Bonhames to auction Prayer in the Mount of Olives by Constantinos Parthenis

Prayer in the Mount of Olives, a major work by the Greek Modernist painter Constantinos Parthenis (1878-1967), leads the Greek Art Sale in London on the 9th of April. It is estimated at £300,000-500,000.

CONSTANTINOS PARTHENIS (Greek, 1878-1967) Prayer in the Mount of Olives 92 x 80 cm.

(Greek, 1878-1967)
Prayer in the Mount of Olives 92 x 80 cm.

Painted in 1930, Prayer in the Mount of Olives is an outstanding example of Parthenis’ mature style which built on the achievements of early 20th century avant-garde artists while establishing an individual poetic and spiritual aesthetic in a distinctively Greek way.

The work depicts the time after The Last Supper when Christ goes to the Garden of Gesthemene on the Mount of Olives to pray. Overcome with anguish, he asks God three times to relieve him of the pain and suffering to come while submitting himself to the higher authority. Taking the analogy of a cup being passed round the table, – a reference both to the last supper which he has just left and the cup which will be used to collect his blood at the Crucifixion – Christ says, “My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.”

This key event in the story of the Passion – also known as the Agony in the Garden – has been a familiar subject in both Eastern and Western Christian painting traditions for centuries. From the 15th century onwards, in Western art, it has been symbolized in the figure of an angel presenting a chalice to Christ in a direct allusion to his sacrifice.

There is no sense in this painting that Parthenis is attempting a literal representation of the scene. Drawing on Byzantine iconography, European symbolism, Art Nouveau, and particularly Cubism, the artist has created his own highly personal and contemplative response. The figures of Christ and the angel are idealized and their elliptical form refers back to El Greco while the two-dimensional perspective and angular outlines echo the Cubist Masters.

Parthenis is today universally acknowledged as the first Greek painter to distance Modern Greek painting from the academic tradition and establish a model which reflected the cultural experiences of the country and its people. From the 1920s onwards much of his work was devoted to symbolist and allegorical compositions in keeping with his own deep religiosity. Among his many supporters and admirers were the founders of the Laiki Bank, Spyros and Dionysios Loverdos, who were the original owners of Prayer in the Mount of Olives and who appointed Parthenis as supervisor of the Dionysios Loverdos Museum of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art.