Crete

Crete was always the crossroads of age-old Mediterranean Sea routes.

It has been a meeting place of diverse cultures, a melting pot of ancient and varied civilizations.

It was here on Crete that Europe Evropi first heard her name being called.

Since Homer’s time, Crete has been inviting travellers to explore it and discover not only its natural beauty, but also it five-millennium old culture, history and tradition, which combine into an enchantingly lively present, the continuation of a distant mythical past.

During this past a long-standing religious tradition was established on the island, which still holds pride of place.

Cretan religious routes cover all Holy Metropolises on the island and are a means for visitors to get acquainted with the holy land of Crete, sanctified by the steps of St. Paul.

Welcome to Crete, a land where hospitality remains one of the holiest traditions of its inhabitants.

Brief History

Crete has a millennium-old history, the roots of which are lost in the origins of myths. This is where Zeus Pater, the father of gods and humans was born, according to Greek mythology. This is where he secretly lay with the beautiful nymph Europa, who gave her name to our continent. This is where the first humans, Daedalus, the ingenious constructor of the infamous labyrinth and his son Icarus, took flight, defying gravity.

The world of King Minos, Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur was brought to light by archaeological excavations and its atmosphere prevails still today in the ruined Minoan palaces, offering a friendly initiation into the secrets of the Labyrinth.

When wandering through the palaces of Knossos, Phaestos, Malia or Zakros and other minor Minoan buildings scattered throughout the island, visitors can appreciate the splendor of the Minoan civilization, which radiated throughout the whole of the Mediterranean.

Architecture, painting, pottery reflect the personality of a people that was peaceful, joyful and powerful, with close bonds to the sea. After 1400 B.C, Achaean and Dorian presence became intense and new cities, such as Lato, Rizenia, Eleftherna and Polyrheneia emerged. Then followed the Classic Ancient Greek Era, when the Greeks still recall the Cretan metropolises, and, mainly, Knossos, which still held its charm as the birth place of significant cultural and institutional values.

When the Romans occupied the island, other cities come into the limelight, such as Gortys (present day Gortyna), which flourished as the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica.

On his way to Rome, St. Paul landed at Kaloi Limenes on the south coast and preached Christ’s teachings to the islanders.  St. Paul’s landing on Crete is significant for the expansion of Christianity; during the first Byzantine period, the island was a major Christian centre.

In 824 A.D. Crete was conquered by the Saracens and Candia [rabḍ al-ḫandaq ‘Castle of the Moat’ – Hellenized as Khándax] – present-day Herakleion – became the base for their pirate raids into the Mediterranean.

In 961 they were ousted from the island by Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. During the ensuing years, the island became a major Christian centre again and a flourishing cultural hub.

After Constantinople fell into the hands of the Francs in 1204, Crete came under Venetian rule until 1669.

This was a period of extraordinary economic and intellectual acme for the island: huge fortification projects were completed, major cities build, excellent monuments created.

At the same time, monastic life also flourished on the island. A lot of monasteries were founded and became centres of Byzantine art; This Cretan Renaissance led to the excellent CretanSchool in painting. Domenicus Theotokopoulos was born in Heraclion and was an apprentice to master painters such as Michael Damascenus, before he left for the West to glorify his birthplace and the art of painting as El Greco. Music and drama were also flourishing and bequeathed beautiful creations like the romantic ballad of Erotocritus and the play of Erophile.

However, all this came to a stop in 1669, when Candia – present-day Heraclion – the last bastion of Crete, fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks.

Bloody struggles and riots against the conquerors led to the independence of Crete between 1897 up to 1913, when it was united with the rest of Greece.

Throughout all these years, despite the various civilisations and conquerors that arrived on the island, Crete never stopped cultivating the holy Christian Orthodox tradition, which is diffused in both urban and rural locations of the island.

This tradition is best illustrated by historic monasteries, traditional village churches and humble chapels and pilgrimage sites in the countryside.

