Portable Mosaic Icon with the Virgin Eleousa, early 14th century
Byzantine, probably Constantinople
Miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel with gold, multicolored stones, and gilded copper tesserae; some portions restored; 4 3/8 x 3 3/8 in. (11.2 x 8.6 cm)
Gift of John C. Weber, in honor of Philippe de Montebello, 2008 (2008.352)
In the fourteenth century, Byzantine artists developed a new art form: micromosaics worked in exceptionally tiny tesserae in a painterly style. These intimate images were made primarily for use in private devotions, and few of them survive. The Museum's micromosaic, which depicts the Virgin Eleousa, the Virgin of Compassion, emphasizes the humanness of the Christ Child, as he reaches forward to touch his head to his mother's cheek. The Virgin lovingly embraces her son, while her mournful gaze invites the viewer to contemplate his future sacrifice and death.
On the reverse of this mosaic is an inscription in a late fifteenth-century Humanist hand that identifies it as the icon that moved Saint Catherine of Alexandria to convert to Christianity in the fourth century. Such labels attest to the popularity of micromosaics in the Latin West, where, during the Renaissance, they were often inaccurately dated to the first Christian centuries. This icon first came to scholarly attention when it was lent to the Museum's 2004 exhibition "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557)."