark eyes glance in the opposite direction, as if looking over her shoulder at the reverse image—like a sword held to her back—and crying out, "Inwardly I burn as I see thee now upon the cross. I wish to take my son down from the wood and to hold him in my arms, as once I held Him when he was a little child."5 Two small angelic figures roosted above the women's halo attempt, to no avail, to comfort the sorrowing mother, her birth pangs ceaseless. This birth is indeed hard and bitter as death. She "sighs, but feebly; she groans, but inwardly and inaudibly."6 Her trembling, red lips are pressed together as one.7

Dead in Outward Appearance, Yet Alive as God8

In describing just the basic composition of this, the double-sided Kastoria icon, we encounter tensions and inversions, instances of antinomy and paradox. Perhaps these, more than the rings on its trunk, account for the wear...


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