Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

The John and Eirene Panel presents three full-length figures standing.  In the center is the Mother of God holding the Divine child, on Her right the Emperor John II Comnenos (1118-43), and on Her left the Empress Eirene, daughter of Saint Ladislas of Hungary and herself a saint in the Eastern calendar.  In contrast to the Zoe Panel, attention seems here to have been divided almost equally among three major figures.  Indeed, the Emperor and his wife assume the greater importance.  Their heads are larger than the head of the central figure and only by the slightest gesture in making their offering is a unity established between them and the Mother of God that tends to bring the three figures into a single composition.  Although it may not be obvious there is a relationship between Emperor and Empress.  John is taller than his wife and has a slightly larger halo. The Emperor only wore the loros costume on certain special occasions and it is meant to convey the power and authority of the throne as made manifest in John.

John Comnenus, Eirene and the son Alexios from Hagia Sophia

The panels both extended down to the level of the windows.  The marble frame around the Zoe panel is not original and might have been added in the 19th century. - Bob Atchison.

When complete, the height of the mosaic was 2.47 m.  The width of the panel, from the window which bounds it on the right to the pilaster, is 2.76m.  Originally it filled the space between two fillets which framed it above and below; now a strip of gold background 5 to 5.5cm. in width, just under the upper fillet, as well as all the lower part of the mosaic, to the height of 1m. from the lower fillet, no longer remain. On the left of the panel, a vertical band of gold background, 13 cm. wide, which extended to the embrasure of the window, has also disappeared.  The surface of the gold background of this panel is somewhat smoother than that of the Zoe Panel.  In consequence light is not quite so luminously scattered, but the interstices between the cubes are assertive and prevent the face of the panel from becoming anything like burnished gold or a blank metallic plane.

Mother of God

The figure of the Theotokos is slightly higher in the picture than the figure of the emperor and of the Empress.  It may be supposed that she stood on a low footstool.  She holds in front of Her the Christ Child represented in a seated position.

The Theotokos and Christ from Hagia SophiaHer nimbus is gold with outline of sealing-wax-red, and on either side of Her head, in large letters made of black violet glass tessellae are the usual monograms Mother of God.

Her countenance is treated as for an icon.  The features are sharply drawn was with wide heavy brows, long straight nose, thin, firm-set lips, and blue eyes looking forward in soft serenity.  Marble cubes of deep rose-red suffused with shining white are set closely, interstices scarcely visible, with a conscious assurance that every change from cube to cube will add to the general incorporeal radiance.

Eirene and Alexios from Hagia SophiaEirene's real name was Piriska.  She was born in 1086, the daughter of the Hungarian King Ladislaus I and Adelheid of Rheinfelden.  She married John when she was 18 and had four daughters and four sons with him.  Their youngest son became the Emperor Manuel I. Eirene, who died in 1134, was canonized in the eastern church because of her extraordinary acts of charity for the poor. It should be noted that crowns could not be worn in church like this, that her hair is, most likely, a wig- and she is heavily made-up. - Bob Atchison

In contrast to the representation of flesh and blood attained in the portraits of the Imperial Family, this is a devout religious image, which fondly expresses its creator's understanding of the relation of the Virgin to mankind.

The head and the upper part of the body of the Mother of God are wrapped in a maphorion of white-violet blue, giving the semblance of wool, with crosses woven in gold thread for the forehead and shoulders.  Gold edging frames the face in an unbroken line and hangs almost vertically from the forearms.  The end of the mantle, thrown over the left shoulder, is fringed with gold crosses.  The cap, covered by the maphorion, is lightest in hue of the vestments, and the chiton, with tight-fitting sleeves, is of the same material and colour.  The garments are not of the fathomless blue found in the figures of the vestibule where the structure and setting of the glass result in indescribable vibration. The impression is of applied colour rather than of colour attained by the breaking of surfaces.

Her hands are relatively small.  Around the left thumb is twisted a handkerchief of the appearance of raw silk with a light tendril-green stripe on the sides and fringe.Restorer working on mosaic in Hagia SophiaUncovering John Comnenos and Eirene

The Holy Child

The Child Jesus has a round chubby face, with large prominent forehead and full chin.  Grave black-violet eyes stare from dark hollows.  Darkest auburn hair at the back of the head falls in short curls below the ears.  Three tiny locks lie in the center of the brow.  With a tender sense of colour, cubes are set in close precision as in the face of the Virgin.  Only the pale-pink tones of the stone here are softer, the range more restricted and the contrast less severe as in the actual fresher flesh of the child.

