Epitaphios of the Emperor John Cantacuzenus, c. 1354

3 November 2011

Dimensions: epitaphios alone: 163.5 x 106.5 cm.

Embroidered on light blue all-silk material, this epitaphios shows Christ lying dead in perspective. He is crowned with a nimbus with a cross inscribed in it and His hands are crossed on the cloth which covers the lower part of His body. He is attended by an angel-deacon holding a flabellum in each of the four corners of the epitaphios.

The angels are shown in busts in arches which separate them from the central scene. The whole of the background is embroidered with crosses, which join up small medallions containing smaller crosses. The edge of the ornament and the angels’ arches have decoration which is a slight variation on that of the background: the crosses are joined up by half acanthus leaves whose hearts are emphasised with red silk. A second border, with bright red embroidery, runs round the epitaphios.

At the head of Christ, between the two angels, is an inscription in capitals which reads: “JESUS CHRIST [abbreviated] / THE KING / OF GLORY +++++”.

At His feet there is another inscription in capital letters: “THE GIFT / OF THE DEVOUT KING AND / EMPEROR OF THE ROMANS / IOAN­NES CANTACUZENUS” .

Lower down, on the edge, among the acanthus leaves, in intertwining letters are the words: “OF VATOPEDI”.

The crosses in circles and the half acanthus leaves are the usual decoration on the backgrounds of ornaments of the 13th and 14th centuries. The embroidery is in fine gold wire in the kavaliki stitch 7.

The nimbuses of Christ and of the angels are in kamares and the details of the decoration in straight riza stitch. The uncovered parts of the body of Christ are in a soft grey, in dense riza stitch, which follows the direction of the anatomy and strengthens, with the use of silk of a darker colour, the impression of plasticity. The face and those of the angels are rendered in very fine wheat-coloured silk, while the hair and the beard are in orange, with single black ‘brushstrokes’ which represent the darkness of the hair. The garments of the angels are in gold, in the straight riza stitch, and the outlines and folds are produced by lines of red silk.

This ornament is identical with the aer-epitaphios in the Pantocrator Monastery on Mount Athos published by Millet8. The corpse is in the same position, there is the same inscription at the head: the only things which are different are the stance of the angels and the fact that there is no inscription at the the feet naming the donor. It seems very likely that the Pantocrator epitaphios has copied the same pattern used by that of Vatopaidi.

As to the style of the epitaphios, the figures have the nobility of ideal forms. The fineness of the silk and the painstaking execution give to the bare flesh the unity of a smooth surface. The glitter of the gold is reflected on the blue satin. The hieratic posture of the angels stresses the liturgical character of the scene.

John Cantacuzenus is a figure who stands out in Byzantine history and historiography. He reigned from 1341 to 1354. He was proclaimed Emperor three times: first at Didymoteicho on 26 October 1341 as usurper of the throne; secondly, he was crowned in Adrianople on 21 May 1346, and thirdly, he was crowned in Constantinople by the Patriarch, since only coronation by the Patriarch of Constantinople had validity in law and was incontestable. He abdicated from the throne on 22 November 1354 and was tonsured as a monk, taking the name of Ioasaph, at the Mangana Monastery. In his new capacity, the former Emperor with his literary interests devoted the rest of his life to his writings, which were first published in Paris in 1645 by the famous Louvre press, as the first in a series of Byzantine historians9. This learned Emperor had the intention of becoming a monk at Vatopaidi, and for that reason he sent there the necessary funds for the monks to construct at the Monastery “habitations” designed for the Emperor. However, reliable historical sources have nothing specific to say about his settling on the Holy Mountain. The monks of Vatopaidi maintain that it was in their monastery that Cantacuzenus lived and was buried, and that he enriched the Monastery’s library with books and its sacristy with treasures. Among these treasures was the epitaphios decsribed above, which was seen and venerated in 1653 at Jassy in Moldavia by Pavlos of Halepi, who was accompanying the Patriarch Makarios of Antioch on a journey10.