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Crete TOURnet: Home Crete Guide Churches in Crete Frescoes

Frescoes

The donor of Agios Georgios Church in Kato Floria
The donor of Agios Georgios Church in Kato Floria
The frescoes of the Byzantine churches of Crete have undergone years of neglect and abuse from human and natural elements. The churches were allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that their roofs and walls have not only leaked, damaging the frescoes, but have completely collapsed in in some cases. The years of occupation took their toll also, and many eyes have been gouged out by Turkish bullets or knives, followed by wholescale destruction during the Second World War. The natural decline of the paintings over the years (a thousand in some cases) is also to be expected. However, even taking into consideration all these factors, there is still a great deal of pleasure for anyone who tracks down these frescoes throughout Crete, as some of the remaining ones are among the most beautiful to be seen anywhere in the world. The natural surroundings of the small chapels only enhances their beauty when one understands the philosophy of Byzantium that no place was to be neglected in honouring God.
The Byzantine church painter was very much influenced by cultural factors, especially after the Ecumenical Council of 787 A. D. The decision had been taken that Christ could be painted in the churches because He had, after all, taken a human form to save Mankind. The characters in the frescoes have the appearances of the emperors and courtiers--bearded, wearing fabulous jewelled robes and holding ornate jewelled religious articles. This is all in keeping with the philosophy that the saints were the courtiers of God, and therefore, in depicting them thus, the painters were honouring God.
Another cultural belief that is apparent in the frescoes is the theme of torment or mutilation. It was considered far more honourable in Byzantine culture to mutilate prisoners than to kill them and frescoes depicting the torturous punishment of the damned beside sensitive nativity scenes were quite acceptable.
There are very few frescoes from the first Byzantine period remaining. An exception is in the church of Agios Nikolaos in Agios Nikolaos, Mirabelo, Lassithi, where under the present frescoes, other frescoes showing geometric patterns, traditional in churches painted during the Iconoclast period when pictures in churches were forbidden, have been found.
Many of the basilicas are from the first Byzantine period but few show even traces of frescoes. Therefore most of the frescoes the visitor will see are of the second Byzantine period, that is after 936 A.D. and most are from an even later period, the fourteenth century.
During the Venetian occupation the Venetians did not bother the Greek churches and although the Cretans did not have the money to build magnificent structures they did embellish the insides of their chapels with rich frescoes. The quality of these frescoes greatly improved after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Many of the scholars and artists took refuge in Crete where they developed the Cretan School of painting, characterized by a blend of Renaissance and Byzantine art techniques, the result being more humanistic features in the frescoes, such as expression of emotion and character in the faces and the clothing was contoured to the body rather that falling straight. The gestures were much more detailed and expressive. The themes of the frescoes did not change greatly, except that the scenes now became framed in a bright red colour.
The Byzantine painter was governed by rules that applied to much larger churches, that is churches with a dome and large wall space for painting. The church itself was a symbol of the universe with heaven and earth being governed by the Almighty (the Pantocrator). In large churches the Pantocrator is in the dome but in the smaller chapels he looks down from the conch (the small section above and behind the altar). The Pantocrator has many different appearances as he views the universe. He may be severe, compassionate, awesome or indifferent. Below him in the apse are the saints and evangelists and occasionally the Virgin Mary seen between heaven and earth in her position as interceder.
In the upper part of the church, starting on the Pantocrator's left and going across the vaulted ceiling criss-cross fashion to the back (west end) of the church and ending on the right of the Pantocrator, were scenes of Christ's life and the saints'. During the first Byzantine period these frescoes represented the main festivals of the church, arranged chronologically as to their timing in the calendar year as opposed to historical time. In the second Byzantine period these themes expanded to include the major events of Christ's life interspersed with scenes of the life of the saint to whom the church was dedicated.
The west wall (opposite the Pantocrator) was reserved for Crucifixion scenes and, later of the Second Coming, scenes from hell and the Raising of the Dead from the sea.
The lower part of the church traditionally had full length frescoes of the saints and sometimes the military saints (Agios Georgios and Agios Dimitrios).
Later additions to the rear wall were the donor of the church and his family, usually represented with a model of the church in his hands, other saints, a narrative tableau and occasionally medallions with saints' heads.
Some of the themes that are still easily recognizable in the Byzantine churches of Crete are:
1. Punishment of the Damned is not hard to recognize as they usually involve grotesque scenes of torture and, as mentioned, are on the back wall.
2. Lazarus rising from the dead is recognized by the bound figure of Lazarus in an upright coffin, giving the appearance that he is standing.
3. The Nativity, characterized by the presence of an animal (ox or ass), a cradle and child and the reclining Virgin Mary.
4. The Last Supper.
5. Christ's Baptism, characterized by Christ in the river Jordan surrounded by fish and the impressive figure of John the Baptist.
6. The Dormition of the Virgin depicts Mary lying serene and beautiful in death surrounded by saints with Christ behind her, cradling her soul (a baby) in his arms.
7. The donor and his family can be recognized as they are on the back wall and do not have a halo, as do not any other lay people represented.
8. Haloed Saints (on the lower part of the church) are usually flat two-dimensional characters that face forwards with dangling feet, as if they are floating. These saints are always fabulously dressed being as they were thought of as courtiers of God.
9. The Crucifixion. The early Byzantine frescoes represented Christ as a spiritual figure, whereas the later frescoes shows a suffering Christ and an agonising Mary.
Many of the frescoes' painters are unknown and although some frescoes may be signed, little is known about the painters themselves. An exception to this is Ioannis Pagomenos, who painted many churches in the Chania prefecture. He is buried in the chapel of Agios Nikolaos in Maza and is known to be one of the more humanitarian painters of this era. Many of his works can be appreciated in the Selino area (southeast of Chania). Another known painter is Manuel Fokas who painted in the Pediada area of Iraklion.