Christ is dressed in a chiton and himation of tissue of gold, its high lights breaking into crests of silver-green.  He gives the Orthodox blessing and holds a parchment scroll of the Gospels.  His head is surrounded by a cruciform nimbus outlined in pale silver-green; silvery limbs of the cross, in gold ground, set off the head in strong relief against stretches of blue.

Here we do not find the simple, pervading, childlike character of the young Christ in the Vestibule panel, but a somewhat hypnotized being superposed on infancy in an effort, perhaps, to evoke a more dogmatic image of ageless divinity.

Upwards from the ragged line of the mosaics at the level of the knee the figure of the Mother of God is well preserved.  Her face and hands are but inconsiderably scarred by the loss of cubes; more seriously damaged by time is the Child's face, but happily His

The Emperor

The emperor holding the bag of gold is vested in full ceremonial robes incrusted in jewels; he is drawn like all these figures with firmest contours, his head imperceptibly turned towards the Mother of God.  The face is much damaged by time; many cubes had fallen but the fresco painting of the setting-bed, from which we painstakingly removed the plaster, together with the remaining mosaics completely preserve his features.  A study of this head in its shattered state of fresco and mosaic again reveals, as in the figure of Zoe, the technical procedure of the artist.  In his fresco painting the artist was able to clarify and integrate his perception, and to prepare for the subtle and baffling organization of his cubes.  His individual perception and the symbolism of his subject merge in the final achievement.

John Comnenus from Hagia SophiaJohn has a broad, full, swarthy face, prominent lower jaw, and s lightly protruding chin, a deeply care-lined forehead, brown eyes with dark arched eyebrows, a firm mouth and tightly closed lips.  His long, thin, wavy moustache is carefully brushed to the sides of a parting and his semicircular well-kept beard is still thick on the lower side of the chin but is growing grey and is thinning towards the cheeks and below the mouth.  The moustache and beard are a lighter tone than the hair.  Long dark locks frame the face and hang to the level of the chin.  His complexion is slightly florid although the artist depicts a certain heaviness in an aging face.  John stands here august, serious, and in deep gravity - a soldier and a statesman, looking every inch the man in whom his father Alexios placed unalterable confidence as his successor.

The emperor wears the kamilaukion, a conical helmet-shaped crown of gold, divided with reddish violet lines of enamel and studded with pearls.  Two frontal jewels are surmounted by an equal-limbed cross of pear-shaped stones fixed with their pointed end to the round pearl which forms the center.  The vertical limbs of the cross have the light of rubies, the horizontal, the gold blue of lapis-lazuli.

The divitission of the usual imperial reddish-violet silk with floral designs woven in gold is close fitting: the sleeves, adorned with armlets and cuffs, are loose at the shoulder and tight at the wrist; armlets are inlaid with pearls and jewels, the shoulder-piece slopes to the chest beneath the loros.

Much like those worn by Constantine IX, three-quarters of a century earlier, the shoulder-piece and loros are woven in gold thread and violet silk, bedecked with pearls and with carnelians, beryls and lapis-lazuli, mounted in squares and rectangles whose edges flash with sprays of pearls.  The loros, attached to the collar, falls to the waist where it is covered by the part from behind, which is drawn close across the body and is caught up to hang over the wrist.  The lining of the loros, woven a a white silk pattern on a cinnabar-red ground, showing a dentellated circle with a row of short oblique strokes, is visible below the hand.

The head of John is framed by an inscription in lambent red.  It begins above the head, continues at his left, and finishes at the right.  The inscription of John reads: John in Christ the God, faithful King born in the purple and Autocrat of Romans, the Comnenos.

