Icon and Stories from the Life of St. Pantaleo

Inventory Number: 61099




The icon juxtaposes a main soapstone plaque (depicting the bust of Saint Pantaleo) at the center of the composition and another of a Holy Bishop (perhaps St. Nicholas) below. This juxtaposition is a valuable testament to Byzantine glyptics and, at the same time, to its posterior reuse in the Western field.

Small plaques are arranged around the two larger plaques, prescribing to the iconographic formula of the ‘Dèesis’ (Christ and two angels between the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist). Also pictured are four other episodes from the life of the Saint (young Pataleo’s Christian education under Hermolaus; his miraculous healing; his trial before Emperor Maximilian; his martyrdom by decapitation). These episodes are seemingly relevant to the topic and homogeneity of the material and to the subject of the central plate – the life and works of Pantaleo. A young and promising miracle worker, Pantaleo converted to the new faith after his encounter with the Christian Hermolaus. Pantaleo was martyred in Nicomedia during the 4th  Century by emperor Maximian Galerius. He is extensively featured in Simeon the Metaphraste’s the Menologion, a collection of the lives of the Saints prepared at the end of the 10th Century for the Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976 – 1025).

One splendid illuminated version of the text— a liturgical calendar mentioning the major holidays and anniversaries of the Orthodox Church—is actually conserved within the Vatican Library. Similar to Cosmas and Damien, associated healer-saints, Pantaleo was often portrayed as a young man, dressed in civilian clothes, recognizable by the presence of a stylet (or surgical scalpel, as depicted in his right hand) and a bag with tools, identifying attributes of the medical profession; less common is the depiction of their lives, which are often limited to contexts of martyrdom.

The origins of materials that make up this piece are diverse. The panel presents traces of painted decoration, within the surface of the housing where smaller plates were inserted. It seems that this must have been a central part of a triptych, which has lost its side panels, leaving only the skeleton of hinges. Altogether, the piece would have been a sort of small altar—perhaps even a portable one, as indicated by its dimension. All that remains now, however, is the figure of the Angel and the Virgin of the Annunciation above the arched frame. Immediately below, the sun and the moon are represented. Four saints are depicted from the waist up, two in the middle band and two in the lower end of the panel, between the minor plates flanking the icon. The lower pair are in better condition, depicting two female figures who were often identified as the Virgin (at left) and St. Mary of Egypt (at right).  A more recent iconographic reading confirmed the identification of the Virgin as the figure on the left, but recognized features of St. Elizabeth in the one on the right. The mirror image of the two figures alludes to the gospel episode of the Visitation. The association of this pair to the Annunciation (as depicted in the upper section) completes the depicted metaphor of the Birth of Christ. The icon subtly evokes a connection between the Nativity of Christ and the miraculous virtues of Pantaleo, patron saint of midwives and new mothers. It is thought, therefore, that this triptych may have served as greeting panel ex voto probably in high places of female private commissioners. If this is the case, the material office of its transformative operation—a result of which the original image was decomposed, transformed, and reassembled into the current form—may have been a center of Byzantine or Southern Italian Byzantine culture, where the figuration of the previous elements “shall be inserted in a new context, according to a naïve sense of decorative symmetry, where the most valuable parts (the steatite stone) are approached and, in a sense, superimposed into the discourse of painting and fragmented western craftsmanship.” This icon is expected to be returned on display to the Painting Gallery.