Photos of Frescoes:


A fresco depicting hell, in Agios Ioannis Church in Axos
A fresco depicting hell, in Agios Ioannis Church in Axos
The fresco of Agios Nikolaos by Ioannis Pagomenos in Agios Nikolaos Church, Moni
The fresco of Agios Nikolaos by Ioannis Pagomenos in Agios Nikolaos Church, Moni
A fresco in Agios Georgios Church in Koustogerako (graffiti dated 1507)
A fresco in Agios Georgios Church in Koustogerako (graffiti dated 1507)
A fresco (dated 1455) by Emmanuel and Ioannis Fokas, Agios Konstantinos Church, Avdou
A fresco (dated 1455) by Emmanuel and Ioannis Fokas, Agios Konstantinos Church, Avdou
A fresco in the Panagia Church, Drakonero
A fresco in the Panagia Church, Drakonero
The donors of Michael Archangelos Church, Kavalariana
The donors of Michael Archangelos Church, Kavalariana
Christ washing the Apostles' feet fresco in the Panagia Church in Kamariotis
Christ washing the Apostles' feet fresco in the Panagia Church in Kamariotis
The Dormition of the Virgin Mary fresco in Agios Ioannis Church, Deliana
The Dormition of the Virgin Mary fresco in Agios Ioannis Church, Deliana
The rear wall of  the Panagia Church in Agia Paraskevi
The rear wall of the Panagia Church in Agia Paraskevi
The Last Supper fresco in the Panagia, Smiles
The Last Supper fresco in the Panagia, Smiles
The Last Supper fresco in Agios Georgios Church, Vathiako
The Last Supper fresco in Agios Georgios Church, Vathiako
The Christ's Baptism fresco in the Panagia Church in Lambiotes
The Christ's Baptism fresco in the Panagia Church in Lambiotes
The 14C Crucifixion fresco, Agios Antonios Church, Avdou
The 14C Crucifixion fresco, Agios Antonios Church, Avdou
The Nativity fresco in Agios Ioannis Theologos Church in Margarites
The Nativity fresco in Agios Ioannis Theologos Church in Margarites
The frescoed arch in the Panagia Church in Demblohori, Mourne
The frescoed arch in the Panagia Church in Demblohori, Mourne
A fresco of John the Baptist in Agios Ioannis Church, Axos
A fresco of John the Baptist in Agios Ioannis Church, Axos
The donor of Agios Georgios Church in Kato Floria
The donor of Agios Georgios Church in Kato Floria