The Empress

The stiff jewel-robed figure of the empress is represented holding in her long and slender hands a scroll of parchment known to record donations.  Her foreign birth is betrayed by her broad face, wide forehead, and long cold grey eyes.  She is pictured in strong contrast to the dark coloring of the emperor.  Pallor representing the white powder and pale rouge in her make-up renders her face almost devoid of shadows: mask-like, without a blemish.  In the fashion of the time, her eyebrows are shaved or plucked and are drawn here with cubes imitating the colour of walnut juice and honey.  Black eyebrows with blond hair were much admired in Irene's time, and the royal coiffeur for this occasion, in acknowledged conformity to taste, elaborated a head-dress for the empress, perhaps by adding to her own hair long, heavy blond tresses.  Her sidelong glance is directed hesitatingly towards the central figure, her lips are pursed, her expression constrained.

Tomb of the Augusta Eirene in Hagia SophiaBob note:  Above is the tomb of Eirene in Verde Antica Serpentinite Breccia, which was formerly in the Pantokrator Monastery. For a hundred years or more it was left dumped in front of the former church.  Now it has been moved to Hagia Sophia where you can see it in the outer narthex.

The raiment of the empress is like that of other imperial personages, whose representations in Byzantine art make possible the reconstruction and description of the here partly vanished mosaics.  Over a tunic of which only the high jeweled collar is seen, Irene wears the long imperial divitission of heavy flaming red silk into which is woven with gold thread a profusion of curves, spirals, and flowering scrolls.  Their designs are found in earlier Fatimide and pre-Fatimid weavings and stucco, and later in the rich figured silks of the Bursa (Brusa) and Usküdar (Scutari).  In the hundred years denoted by the art of these panels, the taste of the the imperial weavers shows no predilection for motives of birds or animals.  Wherever in the Near East the origin of the bifurcation of the ivy leaf is sought, the ambit union of these particular forms here creates a new synthesis and reveals a secondary nature from a fresh intuition in the artists of Constantinople in the time of the genius of the Comnenoi.

The long wide opening of the right sleeve is bordered by a running design in blue and gold thickly set with pearls, and the same ornament is repeated on the arm-bands.  Partly hidden by the loros, the shoulder-piece is woven in blue floriated design on gold ground, bordered with a double row of pearls, interspersed with gems and trimmed on its edge with sprays of pearls.  Around the neck the opening has a string of pearls between rows of small garnets or carnelians.   LIke the shoulder-piece the loros is of heavy cloth of gold woven with floriated scroll pattern in deep sapphire blue terminating in jewels and is similarly bordered: it ends over the forearm in a lengthwise fold, leaving only half of the scroll pattern visible.

The girdle is woven in deep sea-green with an oval buckle composed of a carbuncle set in pearls. Below the girdle the shield shaped lower part of the loros is ornamented with a heart-like design in deep blue enhanced by jeweled flowers on a gold ground.  The centre is a beryl.

The empress wears a gold modiolos greatly surpassing all the other crowns in magnitude. It has the usual semblance of battlemented walls and gates, shining translucently with the lustre of jewels: beryls, carnelians, carbuncles, lapis-lazuli, and with rows of pearls tier upon tier, until sparkling particles on invisible wires appear actually to fly upwards around the cross that surmounts the crown.

Beneath the crown a diaphanous red flame-like veil, thrown back over the head is visible about the hair on both sides and in its pearl trimmed edges above the shoulders.

The earrings are pear shaped carnelians or carbuncles in gold setting with three pearl pendants much like the Roman crotalia.

Silver green rims the nimbus of Eirene.

The head of Eirene, like that of John, is framed by an inscription in the same red.  It begins above the head, continues at her right, and finishes at the left.  The inscription of Eirene reads: Eirene the most pious Augusta.


The transition from the gold surface of the main wall, on which the John panel is set, to the side of the pilaster with the portrait of Alexios, is effected by a slight rounding of the corner.  The mosaic is preserved on Alexios' right side to a point a little below his waist and, on the left, to a little below his shoulders.

Alexios Comnenus from Hagia SophiaThe  treatment of the figure of Alexios is freer and more forceful than that of the other figures, as if done at one sitting, straight from the artist's soul in realization of vision.  There is a great feeling for the power of fundamental colours which set at varying angles to the light produce and endless variety of tones.  The modeling of the face is in greens and reds and yellowish greys with dashes of whitish cubes that recall the manner of Van Gogh.  The hair is darkest lustrous brown, the large sad eyes are hazel with dark lashes and thick eyebrows, the nose thin and straight with delicate wings, the mouth small and sensitive with grieved drooping corners.  A slight swelling is noticeable in the upper part of the face: the boy looks nephritic.  It is a troubled, transient face.  And this impression is intensified by the nimbus and the robes, where gold leaf is laid over translucent pale green glass enveloping the figure in changeable greenish lights deepening the gloom.  This portrait even more than the others painted in ultra-photographic Roman-portrait vision seems yet to recognize the ordinance in Semitic religions against representation.

