Constantinos Parthenis (Greek, 1878-1967) Prayer in the Mount of Olives 92 x 80 cm.
Lot 24AR
Constantinos Parthenis
(Greek, 1878-1967)
Prayer in the Mount of Olives 92 x 80 cm.
Sold for £422,500 (US$ 686,193) inc. premium

Lot Details
Constantinos Parthenis (Greek, 1878-1967)
Prayer in the Mount of Olives
signed in Greek (lower right)
oil on canvas
92 x 80 cm.

Footnotes

  • Painted c. 1930.

    PROVENANCE:
    D. Loverdos collection, Athens.
    Private collection, Athens.

    LITERATURE:
    The Greek Painters, 20th Century, vol. 2, Melissa editions, Athens 1975, no. 34, pp. 25-26 (discussed), p. 49 (illustrated).
    T. Spiteris, Masters of the Greek Art of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Kastaniotis editions, Athens 1982, p. 131 (illustrated).
    E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, The Religious Work of Parthenis, Thessaloniki, 1983, fig. 7b (illustrated).
    E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, Religious Subjects in Modern Greek Painting 1900-1940, doctoral dissertation, Thessaloniki 1984, pp. 91-92 (discussed), fig. 91 (illustrated).
    A. Kotidis, Modernism and Tradition in the Greek Art of the Interwar Period, Thessaloniki 1993, p. 231 (referred).
    A. Xydis, Constantinos Parthenis, Ta Nea editions, Athens 2006, p. 109 (discussed), pp. 98, 142 (illustrated).
    E. Mathiopoulos, The Life and Work of Costis Parthenis, K. Adam editions, Athens 2008, no. 200, p. 66 (referred), p. 423 (listed), p. 261 (illustrated).


    In Parthenis's Angels flutters the spirit of Botticelli, while his Christs convey the emotional depth found in El Greco paintings.
    A. Prokopiou


    A stunning canvas and a highly accomplished work of audacious modernity that elaborates on the visions and breakthroughs of the early 20th century avant-garde, Prayer in the Mount of Olives carries the hallmarks of Parthenis's mature style, conveying an enduring sense of spiritual uplift and poetic feel.

    In his comprehensive essay on the artist's oeuvre included in Melissa editions' Greek Artists of the 20th Century, art critic A. Xydis discussed the painting as follows: "Prayer in the Mount of Olives is one of the most impressive religious works by Parthenis. Employing dramatic means of expression without resorting to excesses, the artist portrays Christ praying in the Garden of Olives on his last 'free' night, while an angel offers him a chalice which he is momentarily reluctant to accept. The entire background is captured in dark blues that in some areas become totally black. Obviously, the divine light that illuminates the two figures in the foreground and protects them from the menacing night lends an even darker tone to the backdrop. Dematerialised and weightless, the oversized Angel is suspended over the kneeling Christ, who is portrayed in human dimensions. The schematised forms of the Angel, the tree and the rocks, as well as the distant lightning bolts streaking across the sky, are vaguely reminiscent of a similar painting by El Greco (Domenicos Theotokopoulos) without reproducing its contemplative atmosphere. The angular contours and harsh straight lines, which replace the soft diagonals evident in his earlier Annunciation are not dictated solely by the painting's subject. Rather, they foreshadow a shift in Parthenis's stylistic development, which would become increasingly evident in his entire output after 1930. For that reason, Prayer in the Mount of Olives must be dated around 1929-1930."1

    This highly important work is also discussed at length by Dr. E. Georgiadou-Kountoura in her treatise on religious subjects in Modern Greek art: "Prayer in the Mount of Olives in the Loverdos collection is dated in 1929-1930. As in the artist's other religious works, the action concentrates onto the two main protagonists, Christ and the Angel, and it is not debilitated by the inclusion of other figures or secondary scenes. As a result, the dramatic intensity reaches its highest point and it is sustained by purely pictorial means. The painting is a visual representation of an excerpt from the Bible, reading: 'O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done'. (Luke 22:41-41 and Matthew 26:42). Christ is portrayed on his knees at the edge of a rocky outcrop, with his head and hands raised towards the heavens, in a pose of desperate invocation of his divine Father. Right above his hands, the Angel, suspended diagonally in mid-air, offers him a chalice, the symbol of his sacrifice."

