04 September 2016

Finding the Venetian
legacy of Crete in
a mountain village

Maroulas is perched on a hilltop in the mountains above Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Crete is the largest and busiest of all the islands in Greece, and has been part of the modern Greek state for over a century. But Crete has inherited a mixed cultural legacy and in the town of Rethymnon, where I was staying again this summer, it is possible within a few narrow streets to come across, side-by-side, architectural and archaeological legacies from the Ottoman, Venetian, Byzantine, Roman and classical Greek periods.

The Venetians had a firm footing in Crete from the mid-12th century, and took a firm hold on the island during the Fourth Crusade and the fall of Constantinople in 1204.

They ruled Crete for more than 4½ centuries (1205-1669), when they built a string of defensive fortezzas along the northern coast, from the island of Gramvousa at the western end, through Chania, Soudha, Rethymnon, and Iraklion to Spinalonga at the eastern end of the island.

The Venetians knew Crete as Candia, and the island’s Venetian legacy also includes imposing and impressive churches, fountains, public squares and buildings and harbours – and even many family names. But the Venetian legacy can also be enjoyed in smaller villages in the mountains, above the busy towns and resorts.

Sleepy time capsules

Strolling through the narrow streets and Venetian arches of Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

One morning this summer, on the way to Elafonísi in south-west Crete, I stopped briefly in the small village of Élos, and was surprised to find the Byzantine Church of Saint John the Theologian, decorated with important early 14th century frescoes attributed to Ioannis Pagomenos, a well-known icon writer and painter from western Crete working in the Venetian period.

On another early morning, two of us took a short taxi up to the sleepy hilltop village of Maroulas in the mountains above Platanes, where I was staying on the edges of Rethymnon. Although Maroulas is just five minutes away, the twisting, corkscrew road winds its way up by mountain valleys and gorges and through some of the oldest olive groves in Greece.

The once-fortified hilltop town of Maroulas is at a height of 240 metres, perched on a lofty hilltop overlooking olive groves and valleys and looking out to the sea.

Unlike many villages in Crete, Maroulas has no one single main square. Instead, the village is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, with Byzantine churches and chapels, with ancient tombstones dating back to antiquity, old Venetian towers and mansions with decorated doors and stone mosaics, renaissance ruins, Ottoman fountains, and over a dozen old oil presses – and a hidden church with a double nave that is partly built into a cave.

Maroulas is like a time capsule, but still there are typical Greek village tavernas and cafés to help while away the time on a lazy summer day.

Although most of the buildings that attract visitors to Maroulas date back to the Venetian period, the discovery of arched burial chambers has led archaeologists to suggest that the area may have been inhabited since the Minoan period. Two cemeteries of the palatial period of the Minoan civilisation have been found in the area and are now on display in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.

Lost in legends

Maroulas takes its name from the well discovered by a shepherdess called Maroula (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

It is said that the village was originally named Amygdalea, but it was completely destroyed by a flood or earthquake. The first person to move back to the village was a shepherdess called Maroula, a form of Maria. According to tradition, while she was grazing her sheep in the area, she found a spring of cool drinking water. She moved into the village, and so it was named after her.

This natural spring water fountain at Vryssi was the main water source of the village, supplemented by rainwater collected in tanks. Although the water at the fountain is no longer drinkable, this is a quiet, shaded place to rest under a spreading plane tree.

Some archaeological finds show the village was inhabited in Roman, early Christian and Byzantine times, but the main buildings in the village date from the late Venetian period in the 16th and early 17th century, and the Ottoman period, from the 17th to the 19th century.

The Venetians built several tower houses throughout Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The place probably became a fortified town during the second Byzantine period, and continued to prosper after the Venetian invasions. After the Venetians took control of Crete, Maroulas became part of the castellated territories of the fortezza in Rethymnon in the 14th century. The Venetians built towers with battlements, tower houses and several mansions that display Venetian coats of arms on the arches and doors.