Alexios Comnenus from Hagia SophiaThe crown worn by Alexios is like the one worn by the emperor his father, only the top is a little less pointed and its ornamentation is in different gems.  The upper stone in front has the glow of the ruby, the lower, the pallor light sapphire.  In both crowns the cross is of pearls, with a gold centre, and the prependulia are alike, save in the form of the crosses at the ends.

Alexios is vested in a divitission of the same material and pattern-weaving as that worn by the Autocrator.  Of this we see but a part of the right shoulder and the outline of the right sleeve, and the entire left shoulder and a narrow strip along the loros.  The ornament adorning the sleeve is a plaque of heavy gold tissue crossed by red squares on which pearls are applied and in the centre of which are stones of the hues of amethyst and beryl.  From the open end of the right sleeve projects the tight gold wristlet of the chiton adorned with a stone of beryl and two pearls. Pearls encrust the high collar of the chiton.

The shoulder-piece and the loros are also similar to those worn by his father. Throughout the execution of these vestments is more rapid and free than in the figure of the emperor.

Alexios' hand is small and slender with a narrow wrist.  He holds a scepter, pressed close to his chest.  The jewel-topped staff of the gold scepter casts its red shadow;  a succession of carbuncles, emeralds, and amethysts, separated at inverts by pearls is tipped with a pearl cross.

Near the lower margin of the existing mosaic there is a fragment of design difficult to identify: it consists of a red triangle with three pear shaped pearls mounted in a gold, disposed fan-like from a round central pearl.  Beneath the base of the triangle is a line of tessellae of fine red brick, the use of which here is unique to these panels.  This fragment we venture to think represents the end of a case containing the scroll held by Alexios in his left hand.

The red inscription runs around Alexios, like the one which frames the head of his father, runs first above his head, then to his left, and continues down the right on the John panel at Irene's side. It reads: Alexios in Christ, faithful King of the Romans, the born in the purple.

Chronology of John Panel

No trace of juncture is visible in the mosaic background or is to be detected in the setting bed between the figures of Alexios and the other personages of the panel.  Yet marked differences in the mosaic painting may be noted.  The figure of Alexios is not set on the same level as the other figures, the gold tessellae filling his nimbus, as was said, are of a greenish hue, whereas the other nimbi are of yellow gold.  The green outline of the nimbus of Alexios is also of a different hue from the green outline of the nimbus of Irene.  The jewels on his vestments are not in claw-setting, and in this respect differ from the setting of the jewels on John's garments, and finally, as again it has been noted, there is remarkable difference in the handling of the Alexios and of the other imperial figures,

Thus it seems probably that the John and Alexios mosaics are the work of different years but, we think, of the same unknown hand; the figures on the wall we conjecture, in the autumn of 1118, to commemorate John's accession, and the figure on the pilaster was added in 1122 when Alexios, in his seventeenth year, was proclaimed co-emperor.  Indeed, Alexios here looks like a youth of this age.

Lettering, Position of Panels, Iconography

The dates of the inscriptions are set, within narrow limits, by the events.  The writing on the Zoe Panel is formal and architectural; the lines balance the figures and heighten their faces.  Freer and less easily disengaged from the figures are the John and Alexios titles.  They seem to have been conceived as emanations from the personages they surround.

The Position of the Panels

The place assigned to the imperial panels - far from the entrance, in the Eastern part of the South Gallery is exceptional.  But the placing of the figures of emperors and founders in or near the Sanctuary is not without analogy in a number of churches.  Their position is perhaps not without a liturgical significance in that the persons represented were commemorated in the prayers of the Holy Services and they themselves often took their place beside their dramatic counterparts.

This explanation holds good for the position of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia.