    "Christ's prayer in the Mount of Olives is a familiar subject in Eastern and Western iconographic traditions since the early Christian years,2 a subject that over the years underwent various developmental changes, revisions and amendments.3 Of particular interest is the introduction in the 14th century of a new iconographical element, namely the angel holding a cross and other symbols of the divine passion,4 while in the West, the chalice, usually accompanied by the host, makes its debut in the 15th century. This new iconographical variation is probably the result of a misinterpretation of the Gospel's text; Christ's invocation 'if this cup may not pass away from me', found its visual equivalent in the form of a chalice held by an Angel, whose role was reversed: from a devoted supporter of Christ he turned into someone who seemed like accentuating his agony, presenting him with the symbol of his sacrifice."

    "In Parthenis's picture, the ethereal figures of Christ and the Angel, starkly delineated against a dark blue nocturnal sky and captured in schematised forms, lend the painting a decorative rather than metaphysical appeal. Perfectly organised, the composition shares certain similarities with The Apotheosis of Athanasios Diakos, which was painted around the same time and included in the S. Loverdos collection."5 Indeed, it seems that Parthenis used the diagonally positioned figure of the Angel as a model for the ascending hero of the Greek War of Independence in his famous Apotheosis painted in the early 1930s. In terms of subject choice, Prayer in the Mount of Olives echoes a similar scene rendered by Theotokopoulos in two series of works executed in 1590-1598 and 1605-1610. Although Parthenis dismissed all secondary elements and supplementary themes, such as the dormant apostles and the crowd of Jews led by Judas, the focused attention on the interaction of the two figures and the frugality of the compositional scheme dominated by austere harmonies of shapes and colours, endow the painting with additional vitality and enhanced content.6

    In their handling of the same subject, El Greco and Parthenis avoided a literal rendition and showed Christ enwrapped in a mystical experience. (Compare El Greco, The Agony in the Garden, The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio). Both artists introduced details contained in Gospel accounts but they also drew on established iconographic traditions. None of the Gospels, for example, states that the Angel bore a chalice, this symbol of Christian faith referring to the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross. Moreover, the tree stump in the left foreground in El Greco's painting, which is almost certainly a reference to the simile of Christ as a sapling cut down in its prime (see Isaiah 53:2 and Luke 22:31), faintly resonates in the severed tree trunk in Parthenis's work. Some scholars have also drawn attention to such Byzantine elements as the schematised rocky formation behind Christ, a telling iconographical element included in both paintings.7

    The idealised figures, elliptical and abbreviated forms, finely segmented lines, sensitive colours and abstractive vocabulary endow the composition with a highly poetic content and moral uplift. The religious sentiment is heightened by the sparse setting, which emanates a sense of meditation and ascetic devotion; a silent spiritual experience captured in a moment of absorbed thought and conveyed without the kind of frivolous piety that characterises many western religious motifs. Deep emotion and drama are conveyed by purely formal and pictorial means. For example, the virginal white of the angel's robe - the composition's brightest colour- is strikingly contrasted to the dark midnight blues of the background, while the restrained linearity of the two figures is juxtaposed with the contorted tree occupying the left side of the painting, as if nature empathises with the divine drama. Colours, symmetries, horizontal and vertical beams and painstakingly calculated proportions designed to suggest minimal depth follow an aesthetic of conscious harmonisation.

    The curvilinear motifs of the tree branches further enliven the scene, charging the entire composition with poetic charm.8 In his treatise on the representation of the tree in Greek art, Professor C. Christou notes that "the tree holds a prominent position in Parthenis's work and his paintings of this specific subject are exceptional",9 while, as early as 1920, Z. Papantoniou made the following remark: "Parthenis's landscapes take us to the world of ideas. His eye sees into the ideal, as ours does into the natural. His humblest of trees reveals a thought."10

    All compositional elements are rendered by means of the painter's distinct formal vocabulary: limited palette, abbreviated and dematerialised shapes, masterful design and dilute, translucent application of paint. Austere, delicate lines, which echo the simplicity of ancient Greek vase painting support with straight and curvilinear forms the compositional structure, creating a suggestive atmosphere of linear elegance and diffuse idealism. Note the gentle inclination of the Angel's head and Christ's handsome countenance captured in sharp profile adhering to archaic and classical Greek models. Every inch of the pictorial surface shows how the painter exploited the essentially expressive nature of his formal repertoire to offer a poetic, idealised experience. "It can be argued that in Parthenis's work the artist's pronounced religiosity is identified with his formal means; in other words he considered symbols the various formal and visual elements that made up his compositions, the same way the Pythagoreans thought of the very numbers to be symbols themselves. Parthenis's religiosity is manifested in his listening to his inner voice, which makes him extol the world."11

    In his religious paintings Parthenis was not only inspired by ancient sources but also drew from Byzantine art, European symbolism, Art Nouveau, the Jugendstil and Cubism, while preserving a distinctive Greek character. As noted by Professor A. Kotidis, the artist "introduced forms from Byzantine iconography, as well as characteristics that reflect its expressive means: among those are the peculiar, two-dimensional perspective and the austerity and saintliness of his figures. He enriched those characteristics with angular outlines which he derived not only from Byzantine art but also from cubism; indeed cubism seems to have been the 20th century avant-garde movement that made the greatest impression on Parthenis."12

    "In Parthenis's oeuvre the great tradition of cubism undergoes a significant transformation: its purely materialistic character showcased in the works of Braque and Picasso is replaced by a symbolic-idealistic spirit not found, at least to my knowledge, in any other post-cubist work. Without rejecting the tenets of modernism, as some artists of his calibre, such as de Chirico and Derain, had done around the same time, he boldly advanced towards an organic fusion of modernist principles with the idealism inherent in symbolist subjects."13 His genius lay in the fact that he managed to formulate an eclectic artistic language that claims the eye and provokes the viewer's emotional and spiritual participation. As noted by former Athens National Gallery Director D. Papastamos, "Parthenis's art reflects the vision of an artist loaded with age-old memories and entranced by the dynamism and boldness of the twentieth century."14

    From 1920 onwards, almost all of Parthenis' output is devoted to symbolist and allegorical compositions, "marked by a persistent absorption in an ideal world, a world that soars loftily in the heights of Ideas,"15 "as if a transient melody from a distant harp fades away before registering on our consciousness."16 "His mastery of the idealistic potential of the curvilinear, his understanding of the mysteries of colour, the plasticity of his dynamic and so anti-academic nudes, the removal of the incidental and the individualistic from his human landscapes -all attest to Parthenis's faith in a lofty ideal expressed with an impeccable technique."17

    The 1920s was also a period when, besides liberal politicians and businessmen, Parthenis was supported by prominent and more conservative bankers and leading members of the establishment, including the Chairman of the National Bank of Greece Dimitrios Maximos and the founders of Laiki Bank Spyros and Dionysios Loverdos. Parthenis's relationship with the Loverdos brothers was particularly close. As patrons of the arts, they consistently supported him, acquiring important and emblematic works, including the historic Apotheosis of Athanasios Diakos and the magnificently contemplative Prayer in the Mount of Olives, at exceptionally high prices and entrusting him with the artistic supervision of the Dionysios Loverdos Museum of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art. "Considering the deep religiosity of Parthenis and the Loverdos brothers, we could posit that these two cultured intellectuals and art-loving bankers exercised a highly productive influence on the painter, whole-heartedly and open-handedly supporting the establishment of a modernist neo-Byzantine artistic style."18