Many of the old Venetian mansions have battlements and typical Venetian doors and arches, some of them decorated with coats of arms or with humorous figures such as two welcoming hands.

During the first Venetian period, the houses of Maroulas became second homes in the cool mountains for the nobility of Rethymnon or were used as agricultural warehouses. The olive groves in the surrounding countryside were important for the local economy and the village had a large number of olive presses.

At one time, there were three towers in Maroulas. The first was probably built in the Byzantine period but has since collapsed. The second tower dates from the Venetian period, and stands by the cobbled street leading down to the fountain at Vryssi.

The largest Venetian tower house was restored in recent years and has become a symbol of Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The third tower is seen as the emblem of the village. This imposing tower was recently renovated. It is 14 metres high and has three floors. It was built sometime in the 15th and 16th centuries and served as an observation point and as well as the home of a Venetian noble. Using fire and smoke, the watchmen on the tower could communicate with the fortress at the fortezza in Rethymnon. The tower had holes from which the guards could spill burning oil or tar on their enemies below.

The main tower provides views across the countryside from Rethymnon to Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are other, smaller tower houses scattered through the village, many awaiting restoration. Later Venetian buildings were inspired by the works of the Venetian engineer Francesco Barozzi. They date from ca 1577, and have become known for their aesthetic and artistic features.

Churches in caves

Seven or eight churches are scattered through Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Seven or eight churches are scattered through the village and in the immediate surrounding hillsides. The main parish church was being repainted inside during an earlier visit last year. The smaller church next door has Byzantine fragments. The tiny chapel in the centre of the village has been locked and closed each time I have visited Maroulas.

The double Church of Aghios Nikolaos and Aghios Antonios has two naves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

One of the naves of the double church is built into the rock of a cave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Church of Aghios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) and Aghios Antonios (Saint Anthony), the oldest church in the village, was built in the 14th century into a rocky hillside that almost forms a cave. It is a twin church, or two inter-connecting churches, with two separate naves, and the north side of the church is built into the cave that forms part of its north and east walls. A low arch links the two naves, forming one church with two separate icon screens and sanctuaries.

The Venetian sarcophagus in the churchyard of the interconnecting twin churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Outside, in the church yard, a mediaeval sculpted sarcophagus with early Venetian decorations may be the tomb of an early benefactor of the church.

Inside Aghia Anna … a Venetian church behind the main tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Behind the main tower, the early Venetian Church of Aghia Anna (Saint Anne) has a plain interior, but when I visited it a few weeks ago swallows had nested in one of the roofbeams.

Beside it, the balcony of Taverna Katrina overlooks the plane below with breath-taking views to the fortezza of Rethymnon and the blue sea of the Mediterranean.

Ottoman innovations

The Metochi is a complex of surviving Ottoman Turkish buildings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Before the last parts of Venetian Crete fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1669, Turks had already started moving into Maroulas in 1630, and Maroulas became the country seat of Turkish officials who valued its strategic position and wealthy soil.

Crete was declared an Ottoman province in 1646, after the Ottomans conquered the western part of the island. But the Venetians held onto their capital Candia (present-day Iraklion) until Francesco Morisini surrendered the city in 1669. The offshore island fortresses of Soudha, Gramvousa and Spinalonga remained under Venetian rule until in 1715, when they too were captured by the Ottomans.

The Turks brought with them architectural elements from Anatolia, including fireplaces and chimneys, wells, hamams, fountains and cisterns and they used the main tower as an army base.

The Despotiko was the summer residence of the Archbishop of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Crete became autonomous in 1896, and the last Turks left Crete in 1923. For a short time in the 1920s, the main tower and many buildings Maroulas housed Greek refugees who had been expelled from Anatolia in western Turkey after the disastrous war between Greece and Turkey.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Archbishop Timotheos Veneris of Rethymnon used the 17th century Venetian house known as the Despotiko as his summer residence. It has a cobbled courtyard and a Venetian doorframe that is similar to the entrance to the fortezza in Rethymnon.

