The word deësis is Greek for "supplication." In an Orthodox Deësis Mary and John the Baptist stand in postures of supplication to the left and right of Christ, who holds a book which may be open or closed. John typically wears not his camel-hair garment but an alb or plain cloth tunic under a cloak that hangs from just one shoulder. All these features can be seen in the oldest extant example, a fresco from about 690 in Santa Maria Antiqua, a Greek church in Rome, now in ruins, and in the first picture at right. In some later examples the book is closed; in the West it may be left out entirely.
Some Western Deëses follow the Orthodox pattern, for example the second picture at right. But most present the scene in the context of the Last Judgment and/or with angels showing Christ the instruments of his Passion, as in this relief from the 13th century and this painting from the 15th. In these images Mary and John are often on their knees rather than standing.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-10-25, 2017-02-13, 2018-03-18.
Roundels in the façade of San Giorgio dei Greci, Venice. Follow this link for a discussion.