The Land

On Crete the rugged, austere mountainous terrain harmoniously co-exists with fertile green plains, golden sandy beaches and deep blue seas under the azure blue of the sunny sky.

Nature on the island offers the visitor a surprising variety, in some places forbidding and starkly desolate and in others lusciously green.

Mountains with magnificent gorges of lush bio-diverse vegetation compose exquisitely beautiful landscapes.

Villages, monasteries, dry-stone walls, castles, country chapels and antiquities, all bear witness to the island’s century-old tradition.

There are all sorts of vegetation zones on Crete, each one with its own flora and fauna.

Cretan wild goats (Capra aegagrus creticus), locally known as kri-kri, roam the famous gorge of Samaria.

The only palm tree forest of Europe, in Vai and the tiny islands around Crete offer unique habitats, most of which are conservation areas.

Island winters are mild, spring and autumn mellow and pleasant and summers sunny and hot.

The terrain and climate create an idyllic location where natural balance rules.

Climate

Crete has 300 days of sunshine a year and one of the healthiest climates in Europe.

A temperate Mediterranean climate prevails in the largest part of the island, but there is snow in mountainous regions in the winter.

Rain is prevalent in the western part and lessens the further east one goes.

Prevailing winds come from the north-west, while in the summer, a northern wind known as the ‘meltemi’ or Mediterranean monsoon brings a welcoming fresh breath.

In the summer a hot south wind often blows; it’s the Venetial garbin, locally known by its ancient Greek name ‘livas’.

Nature

Minoan civilisation and its worship of nature form the roots of the ancient Greek Myths and numerous legends still surviving in the oral traditions of Cretan villages.

All mountains and numerous small vales and hills created by the diverse terrain of the island are home to a wealth of flora and fauna thriving in the excellent climate.

There are exceptionally interesting habitats on the grand mountainous massifs.

The ecological park on Mt.Youchtas in the Asteroussia range as well as other peaks and vertical cliffs are home to one of the largest colonies of birds of prey in Europe.

The wide biodiversity of local numerous plant species explains why in antiquity Crete had been named as the Land of the Blessed.

The natural face of Crete keeps changing. Mountains are crisscrossed by wildly beautiful gorges, often ending at exquisite deserted beaches.

When wandering around Crete, visitors encounter a landscape that keeps changing.

In the western and eastern parts of the island mountainous masses prevail, while in central and eastern parts nature is increasingly more hospitable. This is where one comes across small hills alternating with gorges, vales and flat plains. The picture is completed by the enchanting beaches of the north coast and the imposing bays along the south of the island.

It is against this natural background that the Christian Orthodox faith of Cretans has contributed to the establishment of numerous Monasteries and Churches, which are scattered throughout Crete.

Flora & Fauna

Closely related to the climate and geomorphology of the island, the local flora is of particular interest.

There are 2,108 native plant species on the island, of which 302 are endemic. The rural landscape of Crete is dominated by vineyards and olive and orange groves; in semi-mountainous areas there is scrub vegetation, where brushwood and aromatic herbs abound, along with other endemic Cretan species.

The forest systems are less frequent and mainly found in the mountainous terrains. On the southern slopes of Mt. Dicte, Mt. Ida [Mt. Psiloritis], and the Asterousia and White Mountain ranges there are ‘rough pine’ [Pinus brutia] forests. The central mountainous masses are dominated by bush oak forests or  Cuercus Ilex while in many cases deciduous the oak species (Cuercus makrolepis) or small eco-communities of  palm trees (Phoenix theophrastis) (e.g. Preveli Lake, Agios Nikitas, etc.) can be found.

There are numerous orchid species on the island, but Crete is mainly known as an Eden of aromatic herbs, usually growing along the steep gorge slopes.