The Metochi, a massive complex west of the settlement has traces of Renaissance and Islamic architecture, including a Turkish hamam or bath. But the Metochi was partly destroyed during a Nazi bombardment in May 1941 and the main tower in Maroulas was abandoned around the same time.

A journey in time

Taverna Katrina offers a balcony view across the plains of Rethymnon and out to the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The population of the village began to fall after World War II and the Greek Civil War. In the 1960s and 1970s, young people left for the cities, leaving only the elderly behind. Many of the houses are still neglected or abandoned, and one taverna has been locked up for years, with all its furnishings and decorations decaying inside.

New hope came in 1985 when Maroulas was declared an “historic monument” for its historical monuments and houses.

The main tower was renovated and restored by the Municipality of Rethymnon in the mid-1990s, and in 1997 it was bought for the local community. Further restoration work was carried out in 2007-2013 under an EU-funded scheme to restore specific buildings of historical interest in both Greece and Cyprus.

Maroulas is coming back to life again today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Today, Maroulas is coming back to life. It has over 200 residents, there are children playing in the streets once again, and many of the old buildings have been restored by Greeks and by foreigners who have moved to live permanently in the village.

The village attracts many painters and photographers who find many themes here with the narrow alleys, old doors, door knobs and stone mosaics.

We lingered a little longer and sheltered in the shade in Milópetra, a café overlooking the village, sipping a frappe and a double espresso. As the early afternoon temperature soared to 42, there was no sea breeze to cool the summer air. We called a taxi, and on the way back down the winding twisting road to the coastline we were pointed to an olive tree that is said to be over 200 years old.

Our visit to Maroulas had truly been a journey in time, and we were soon back at Platanes and the coast.

An olive tree said to be over 200 years old in the olive groves below Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This featurews first published in September 2016 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

A belated introduction to the
icons of Leonid Ouspensky

The iconstasis and doors in the original chapel in Tolleshunt Knights are the work of Leonid Ouspensky and Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I find it startling to stand in front of great works of art that I have seen many times, and to realise for the first time that works I long appreciated are the work of great artists that I know of.

I was in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist on the edges of the village of Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex, last week, not to appreciate the icons but as part of a one-day pilgrimage organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies as part of the summer conference in Sidney Sussex College.

The monastery is a mixed community for monks and nuns, and was founded in the 1950s by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) (1896-1993). He was originally a painter, born in Tsarist Russia, who lived through World War I and the Russian Revolution, and developed a longing to devote his art to exploring the nature of Divine reality.

He emigrated first to Italy and then to Paris. There he painted before studying theology and finding a vocation to the monastic. He went to Mount Athos, where his spiritual director was Elder Silouan. Many years later, he moved to England and founded the monastery at Tolleshunt Knights.

Naturally, he wanted to see the monastery decorated in the Byzantine tradition. The living room in the old rectory was converted into a chapel, which I have visited many times.

But on Wednesday last [31 August 2016], I learned for the first time that the iconostasis or icon screen in this chapel is the work of two of the most important Russian émigré icon writers of the last century, Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky (1902-1987) and his friend and colleague, Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (1908-1969).

The doors of the iconstasis are the work of Leonid Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ouspensky, who painted the royal doors in the iconostasis, is known not only as an important artist and iconographer of the 20th century, but also for his seminal books on the theology of icons.

He was born in 1902 in northern Voronezh region, in the Russian village of Golaia Snova, now Golosnovka, where his father Alexander was a member of the local gentry. He went to school 70 km away in Zadonsk, returning home only for school holidays.

By 1917, while he was still in his mid-teens, the young Ouspensky had become a convinced atheist, travelling around schools and tearing down icons. In 1918 he enlisted in the Red Army, but following a severe attack of typhus he was discharged from the army, and found shelter with a cobbler and his family in Krasnodar.