Originally the Galleries of the Great Church were designed for the assemblage of women. Later the South Gallery served a more specific and official purpose.  From the ninth century on councils were certainly held here.  The mosaic representation of the Church, in the hands of the figure of Justinian in the Vestibule reveals the fact that the Patriarchal Palace and consequently the metatorion, or private liturgical imperial apartment on the second floor, which it contained, were connected with this part of the Church.  Here, in the South Gallery, is also a marble-paved ramp, obviously for imperial use, leading from the South-West Vestibule and further, built into the thickness of the buttress, is a small and exquisitely domed chapel for the use of two or three imperial personages. The Book of Ceremonies vividly describes the emperor praying in this Gallery with lighted candle in hand and passing through it when returning to the Palace.

Thus these imperial portraits form an appropriate decoration for a part of the Church which was the scene of private imperial ceremony.


The iconographical significance of both the Zoe and John Panels is identical.  Each represents an "imperial offering", in composition similar to that of the panel of the South-West Vestibule which has been discussed in a preceding Report.  Only instead of the model of the City and of the Church, presented by the Founder of the City and the Builder of the Church, here the figures hold the purse and the scroll.  Into the John Panel was brought the figure of young Alexios in a revival of an ancient custom for an emperor to portray himself with his heir apparent.

The symbolism of such a picture is revealed by an epigram of Theodore Prodomos, referring to a painting in which John II Comnenos is represented.  In the verses the emperor worships Christ, the God, and brings to Him 'A tribute of gold and silver', such as his subjects render to himself.  The offering is made in thanksgiving and in the hope of new favors to come.  These successive offerings spoken of by the poet give us a Byzantine conception of the Christian World in which individual life was of small moment compared with the unified effort of society.

A panegyrist of the twelfth century, Eustatios of Thessaloniki, paraphrasing a verse from the Psalms, tell us that the greatness of the emperors is evident from the fact that God is in the midst of them as their guide and prototype.  Imperial portraits like these in Hagia Sophia, in which Christ or the Mother of God is the central figure, present pictorially this idea.

The image of Christ on the Zoe panel is characteristic of the art at the end of the eleventh century and throughout the twelfth. A similar treatment of details is fond in many monuments of this period - the closed book, the throne without back, the rounded footstool.  The figure is sharply drawn, the scrutiny of the oblique gaze is accented by the uplifted eyebrow. Although some of these traits already appear in the ninth century in a miniature of Cosmas Indicopleustes in the Vatican, this image of Christ is in definite contrast to the more solemn type with the calm, benignant gaze 'of the large eyes that see all things from above', fostered, until this moment, in Christian art.  Representations closely related to that of the Zoe Panel begin to appear only from the end of the eleventh century, and during the twelfth century, at Torcello; in St. Mark's on the soffit of an arch leading from the southern apse to the sanctuary; at Mount Athos; in the Deesis of the tympanum at Vatopedi, and more generally in Sicily in the dome of the Martorana and at Monreale in the scene of the coronation of King William.

A survival of this type looms unexpectedly much later on the Russian icons of the Novgorod School.  There, however, Christ is never represented full length; the treatment of the beard is essentially Russian, but the piercing gaze directed aslant and the raised eyebrows are preserved.  Moreover, the icon bears the significant title - 'the Saviour of the angry eye."

Yet this is but a reminiscence.  Christ of the Zoe Panel, while representing a typical variant of the iconography of the eleventh to twelfth centuries, is chronologically at the beginning of the series.  Most surviving examples, as we have seen, are distributed on the periphery of the empire, but the creation of this image must be in this way attributed to Constantinople.

Now the figure of the Virgin with the Child in the John panel is of a much earlier type.  Various representations - designated sometime by the title Kyriotissa - spring probably from a venerated icon on the Church of Theotokoy ta Kyroi, founded during the reign of Theodosius II by the Prefect of Constantinople Kyros Constantine.  The earliest example known to us emerges from the sixth century on a lead seal of Mauricios Tiberios.  In the twelfth century the type appears on the coinage of Manuel I Comenneos, and the image of the Kyriotissa is found in paintings from the eight century on to post Byzantine times.

It is possible that the popularity of this icon was due largely to a fervent imperial devotion.  On a seal of the seventh century four emperors - probably Constantios II with his sons - are represented, as on the John Panel, around a Virgin of the Kyriostissa type.  It has lately been suggested that, until the time of the Isaurian Dynasty, this icon was considered a palladium of the Byzantine emperors.  If this be true, the discovery of the mosaic in Hagia Sophia tends to prove that it was held as an object of the same veneration as late as the time of the Comneni.