The diversity of the island geomorphology and landscape ave significantly contributed towards the emergence and thriving of endemic fauna species. Most of them are to be found on the mountain massifs and in the gorges, where ideal climatic conditions prevail and human presence is definitely scarce. Best known species are ferrets (Mustela nivalis), Cretan beech martens (Martes foina bunites), and badgers (Meles meles), while endemic species are composed of various groups (mammals, rodents, amphibians, reptiles as well as invertertebrates).

The National Forest of Samaria is one of the richest ecosystems/habitats of Crete; the main species is kri-kri, the wild Cretan goat (Capra aegagrus creticus), which survives only in the Samaria Gorge. Significant bird populations gather in the vast south vertical cliffs of all mountainous massifs of the island.

Folk Culture

Crete has managed to preserve – over a long period of time and despite the pressure of foreign invaders – unadulterated the particular features of local culture and folk traditions, the roots of which can be traced back to Minoan times. Local folk culture is reflected in the customs observed by local residents, the traditional feasts and Christian festivals that have been kept alive, as well as the traditional folk crafts, such as weaving, pottery, glass-making, wood-carving, etc.

A typical aspect of Crete is the preservation of customs directly related to religious life and worship; this is due to the religious faith of Cretans. Basic expressions of folk culture include the traditional Cretan wedding, particularly known by the way it is celebrated in the villages, as well as numerous festivals held throughout the year on the occasion of religious feasts, which are accompanied by singing, dancing and savory local dishes.

Weaving

The craft of weaving has a century old tradition on Crete. In older times, every home had a traditional loom for weaving intricately decorated cloth. Today, weaving is kept alive in the mountainous regions of Mt. Ida [Mt. Psiloritis] (at Krousona, Gergeris and Zarou) and Mt. Dicte (Viannos), where, usually older, women still create the unique woven Cretan pieces handed down over numerous generations.

Pottery

As ancient finds testify, pottery has a long history spanning many centuries. Ceramic jars of unique beauty and craftmanship are decorated with natural motifs, illustrating the exceptional Minoan technique. This ancient craft has been preserved and evolved with time; today, there are traditional craftsmen in various island locations who continue the tradition handed down by their ancestors. They create excellent useful or decorative objects of exquisite quality. Pottery has been continuously present on Crete for more than 4,000 years. Ceramic artifacts dating to the Neolithic Age (Stone Age) are on display at numerous museum; they are uncannily similar to those still made on the island today.

There are four different regions where pottery making still flourishes today on Crete, namely Thrapsanos (Herakleion), Margarites (Rethymnon), Nochia (Chania) and Kentri (Lasithi).

Cretan Musical Tradition

Music and dance have been an integral part of Cretan social life and are still flourishing on the island. Traditional music and local dances, with deep roots in antiquity, have pride of place not only at festivals and social events but in the daily lives of the local people.

Cretan musical traditions have been influenced mainly by Byzantine music, but also by the musical tradition of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is kept alive today and incorporates contemporary musical features in the most creative manner. A typical form of expression island musicians are ‘mantinades’; these are improvised rhyming verses reflecting a particular feature of Cretan tradition.

Cretan musical traditions includes dancing tunes as well as accompaniment to folk songs, the most common of which are ‘mantinades’, two, rhyming fifteen-syllable verses, mainly on the theme of love, which are sung at traditional feasts and festivals.

The most famous Cretan musical instruments are the Cretan lyra [a three-stringed violin-like instrument] and the laouto [lute-family instrument]. Cretan music is enriched with the mantolin and the ‘boulgari’ [string instrument from Anatolia], while wind instruments also play an important role. The best known among them are the ‘habioli’(Cretan pipe of the fife and flute family, known since antiquity) and the ‘askomantoura’, the ancient Greek ‘askavlos’ [bagpipes].

Musical instruments are made using local natural materials. The lyre is made of mulberry, acer [Acer sempervirens] or walnut wood, the askomantoura is made from an entire goat skin, and the habioli from a reed. Numerous instrument makers preserve and develop this Cretan tradition today.

Dances

Every part of the island has its own traditional dances, many of which have maintained their archetypal circular form and are regularly danced even today, giving dancers the opportunity to show off their exceptional skills. The main Cretan dances are ‘pentozalis’, dating back to the ancient ‘Pyrrhic’ [a male coming-of-age initiation ritual dance linked to a warrior victory celebration], ‘kastrinos pidichtos’, ‘sousta’, ‘siganos syrtos’ and ‘chaniotikos syrtos’. The famous ‘Zorbas’ tune composed by Mikis Theodorakis, is based on an older version of chaniotikos syrtos.

The Cretan diet…

The century-old eating customs of the island have evolved in the context of the sacred tradition of Cretan hospitality. Local cuisine uses to the best effect the wealth of Cretan products:  Olive oil, wheat, wine, honey, wild greens and aromatic herbs, which are the staples of local dishes. Recently published, long-term scientific studies have proven the benefits and nutritional value of the Cretan diet.

The Cretan traditional cuisine is today considered one the healthiest in the world. The wealth and high quality of island products throughout the centuries has created a range of dishes with a unique fresh flavour and authenticity.

Excellent dairy produce, honey, aromatic herbs, greens and so many other products of Cretan mountains are the basic ingredients of the miracle of Cretan cuisine. Today, the Cretan diet is recognised by the scientific community as the most representative example of the quality of the Mediterranean diet, based on wonderful local products, such as early vegetables, pulses, fruit, cereals and many others, combined with the staple use of olive oil that enhances longevity and well-being.

Today, the olive oil produced from the vast island groves is considered one of the best in the world, due to the local climate that is considered ideal. Olive oil is also a major export of the island.

Besides olive oil, excellent local Cretan wines play an important role in enhancing local flavours.

Since the Minoan period, Crete has been one of the most significant wine producing territories, with excellent wines and famous grape varieties.  The century-long tradition of viticulture is proven by the archaeological finds in the locations of Archanes and Vathypetros, which are still territories producing some of the most acclaimed Cretan wines.

A visit to facilities producing local products is a unique experience. Along the wine routes of Herakleion there are wineries which welcome visitors, offering guided tours and wine-tasting sessions. During the grape harvesting period, the trygos, i.e. in October and November, most hamlets operate traditional distillation cauldrons and allow visitors to witness the production of local raki.

The Prefecture of Chania

In the westernmost part of Crete, the Prefecture of Chania looms the most extensive mountain massif of the island, the White Mountains [Lefka Ori], which take up almost the whole central and southern part of the Prefecture.

When the slopes reach the Libyan Sea, a wonderful geomorphological environment is created, combining extraordinary gorges with beaches. There are almost 50 peaks above 2000 m, offering wonderful trekking opportunities of natural, historical and anthropological interest. This is where the famous Samaria Gorge lies, listed as a National Forest and the home of the only species of Cretan wild goat [Capra aegagrus creticus].

The Prefecture of Rethymnon

Forbidding and starkly desolate In places and in others lusciously green, nature around Rethymnon has endless surprises for visitors.

To the east stands Mt. Ida [Mt. Psiloritis] and to the west looms the mountain massif of the White Mountains [Lefka Ori]; the range  extends to the south of the Prefecture with Kouroupas and Asiderotos Peaks alternating with soft hills and lowland plains that encounter the vast northern coast beaches and the narrow, cliffed deep bays of the south.

Here nature offers a generous feast of colours, scents and wild life, amid dense olive groves, ancient vineyards, mountain fragrances and eloquent ruins testifying the daily life of antiquity.

Villages, monasteries, drywalls, castles, chapels and antiquities all bear witness to a life unadulterated by modern civilisation.

The Prefecture of Herakleion

The Prefecture of Herakleion lies between the two major mountain massifs of central Crete, Mt.Ida [Mt. Psiloritis] in the west and Mt.Dicte to the east. The geomorphology and favourable climatic conditions ensure good e crop harvests. This is why the Prefecture of Herakleion is the most densely populated area with the highest income on Crete.

The major archaeological treasures of the island have been found at the major centres of the Minoan period in this region, which has, therefore, become a pole of attraction for major tourism growth.

The Prefecture of Lasithi

The Prefecture of Lasithi, on the east of the island, is the other face of Crete, the mild and sweet part of the island:

The famous Lasithi plateau with its windmills, Neapolis with its scholarly tradition, Elunda with its luxurious hotels, Agios Nikolaos – the capital of the prefecture – with its quaint lake, Ierapetra, on the south coast, caressed by the Libyan Sea breeze, Sitia, in the east, with its  fun-loving inhabitants and tiny villages scattered on the slopes, as if time had stood still.

Equally impressive are the wild, inaccessible gorges, significant archaeological sites, the unique plateaus of Katharos and Lasithi, the palm forest at Vai, the beautiful, solitary beaches and impressive caves are only a few of the typical features of the Prefecture.

Cretan Monasteries: The Trustees of the Orthodox Faith

A century-old monastic tradition is kept alive at Cretan Monasteries; it reached its apogee during the Venetian period, when the famous CretanIconographySchool flourished.

During the Venetian occupation, numerous monasteries prospered and in the Cretan Renaissance period they became literary and artistic centres.

The architecture, decoration and paintings in churches and monasteries reflect the orthodox faith as well as the particularities of each location and historic period.

Several monasteries are open to the public and maintain significant collections of historical and religious heirlooms.

The older monasteries surviving in Crete were founded during the second Byzantine period (961-1204).

There are documents testifying that, when the Venetians arrived in Crete (1211), they found several thriving monasteries. These supported Orthodoxy and helped preserve the national identity of Cretans, when the new conquerors decapitated the CretanChurch and removed the Orthodox priests in order to establish their own permanent occupation and exploitation of the island. Scholarly priests and monks supported the monastic movement during that time, through teaching and helping remote monasteries grow and develop.

During the 15th and 16th centuries there were still several orthodox monasteries in operation, despite the prohibition measures imposed by the Venetian authorities.  It was political and socio-economic reasons, however, that made Venice change its religious policies in the last 150 years of its occupation of the island. The Ottomans were getting increasingly more powerful and were by now an immediate threat to Venetian social cohesion and the economy.  This is why they considered it necessary to improve their relations with the Orthodox Cretans so that they would gain their support to reinforce their defense.

The relative religious freedom that prevailed at that time was the best revival of monasticism on Crete, with numerous new monasteries being founded and old and forgotten ones revived. This was not only due to religious reasons.

According to Venetians legislation, monks were relieved of their obligations to the state, and particularly the horrific marine labour, i.e. their duty to serve sitting at the oars and rowing to move the Venetian galleys.

The 17th century was the prime time of monastic life on the island. There were more than 1000 operating monasteries at that time on Crete with almost 6000 monks.

In the major urban centres there were important priests who created a unique monastic tradition on the island; some of them became prelates and patriarchs, such as Cyril Lucaris [Kyrillos Loukaris], Ecumenical Patriarch at Constantinople and Meletius [Meletios Pegas], Patriarch of Alexandria.

During the Cretan War [War of Candia, Fifth Ottoman-Venetian War](1645-1669) tens of monasteries were destroyed. Following the fall of Crete and the establishment of Ottoman occupation, most of the monasteries in the major urban centres were used by the conquerors for their own needs. At the same time, they forbade the founding of new monasteries, while the repair and maintenance of old ones entailed a forbiddingly costly permit.

In the difficult period that ensued, of the 1000 monasteries of 1645 only those that could meet the demands of the new conquerors managed to survive.

As early as their first year of invading the island (1645), for purely political reasons, the Ottomans restored the Orthodoxy hierarchy in Crete and the CretanChurch was reconnected with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which wasted no time and placed numerous Cretan monasteries under its protection, by giving them the title of stavropegic establishments.

This privilege, which lasted throughout the first Ottoman occupation period (1645-1821), allowed Cretan monasteries to thrive economically and the monastic population increased. However, most monasteries were destroyed or damaged during the Cretan liberating struggles (1821-1898).

It was only when Crete came under Egyptian Administration (1831-1841) that churches and monasteries could be freely repaired.

Even after Crete went back under Ottoman Administration (1841) though, a more lenient policy for the monasteries seems to have prevailed until 1851.

This policy was consolidated with the Halepa Pact (1878) and the full recognition of religious freedom on the island.

With the onset of the Cretan Autonomy Period (1898-1913) the status of Cretan monasteries seemed to be clearer. They were all ruled by the laws and regulations of the CretanState and, later, the GreekState (1913 to date), in consensus with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Crete.

Church Architecture on Crete

Visitors to Crete will be surprised by the number of churches they encounter even in the most remote and inaccessible parts of the island.

Many of these sacred places were retreats for monks who chose an ascetic life.

They are all exceptional samples of architecture combining local tradition with Byzantine church construction and architecture.

Usual church types found on Crete are related to the prevailing architectural trends at any given period affecting church construction in the Orthodox Christian world.

The Aisled Basilica in its simpler form is the prevailing type encountered, particularly in rural Crete.

This type survived as a continuation of the early Christian basilica, with certain alterations in response to the evolution of the mass.

The Basilica with a Cupola developed from the early Christian basilica; a cupola is used to cover the central part of the church. This type of church appeared in Justinian times (527-565) and its best example is Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The sense of infinity is enhanced by the cupola, which attracts people’s eyes upward and favours the vertical dimension as opposed to the horizontal of the aisled buildings, suggesting the notion of the infinite universe inhabited by God.

The Cruciform roof type was created in the 13th century.  It is a cupola-covered church with one or three aisles, the longitudinal arch or arches of which are interrupted by a raised transversal arch, so that the roof looks like a cross. There are three basic variations, i.e., with a one-apse floor plan, with a free-cross floor plan and with a three-aisle floor plan.

Along with the development of church construction design, as early as the 6th century, the church iconography motifs also evolved, based on the view that the church is a miniature representation of the universe.

Icons extol the significance of the Incarnation of the Word (the Logos), through which human salvation is realised.

The cupola is decorated with the Pantocrator (the Almighty) as an expression of the triune Godhead. The apse presents Mother Mary, either alone or holding the baby Christ, as the expression of the Incarnation of the Word, and in the higher parts of the church there are scenes from the main gospel stories confirming the realisation of the Incarnation, as well as the depiction of the Dormition of Theotokos.

Through the Incarnation, the saints depicted in the lower parts of the church have acquired the ability of divine vision (Theassis), which the congregation may also acquire.

Cretan Shrines

Visitors to Crete will be surprised by the large number of shrines, unique in number and versatility, encountered when travelling along the island routes.

The origin of shrines vividly reflects the long tradition of deeply-rooted religious attitudes among the Cretan population.   The tradition is as ancient as the Minoan Peak Sanctuaries. This means that pre-Christian folk beliefs and rites have survived in a most vivid manner, and were incorporated in the tradition of Orthodox worship.

Generally speaking, there are three major categories of shrines.

The first one concerns those outside residences, which are like small-scale private chapels and in most cases the only reason for their existence is to express the residents’ faith; such shrines are usually dedicated to the patron saint of the family.

The second category are shrines scattered around various spots of the countryside, as a votive oblation expressing a believer’s faith or gratitude to the Saint who responded to their prayer and made their wish come true.

The third and largest category of Cretan shrines concerns those built along roads at points where motor accidents happened. In this case, the shrine dedicated either to the saint that protected the accident victims, or, in case of fatal accidents, they are small tombs to commemorate the victims. Most shrines contain votive oil lamps, the icon of the Saint they are dedicated to as well as a photograph of the deceased.

Byzantine Icon Painting

Byzantine painting developed very early on in the broader Hellenic territory. This development is documented by both written sources and samples of the symbolic iconography preserved dating from the earliest Christian era.

Indeed, particularly from the 6th century onwards, an adequate number of portable icons and mosaics with iconographic representations have been preserved, a fact that verifies the swift spread of Byzantine iconography.

Icons preserved since the 8th and 9th centuries are intensely influenced by Anatolia and the echo of earlier monuments from Cappadocia. In the 11th century, iconography evolved with frescoes, xerography, portable icons and exquisite mosaics, which are preferred because they are more luxurious and impressive.  Their colours are better and more intense, the facial expressions better studied and their expressive power is solemn and imposing.

Byzantine icon painters try to depict the deeper meaning and spiritual essence of the iconographic composition rather than the external feature of their subject. In other words, Byzantine period icon painters pay no attention to natural aspects; what they aim at is to make the divine and celestial accessible, to raise the earthly to the level of the immaterial world of the Kingdom of God and to express what is inexpressible for human speech.

(Source: the essential features of Byzantine Iconography by Dr. Theocharis Michael Provatakis, from the website of the Holy Archdiocese of Crete).  

The Cretan School of Iconography

Theophanes the Cretan

A major icon painter of the 16th century and among the main representatives of the CretanSchool.

Theophanes was taught how to paint icons on the island. We come across him at Meteora, in the Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas 1527, according to the sign on his first work representing the saint. In 1535 we find him on Mt.Athos, at the Holy Monastery of Megisti Lavra, where he had settled with his sons and decorated the Catholicon (main church) of the monastery.  In 1543 he settled in a cloister cell at Karyes, the capital of Mt.Athos community; with the cooperation of his son Symeon or Simonis, he painted the mural of the Catholicon church of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikitas in 1545-46.

After many years of work on Mt.Athos, Theophanes left the peninsula and at the end of 1558 he returned to his home city, Khándax (rabḍ al-ḫandaq ‘Castle of the Moat’ – present-day Herakleion). He died on the very day he made his will, on February 24, 1559.

Angelos Akotandos

Angelos Akotandos lived and worked in Khándax (rabḍ al-ḫandaq ‘Castle of the Moat’ – present-day Herakleion), when the city was under Venetian rule.

The period of his artistic activity is dated between 1425 and 1450, when he died. He signed his works with the words «Angelos’ hand» [meaning also angel’s hand, in Greek). He is considered to be the first Byzantine icon painter to have done so. His icons are characterised by the coexistence of aspects of the painting school of Constantinople (it is quite probable that he worked as an apprentice to Constantinople painters) with eclectic elements adopted from Venetian painting.

Pride of place among Angelos Akotandos’ works is taken by the icons of St. Phanourios, some of which present him slaying the dragon, bearing great similarity with those of St. George’s.  More than likely, the specific choice made by Angelos followed a miracle, when St. Phanourios intervened to liberate three Cretan men from the Ottomans.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Domenikos Theotokopoulos

Domenikos Theotokopoulos  (1541April 1614), also known by the Spanish annomination El Greco, i.e. the Greek, was a painter, sculptor and architect .

He was probably born in 1541 in Khándax, (rabḍ al-ḫandaq ‘Castle of the Moat’ – present-day Herakleion), when the city was under Venetian rule. He lived most of his life away from Crete; he created the main body of his work in Italy and Spain.

He received his initial training in icon painting in Crete, and later travelled to Venice.

El Greco’s early creative period includes the works he painted in Crete and in Venice; for many of them it is difficult to determine whether they were concluded in Khándax or the Italian city. The technique and style of the icons include post-Byzantine elements, but original features are not absent; for example, there is hardly any depiction of the third dimension and perspective depth and colours are intense.

Theotokopoulos excelled in both religious compositions and portraits. A large number of his portraits, mainly of personalities in his immediate environment, have been preserved.

In Italy he was influenced by masters of the Italian art, such as Tintoretto and Titian – whose apprentice he was – and adopted aspects of mannerism. In 1577 he settled in Toledo, where he lived until to the end of his life and composed some of his best known works.

His Italian paintings followed the Renaissance style of the 16th century, particularly in regard to the depiction of light or colour emphasis, shifting away from Byzantine traditions and adopting a different technique and some mannerism elements.

In 1577 Greco’s presence is recorded in Spain. His workshop peaked in the1600-1607 period; as of 1597 his son worked with him and his name is mentioned in several documents of the time.

El Greco died on  7 April, 1614 and was initially buried in the church of Santo Domingo in Toledo.  In 1619, his son transferred his remains to the church of San Torcuato, which was later demolished.

The inventory El Greco’s son prepared after the painter’s death included 143 completed canvases, 45 plaster or clay models, 150 drawings, 30 retable drawings, as well as 200 engraving works.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Emmanuel Tzanes

Emmanuel Tzanes (Rethymnon, 1610Venice, 28 March 1690), also known as Bunialis, was not only a painter but also a lyricist and author of holy masses.

His earliest preserved work dates back to 1636. There is an excellent icon of Saint Spyridon, on display at Correr Museum in Venice which bears his signature «Made by Emmanuel, a priest of Tzane». In the same year he was an apprentice painter he had also been ordained priest. When the Cretan War started, he was still in Crete and he probably left the island after Rethymnon had been conquered by the Ottomans in 1646.

In April 1648 he was on Corfu.

The study of works of the Cretan and Corfiot periods leads to the conclusion that Tzanes was already a competent and prolific painter long before moving to Venice.

Most dated icons painted by Emmanuel Tzanes date to his Venetian period (16581690).

Emmanuel Tzanes is particularly competent in depicting luxurious Italian cloths and embroidered materials. The same is true of the faces he paints; he emphasises morphologic or anatomic features, such as the hair arrangements or veins. The majority of his work is distinguished by the solid structure of his compositions, the steadiness of his drawing, his skill in depicting details and his careful choice of colours.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Michael Damascenus

Michael or Michelis Damascenus was born around 1530-35 in Khándax (rabḍ al-ḫandaq ‘Castle of the Moat’ – present-day Herakleion), when the city was under Venetian rule.

He is probably the most important painter of the CretanSchool.

He was taught the art of icon painting at the School of St. Catherine’s Monastery [Santa Katarina] of Mt.Sinai.

At the age of 32 years (1577-1582) he worked in Venice, where he became familiar with artistic trends of the time. He was a member of the Greek brotherhood of Venice from 1577 to 1582. His works are excellent examples of the wonderful combination of Byzantine icon painting with painting techniques of the West and Renaissance art.

He has also numerous works scattered in various collections, from Saint George’s church in Venice and the Byzantine Museum of Athens to the Byzantine Collection at Catherine’s Monastery [Santa Katarina] of Mt. Sinai, where six of his most important paintings are on display; these belonged to Vrondisi Monastery, in the workshop of which he seems to have worked for a long time.

A typical feature of Michael’s works is the rosy flesh tones. He created volume with a few brush strokes. In some icons, rich free light echoes older works. Damascenus often uses secondary western features, even in these works, without disrupting the unity of the work.

His work greatly influenced later painters. Iconography types he introduced became exceptionally popular and were copied until the middle of the 18th century.

Thanks to Vrondisi Monastery some of the most representative icons by the great Cretan painter Michael Damascenus have been preserved. These paintings were at the historic monastery until 1800. Gerasimos, the then Metropolitan of Crete, recognised the great artistic value of these icons and transported them to St. Minas, at Megalo Kastro (present-day Herakleion).  The icons remained at St. Minas’ church for almost two centuries. Around1970 they were transported to the Display Premises of Icons and Heirlooms of the Holy Archdiocese of Crete, at St. Catherine’s church.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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