    Through his subjective interpretation and personal formulation of style, Parthenis laid the foundations of Modern Greek painting. Today he is unanimously acknowledged as the first Greek to shape an artistic paradigm based on the country and its destiny, distancing Modern Greek painting from the academic tradition and turning it towards liberal artistic movements and indigenous cultural experiences. Through the freedom of his artistic choices, the individualised use of multiple formal elements, the boldness of his subjective interpretation and the personal formulation of style, he gave the Greeks the first example of a free creative spirit.19 As perceptively noted by D. Papastamos, "Parthenis is the most important advocate for a return to the roots in the history of Modern Greek art, an artist who fully utilised the entire Greek aesthetic tradition starting out from where El Greco left off."20


    1. A. Xydis, Constantinos Parthenis (1878-1967) in The Greek Painters, 20th Century, vol. 2, Melissa editions, Athens 1975, pp. 25-26.
    2. Examples include the 6th c. mosaics in St. Apollinaire in Ravenna, the Rossano Codex, the c.600AD Augustinus Codex in Cambridge, the 12th c. mosaic at the Nea Moni on the island of Chios, the Duomo in Monreale, Cicily, the 14th c. St. Nikolaos in Thessaloniki, as well as Serbian monuments, Mount Athos monasteries etc.
    3. See L. Réau, Iconographie de l' Art Chrétien, II, Paris 1957, pp. 427-431; G. Schiller, Iconographie der Christlichen Kunst, 2, Gütersloh, 1968, pp. 58-61.
    4. See G. Millet, Monuments de l' Athos, I, Paris 1927, fig. 70, 2.,
    5. E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, Religious Subjects in Modern Greek Painting 1900-1940, doctoral dissertation, Thessaloniki 1984, pp. 91-92.
    6. See E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, The Religious Work of Parthenis, Thessaloniki, 1983, pp. 50-51.
    7. See El Greco, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003, p. 152.
    8. Compare Seaside landscape (C. Christou, C. Parthenis Vienna-Paris-Athens, Foundation for Hellenic Culture, Athens 1995, p. 64).
    9. C. Christou, The Tree in the Greek Art of the 19th and 20th Century" [in Greek] in The Tree, a Source of Inspiration and Creativity in Greek Art, exh. cat., Averoff Museum, Metsovo and Nicosia Contemporary Art Center, Nicosia 1993, p. 19.
    10. Z. Papantoniou, The Art of Parthenis [in Greek], Patris daily, 19.1.1920.
    11. E. Mathiopoulos, The Voice and Silence of C. Parthenis [in Greek], Utopia magazine, no. 1, May-June 1992, p. 152.
    12. A. Kotidis, The Influence of Hellenic Art on the Work of C. Parthenis, Actes du XVIII Congres de l' AICA, Greece, 1984, p. 150.
    13. A. Kotidis, Modernism and Tradition [in Greek], University Studio Press, Thessaloniki 1993, p. 238.
    14. D. Papastamos, Painting 1930-1940, Astir Insurance publ. Athens, 1981, p. 68
    15. A. Kotidis, "The Influence of Hellenic Art on the Work of C. Parthenis", Actes du XVIII Congres de l' AICA, Greece, 1984, p. 149
    16. S. Lydakis, The Stylistic Evolution of Constantinos Parthenis [in Greek], Zygos magazine, no. 50, November-December 1981, p. 21
    17. Z. Papantoniou, The Art of Parthenis [in Greek], Patris daily, 19.1.1920
    18. E. Mathiopoulos, C. Parthenis, The Life and Work of Costis Parthenis [in Greek], Adam publ., Athens 2008, pp. 66-68.
    19. See C. Christou, Greek Painting 1832-1922 [in Greek], National Bank of Greece, Athens 1993, pp. 108-114 and H. Kambouridis-G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art, The 20th Century, Athens 1999, pp. 40-42
    20. D. Papastamos, Painting 1930-1940, Astir Insurance publ. Athens, 1981, p. 14-15.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that this lot was also exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Andros: Andros, Museum of Contemporary Art, Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, Depicting Transcendence, From Tradition to Modern Art, June 30 - September 29, 2013 (illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, p. 79).
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