The National Museum of Art of Romania
Icon – Saints Constantine and Helena
Artwork description
tempera on wood, gilded background
116 x 81,5 cm
Master painter Athanasie
Inv. 11 791/ i 448
Artwork location
Romanian Medieval Art Gallery, room 6

Toward the end of the 17th century Wallachian ruler Constantin Brâncoveanu (1688 – 1714) supported the restoration and refurbishment of the metropolitan church in Târgovişte, and its iconostasis. Icons newly painted by master Athanasie include that of the Holy Great Emperors Constantine and Helena. When contemplating it, onlookers were reminded of by then legendary histories whose symbolic value was heightened by contemporary context.

The icon represents the two saints in solemn pose on either side of a monumental cross surmounted by a blessing Jesus. Behind them, at the foot of the cross, lies the walled city of Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christianity. Apart from the signs of earthly power (sumptuous costumes, richly adorned sceptres and crowns), the two saints also wear a pectoral cross representing Jesus crucified (Constantine) and a medallion (engolpion) showing Virgin Mary (Helena) as symbols of their role as Great Hierarchs and leaders of the Church.

Both saints were highly popular among believers. Roman Emperor Constantine (306 – 337) put a stop to Christians’ persecution, contributed to the establishment of Christianity as a state religion and rebuilt Byzantium, named Constantinople, the city of Constantine upon his death. Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena is credited to have discovered the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The icon shows both of them dressed in luxurious costumes made of gold-like fabrics, against a rich gilded background.

Walachian Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu not only bore the great emperor’s name but also fought the infidels and supported Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Past and present, political and spiritual power tightly united around the Cross, strongly support one another.

At the end of the 17th century the iconostasis which comprised the icon was part of a complex programme. This included both building new religious establishments and restoring earlier ones. Like earlier predecessors, his attempts to shake off the Ottoman rule Brâncoveanu relied heavily on both Church, an institution of paramount importance in governing Walachia, and the Orthodox faith, a stronghold of (national) identity. Thus his strategy looked well beyond the borders of Walachia.


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