When he recovered, he rejoined the Red Army Zhloba cavalry in the Caucasus in 1920, but he was trapped and captured in battle by a White Army unit. He was saved from a firing squad when a White Russian colonel sent him to an artillery unit.

He retreated with the White Army to Sevastopol and was evacuated to Gallipoli. From there he made his way to Bulgaria, where he worked in a salt plant, a vineyard, a quarry and a coalmine until 1926. Ofttimes he was often starving, and on one occasion he suffered temporary blindness caused by malnutrition.

He was then recruited to work in a factory Le Creusot in France. After he was severely burned in an industrial accident, he moved to Paris to work in a bicycle factory. Meanwhile, Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, Countess Tatiana Lvovna Sukhotina-Tolstaya (1864-1950), was instrumental in opening a Russian Academy of Arts in Paris in 1929, at which many well-known artists taught.

Already, Ouspensky had a love for painting and he enrolled in part-time classes in the academy. There he met the artist George Ivanovich Krug, who later became a monk as Father Gregory, and his future wife. The artists and students worked together and spent holidays at the summer villa of the artist Konstantin Andreyevich Somov in Normandy.

Ouspensky began earning a living by designing scarves for large fashionable shops in Paris, and he soon painted his first icon. However, once he had finished the icon he destroyed it, believing he had done something inappropriate. He gradually took a more serious interest in icons and developed a religious faith, leading to his return to the Church.

In time, with George Krug, Leonid decided to leave secular painting and to devote himself exclusively to icon writing. He began by taking lessons from the Russian iconographer Sergei Fyodorov, but did not have enough money to pay for lessons. Later, he would say that his real teachers were the antique Russian icons he found in Paris shops.

In the late 1930s, he followed George Krug and joined the Brotherhood of Saint Photius, a circle of Orthodox theologians, intellectuals, and artists in Paris. Each member of the Brotherhood worked in his own field. Vsevolod Palashkovski was a liturgist; Maxim Kovalevsky was a great and talented master of Church singing and a choir director; his brother, the future Archpriest Evgraf Kovalevsky, was a brilliant canonist; Vladimir Lossky was already a famous theologian; Georgii Ivanovich Krug and Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky were icon writers.

When the Germans marched into Paris in 1940, he was pressganged into working in Germany, but he went underground, and he continued to paint and restore icons in hiding.

In 1942, he married Lydia Alexandrevna Miagkov, and they returned to Paris in August 1944 after the German withdrawal. When a French theological institute, L’Institut Saint Denis, was founded in 1944, he taught the course in icon painting, and he continued to teach for the next 40 years.

In 1945, Leonid and Lydia applied to have their Soviet citizenship restored, and this was granted in 1946.

In 1948, he published L’Icone, Vision du Monde Spirituel, which was soon translated into Greek and published in Athens. In 1952, the book was published as The Meaning of Icons in collaboration with the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky.

When the Moscow Patriarchate began theological pastoral courses in Paris in 1954, Ouspensky taught the course on the theology of icons. This course led to his monumental Theology of the Icon written in collaboration with Vladimir Lossky and published in French in 1960, and in English in 1978. New versions were in French in 1980, in Russian posthumously in 1989, and in English in 1992.

Orthodox iconography had been in full decline since the 17th century, and Ouspensky set out to rediscover the genuine sources of Eastern Christian art and to recover the tradition surrounded Russian icons.

His books introduced Western readers to the spiritual and theological understanding of icons. He writes: ‘It is not the purpose of the icon to touch its contemplator. Neither is it its purpose to recall one or the other human experience of natural life; it is meant to lead every human sentiment as well as reason and all other qualities of human nature on the way to illumination.’

‘The entire visible world as depicted in the icon is to foreshadow the coming Unity of the whole creation, of the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost,’ he wrote.