In the faces of the Virgin and Child new elements are discernible which the artists of the twelfth century imparted to the interpretation of an ancient theme.  The aquiline nose and heavy eyebrows of the Virgin are characteristic of Oriental types introduced into the art of this period.  The drawing of the Child lacks the freshness and spontaneity of the tenth century Christ in the South-West Vestibule.  He is here characterized by a round head, fleshy nose, heavy jaw.  A Christ Child of this type appears in the next reign on the coins of Manuel I Comnenos and in contemporary paintings, and further under the name of Emmanuel, this image obtained a wide popularity which it has held to the present day in religious art of the Orthodox Eastern Church.

The Panghia and the Child of the John Paul and the Christ in the Zoe Panel are characterized by an iconic rigidity resulting from a sustained repetition of forms.

The figures of John and Irene, and to a lesser degree the imperial portraits of the Zoe Panel reflect this same conventionalism.

Far different is the face of Alexios.  Although a contemporary composition it is painted in an intensity of vision which entrains the stimulus of the identification of spirit and establishes a conduit by which a tide of sentiment is caused to flow to us.

Such in part is an account of the rediscovery of these mosaics and a record of the first reflections produced by a study of them.

In the enclosure of Hagia Sophia is revealed a gallery of imperial portraits and religious paintings uniting palaces with the Great Church.

The Zoe Panel is one of the last works of the Macedonian Dynasty, the panel of John and Alexios is among the earlier works of the Comnenoi.  On the same wall is represented the art of the end of one epoch and that of the beginning of the next.

Our knowledge of both Byzantine art and history is enriched by these paintings, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.

This text is from The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia at Istanbul, Third Preliminary Report Work Done in 1935-1938 by Thomas Whittemore and published in 1942

Bob Atchison

Meet Bob Atchison - the Creator of this Website

I am an icon painter, Russian Historian and Austin Web Designer formerly of Seattle, Washington and now living in Austin, Texas. My interest in Byzantium and icons began when I was 8 years old and read my first book on Byzantium called "The Fall of Constantinople".

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Crusader Loot

The Nicopeia Icon of San Marco

Byzantine Nicopeia icon of San Marco
The barons and the Venetians battered the walls and towers day and night without with various machines, and redoubled the War, conducting many great skirmishes from one area to another; it was in one of these that they valorously acquired the banner of the Tyrant, but with much greater joy a panel on which was painted the image of Our Lady, which the Greek Emperors had continuously carried in their exploits, since all their hopes for the health and salvation of the Empire rested in it.  The Venetians held this image dear above all other riches and jewels that they took, and today it is venerated with great reverence and devotion here in the church of San Marco, and it is one that is carried in procession during times of War and plaque, and to pray for rain and good weather.

Giovanni Ramusio  - 1559

This icon is of the same type seen in the mosaic to the left. This image of the Virgin was closely associated with the Imperial throne and the City of Constantinople itself.  The icon is in its original Byzantine frame of gilded silver with gold enamels, pearls and gemstones. The surface of the icon and the figure of Christ was badly damaged by the attachment of jewels and pearls to the icon by Venetian devotees of the icon. These were recently removed and the icon was restored. The face of the Virgin is very well preserved and shows extreme delicacy and refinement in the the painter's technique.  The icon was meant to be seen from a great distance and in low light. Here's a close-up view of it.the icon of the Nicopeia Mother of GodThe shrine of the Nicopeia in San MarcoAbove is the icon before its restoration.

Above you can see what the shrine looks like in San Marco today.

Icons like this were continuously processed through the streets of the city, moving from one church to another. The processions could be very colorful and exotic, with strange ceremonies, beautiful unearthly chants, rich costumes, incense and candles. Special companies of men were formed to escort the icon back and forth. One guild that escorted the famous (and huge) bejeweled Hodegritria icon dressed as angels in red robes, with red hats and wings. They were blindfolded and it was claimed they were supernaturally directed by the Virgin herself as they carried her icon through the streets.The Hodegetria in ConstantinopleThe Hodegetria icon in its shrine within the grounds of the Great Palace. you can see the 'angels'; on either side of the icon, attending to the curtain below: