03 September 2017

The Museum of Christian Art
in Iraklion displays Crete’s
most important icons

The new Museum of Christian Art opened in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in 2015 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Summer brought not just the usual annual visit to Greece, but in fact two visits this year, one to Crete and the other to Athens.

The stories of Greek poverty and the conditions of many people in Athens and in rural Greece are as sad and as depressing as they are reported in world’s English-language media. But in recent years, the Greek government has invested wisely in many of its cultural sites and museums, and during my summer stays I visited many of these museums, including the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, the new museum at the monastery of Arkadi, and the rejuvenated Museum of Christian Art in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion, the capital of Crete.

Tourists and visitors to Crete who are interested in history and archaeology are mainly attracted to the Minoan Palace at Knossos, outside Iraklion, and the Iraklion Archaeological Museum. But the museum at Saint Catherine’s Church is a hidden gem, found in a quiet square in the side streets of the city, nestling beneath the shadows of Saint Minas Cathedral.

Christ Pantocrator … a fragment from a 13th century mural in the Church of the Archangel Michael in Preveliana in central Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The church was probably built in the 13th century or even earlier as a metochion or autonomous ‘embassy church’ of the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. From the 15th century on, this unique church was at the centre of academic and cultural life in Crete, and was associated with some of the greatest writers, poets and artists who brought together the worlds of Byzantium and Venice for the best part of two centuries.

Many of the artists and writers here worked comfortably in Italian and Greek contexts, giving their productions a flavour that is unique. The influence of this school on iconography throughout the Orthodox world is incalculable, and it has influenced Western art through one of its best-known pupils, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), better known as El Greco.

A 14th century icon of Christ Pantocrator from the Church of the Virgin in Gouves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Iraklion was known to the Venetians as Candia, and was one of the last outposts of the Venetian Empire in the East Mediterranean. When the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1669, the academy came to an end, and like many churches in Crete at the time Saint Catherine’s was converted into a mosque.

When Turkish rule came to end, Saint Catherine’s was reclaimed by the Orthodox Church, but the stump of the minaret can be seen against the north wall, and the steps inside the minaret can be seen from the chapel on the north side of the church. But the Church of Saint Menas, and later the Cathedral of Saint Menas, in the square beside Saint Catherine’s, allowed the old church to become a museum of Cretan icons.

An early 15th century portable icon of the Deesis from the Church of the Angels, Geraki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In recent decades, Saint Catherine’s was closed to facilitate its refurbishment and after a seven-year closure it has reopened as a magnificent, modern museum of Christian art, managed by the Educational and Cultural Foundation of the Archdiocese of Crete.

This unique museum is a testament to the Orthodox heritage of Crete, and is home to some of the most important works of art created in Crete. The principal exhibits are Cretan icons from a long period of many centuries. There are fragments of frescoes, wood carvings, icon screens, episcopal thrones, paired sanctuary doors, sacred vessels, processional crosses and works in silver, church vestments and garments, golden embroidery, stone sculptures, illuminated and miniature Gospels, books and manuscripts. Careful scholarship has been deployed to provide critical and contextual explanations, supported by interactive, audio-visual and multimedia presentations.

Venetian conquest

The Adoration of the Magi, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Artistic developments in Crete were interrupted with the Venetian conquest of 1211, and for some decades the island was isolated from the artistic centres of the Βyzantine Empire.

After a century of bloody uprisings, a treaty between Venice and the Cretan rebels of Alexios Kallergis in 1299 guaranteed the religious freedom of the Orthodox people on the island. Although Venice persisted in trying to force a union of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, these freedoms and guarantees allowed a new development in fresco painting and icon writing in Crete.

The Last Supper, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

From the beginning of the 14th century, the ideas of the Palaiologan Renaissance began to influence wall-painting in Orthodox churches in Crete. The new style was characterised by plasticity, given by the contrast of light and shadows, vividness and expressiveness in movement, bright colours, complex compositions and a three-dimensional treatment of space.

The work of icon-writers received a fresh stimulus in Crete at the end of the 14th century with the arrival of artists from Constantinople. At the same time, Western art was beginning to have its influence through the Venetian presence, and this fresh development of the arts in Crete was supported by growth in trade on the island and the rise of a prosperous and well-educated bourgeoisie.

‘Noli me Tangere’, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

From the 15th century, a unique style of icon-painting developed and came to be known as Cretan School of Painting. A number of key painters emerged at this time, including Angelos Akotanto (died 1450), Andreas Ritzos (1421-1491), Theophanes Strelitzas (died 1559), also known as Theophanes the Cretan, Mikhail Damaskinos (1535-1593) and his pupil, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco).