Soon after he founded his monastery, Father Sophrony, who had also worked as an artist in Paris, invited Leonid Ouspensky and his friend Father Gregory to decorate the icon screen and the doors in the chapel in the old rectory in Tolleshunt Knights.

In 1958, Leonid and Lydia visited Russia for the first time since their exile in the 1920s. They became frequent visitors to Russia, and each visit to Russia was rich and unforgettable in its own way, providing opportunities for continuing first-hand research and the study of old icons.

In 1969, he was invited to lecture in the Sorbonne in Paris, and in 1969 he gave five lectures at the Theological Academy in Saint Petersburg – then Leningrad. The Russian Orthodox Church honoured him with the Order of Saint Vladimir before he died on 11 December 1987. He is buried in the Russian cemetery in Sainte Genevieve des Bois in the southern suburbs of Paris.

His monumental Theology of the Icon (Theologie de l’icóne), which has been translated into English, Italian, Greek, Romanian, and Polish, and posthumously into Russian, remains a major reference work and continues to be influential.

His icons, which are found in numerous churches, monasteries, chapels and cathedrals and in private collections, are characterised by their perfection of technique, purity of style, and depth of theological and spiritual expression. For Ouspensky and icon was not an aesthetic creation, but, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote, they were ‘a vision in lines and colours of the Divine World, and it pervaded, conquered, and transfigured the fallen world.’

The iconstasis in the original chapel in Tolleshunt Knights is the work of Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug and Leonid Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ouspensky’s friend and co-worker, Father Gregory (Krug) was an émigré Russian Orthodox priest and iconographer working in France in the 20th century and he too was involved in the Brotherhood of Saint Photius and in the renaissance of the Byzantine iconographic tradition.

Father Gregory was born George Ivanovich Krug in St Petersburg in 1908. His mother was Russian Orthodox Christian and his father was a Lutheran of Swedish origin, and he was raised in the Lutheran tradition.

After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family moved to Estonia and at the age of 19 George became an Orthodox Christian. He began studying art, first, in Tallin and then in Tartu, which was the intellectual and cultural hub of Estonia.

In 1931, he moved to Paris to continue his studies at the Academy of Art. He began his career as an iconographer when he studied with Sergei Fyodorov, Dimitri Stelletsky and Julia Reitlinger (Sister Jean).

In the late 1930s, Krug and Ouspensky joined the Brotherhood of Saint Photios along with Vladimir Lossky.

During World War II, Krug began to suffer from depression and was hospitalised. Helped by his spiritual father, he recovered enough to leave the hospital and became a monk at the Skete of the Holy Spirit, near Mesnil-Saint-Denis.

There he took the monastic name Gregory, and dedicated himself to writing icons and frescoes at the skete. He also painted frescoes in the Russian Patriarchal Cathedral in Paris, where he worked in collaborated with Leonid Ouspensky. They also worked together in the chapel in monastery in Tolleshunt Knights. Father Gregory died in 1969.

Father Gregory developed his own unique way of expressing the principles of Byzantine iconography, producing icons that are stylistically unique. His work is clearly rooted within the Byzantine iconographic tradition, and yet there is also something of a contemporary sort of quality to it as well.

Aidan Hart points out that his techniques include his use of darts of white highlights that float over a sea of uneven colour. He also used over-sized irises and pupils for his eyes to give an impression of tenderness, sadness devoid of sentimentality, and of a deep interior life.

Father Gregory’s icons stand above all for a marriage of freedom within and a deep respect for the Church’s iconographic tradition. His work an unhealthy type of fear that so easily leads to lifeless copying, yet respects the traditions of the Church.

The influence of Ouspensky and Father Gregory is also seen on the walls of the refectory in the monastery. These are decorated with frescoes and murals using oil and turpentine on plaster, to look like Byzantine frescoes, under the direction of Sister Maria, who had studied iconography in Paris with Leonid Ouspensky and Father George Drobot.

Looking out onto the world … a window in the chapel in the Old Rectory in Tollesuhunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)