A client recently purchased this little Madonna & Child as a gift, and asked me for a post explaining what I mean by calling it an 'Italianate' icon. It put me quite on the spot, for I've really been using the term very loosely as a personal shorthand to distinguish my two styles of painting: the more austere, 'orthodox' style of Byzantine and Romanesque iconography as opposed to the highly decorative, slightly 'soft focus' style we see in Italian religious painting of the later Middle Ages in the run up to the Renaissance revolution in western art. I make the distinction mainly because I am uncomfortably aware that some parties would hotly argue that the style is 'western', 'sentimental', and 'degenerate', and does not constitute a 'real' icon at all!
This is a debate I don't generally care to weigh in on except to reiterate that the word 'icon' is simply a transliteration of the Greek word for picture or image. In a Christian context we often use it to mean a particular type of devotional image reverenced or used for meditative prayer at home or in church. It has a resonance with St Paul's decription of Jesus Christ as the "icon of the living God" (Colossians Chapt 1). When people talk about an 'Orthodox' or Byzantine icon, these days they usually mean one in a the semi-abstract style of religious art before the influence of Renaissance naturalism, or of photo-realism, or of Victorian sentimentality, or of any number of cultural influences which have come to bear on religious art down the centuries.
To illustrate, here are two icons of roughly the same date: the first from Mount Athos in the so-called Byzantine style, and the second by Simone Martini of Siena, part of an altar piece. Plainly they both follow the same essential principles - figures disembodied in eternal light, symbolised by the gold background, the three-quarter turn of the head, the anachronistic robes, the gesture to the book, and so forth. But there are differences in style: the gold in Sienese icons is very ornate with raised or punched patterns: this would have given the surface dynamism in the flickering torchlight of processions and liturgical celebrations. The prismatic highlights on the folds of the robes have a softer, gradual shading, hinting at a development towards the more naturalistic styles of the Renaissance. Another important difference is that the Sienese icon does not have an inscription (the name of the saint, in the top righthand corner of the Vatopedi icon). The inscription remains a defining feature of Eastern Orthodox icons, whereas in the West a system of colour coding and 'attributes' developed whereby a saint could be identified: St Peter carrying keys, St Lucy with her eyes on a plate and so forth.
So to finish with a little seasonal celebration, here are a few of the paintings I have labelled as Italianate or Sienese over the years.