They created their own artistic language in the icon-painting, and they influenced and inspired the generations of icon-writers who followed. They worked with such fluency in both the Byzantine and the Italian styles that their icons may have brought a decline in wall-painting and frescoes, which also lost their inspiration after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The fall of Byzantium

The Divine Liturgy, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

With the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Venetians and Cretans found a new common ground in their resistance to Turkish Empire. Western innovations mingled with the Byzantine tradition in a creative manner that was expressed in the unique styles of art and architecture in Crete.

As the reputation of the Cretan painters spread, so the demand for their works increased. Over 100 painters, organised in unions, lived and worked in Iraklion. Their clients included the great Orthodox and Catholic monasteries, noble families, wealthy merchants and the prosperous traders and merchants.

The Burning Bush, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

They were particularly associated with the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai, part of the richest and largest monastery in Crete, with over 100 monks and up to 150 icon painters.

In the late 16th century, George Klontzas, Mikhail Damaskinos and other painters in Crete, strongly influenced by the trends in Italian mannerism, began experimenting in new ways of representing their themes, and brought the influence of Renaissance painting.

The First Council of Nicaea, by Mikhail Damaskinos, 1591 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Damaskinos travelled to Venice at a time when painters such at Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto reached their creative peak. He also worked in Messina in Sicily before returning to Crete in 1583 to create works that marry Byzantine and western values.

He worked in the period that was most productive culturally in Crete. Highly-skilled and educated, he could easily paint in both the Byzantine and the Western style. The icons on display in the new museum include six important works by Damaskinos that are marked by his acute attention to detail: the Adoration of the Magi; the Last Supper; ‘Noli me Tangere’; the Burning Bush; the First Council of Nicaea; and the Divine Liturgy.

The influence of western art can be seen in his secondary figures and in the details of his compositions. Sometimes they are expertly incorporated or gently assimilated into his general Byzantine iconographic scheme. But they are important elements and some of them are subtle reminders of the deeper content or intelligent comments on the theological meaning of his subject.

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist, from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, Anopolis (1670) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Execution of Saint John the Baptist, an early 18th century icon from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, Anopolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In this setting, Damaskinos trained his best-known pupil, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, later known as El Greco. The few surviving examples of El Greco’s early work in Crete include his icon of the Dormition of the Virgin, now in Syros, and his icon of Saint Luke painting the Virgin. They illustrate the impact of the tradition founded by Angelos on those who worked in the second half of the 16th century.

Around 1600, the Cretan painters returned to the 15th century archetypes. Italian influence was reduced and western patterns were transformed into Byzantine schemes.

Ottoman occupation

Saint John the Theologian and Prochoros, an early 18th century icon from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, Anopolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Candia was the first town the Venetians conquered in Crete, and it was the last city they left when it fell to the Ottoman Turks 450 years later, after a fierce resistance that lasted 21 years until 1669.

The fall of Candia brought an abrupt end to this flourishing cultural life in Crete, and the masters moved with their work to the Ionian Islands and Venice. But the tradition of icon-writing which was at its height in Saint Catherine’s, continued after the Turkish occupation of Crete. These later icons included works from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Anopolis, from 1670 until the early 18th century, including the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, the Execution of Saint John the Baptist, the Tree of Jesse, which is clearly inspired by Damaskinos, and Saint John the Theologian and Prochoros in the cave of the Apocalypse in Patmos.

The Tree of Jesse (1703), from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, Anopolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

However, the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai, once part of the largest richest monastery on Crete, was stripped of its icons and relics and was turned into a mosque, named the Zoulfikiar Ali Tzamisi, although it was known popularly as Haghia Katerina Djamé.

During the Turkish occupation, the people of Iraklion knew their city as Magalo Kastro (‘the Great Castle’). For many decades, the Church of Saint Mathew, another dependency of Mount Sinai, was the only Orthodox church to survive in Iraklion until the small Church of Saint Menas opened in 1739.

A new museum

The Cathedral of Saint Menas towers above the square in front of Saint Catherine and the Museum of Christian Art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The mosque at Saint Catherine’s was abandoned a few months after Crete was officially united with the modern Greek state in 1913, and in 1919 a decree was issued to return it to use as a church. From 1922 to 1935, it sheltered refugees who had arrived from Western Turkey, and by World War II it was in ruins. The Nazi occupiers used it as a machinery depot, petrol warehouse and car repair shop.

A Byzantine museum was housed in the church from the 1960s, but this closed in 2007. A new, modern museum was designed, with support from the Greek Ministry of Culture, and opened as the Museum of Christian Art in June 2015. Today, this is a showpiece museum, providing a complete picture of Church art and architecture in Crete from the 13th to the 17th century, and the collection in the museum spans a period up to the late 19th century.

But the church continues to function as a dedicated church, and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated twice a year in the Chapel of All Enlightened Saints of Crete in the north transept, on the first Sunday in July, when these saints are commemorated, and on 25 November, the feast day of Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai.

The Chapel of All Enlightened Saints of Crete in the north transept of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This feature was published in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory), in September 2017.

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