Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos at the walls of Constantinople, May 29, 1453 signed in Greek, dated 1929 and inscribed on the upper part natural pigments on card laid on canvas 67 x 97 cm.
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Athens.
A national treasure and a rare artistic gem by the 'wandering magician of Greek history'1, this fascinating canvas of pulsating energy, brilliant colour and keen sense of heroic stature, portrays one of the most beloved figures of the Greek tradition, Constantine XI (1448-1453), the last emperor of the Palaiologos dynasty2, who died a heroic death in defence of Constantinople on May 29 1453, shedding a last ray of beauty on the closing scene of Byzantine history.
The king on horseback dominates the centre of the composition clad in the attire of a Roman emperor, including a short blue tunic, gold breastplate and helmet and crimson red cloak, recalling the artist's representations of Alexander the Great. As noted by Y. Tsarouchis, "this outfit known from the folk woodcuts of Erotocritos and the Roman soldiers in 19th c. post-Byzantine icons, is identical to Italian opera costumes, as designed by famed set designers such as Torelli and long before them by such greats as Botticelli and Raphael, when they painted military saints or archangels."3 Τhe correlation between Alexander and Constantine shows how Theofilos, with his instinctive knowledge and keen sense of historical past, could easily migrate from one era to another, capturing bygone glory and heroism as a form of eternity constantly reborn in the present.
History is filtered through the artist's rich imagination and transformed into the enthusiasm sparked in him by the emperor's valour and heroic achievement. Gallantry is indicated through the repetition of pictorial and iconographic conventions, an approach to painting rooted in Byzantine and folk tradition and reminiscent of the Karaghiozi shadow-puppets or descriptions found in demotic songs. The linear arrangement of the warriors, the symmetry and rhythm of the composition and the impression of an immutable reality, take one even further back to Archaic Greek vase painting and the narrative arrangement of that precursor of folk poetry, the Homeric epics -where all parts are generally set side by side in a paratactical presentation, a style in which sentences, ideas, episodes or figures are placed one after the other like beads on a string. All phenomena are thrust forward to the narrative surface where they receive even illumination in a flat, continuous present.4
The scene's main protagonist, Contantine XI is depicted right at the centre, where the viewer's eye is usually drawn, as is the case with Byzantine painting, which lacking a vanishing point, it allows the eye to freely wander and naturally focus on the middle of the painting.5 With his gaze fixed on the invading Turk, the battle-ready emperor holds his sword raised and his spear in readiness, while his white steed is about to rush the enemy. The vehemence with which both the emperor and his horse prepare to attack is expressed by the dynamic design, especially by the fluttering cloak and the vividness of colour.6
Not obscured by intervening enemies or friendlies, Constantine is portrayed full length and well in view, presented in such a manner as to show his figure to the best advantage. Much like a Byzantine icon painter, Theofilos is not interested in depicting a faithful image; rather, he is aiming at an interpretation of the historic event adjusted to a preconceived scale of values.7 The wealth of detail, as in the entourage of clergymen on the lower right exorcising evil through prayers and hymns, is a vehicle of initiation into the artist's vision; a means of rendering more tangible to the spectators' imagination the world of gallantry and legend they are invited to contemplate.
The composition describes the scene in which Constantine, having already warded off four sallies following hand to hand engagements and hoping to finally prevail against a persistent Muhammad II, suddenly saw the turbaned enemy -the Saracens as Theofilos used to call them- breaching the walls and surrounding him and his helmeted royal guard. In a desperate last effort, he spurred his horse and rushed into the densest concentration of invaders, fighting to the end as a common soldier.8 At the top of the painting, under the title, Theofilos included a scholarly poem belonging to the literary tradition of the 19th century,9 denoting a unification of iconographic and linguistic symbols in a uniform and living Greek myth.
1. See T. Eleftheriadis, Theofilos, Chieftain and Guardian of Greek Painting in The Painter Theofilos in Mytilene [in Greek], exhibition catalogue, Mytilini 1962. 2. Constantinos Palaiologos was Theofilos' sole subject in Byzantine history. 3. Y. Tsarouchis, The Painter Theofilos preface to Theofilos, Commercial Bank of Greece, Athens 1967, p. 18. 4. See H. Kambouridis - G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art-The 20th Century, Athens 1999, p. 43. 5. See P.A. Michelis, Aesthetic Approach to Byzantine Art [in Greek], Panayotis end Efi Michelis Foundation, Athens 1990, p. 203. 6. See E. Diamantopoulou, Theofilos in Mt. Pelion [in Greek], Alexandria editions, Athens 207, p. 75. 7. See A. Grabar, Byzantine Painting, Skira, Geneva 1979, pp. 36-37. 8. See C. Paparrigopoulos, History of the Greek Nation [in Greek], vol. XI, Athens 1925, p. 387. 9. See G. Petris, The Painter Theofilos [in Greek], Exandas, Athens 1978, p. 78.
Please note that due to Greek regulation, this lot cannot be exported from Greece and will be available for viewing and inspection in Athens either by appointment or during the Athens Preview April 8-11 2013. This painting will be located in Athens during the auction.