The Cretan Renaissance – Erotokritos – The Cretan School of Iconography

The Cretan Renaissance – Erotokritos – The Cretan School of Iconography

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Cretan Renaissance

In the first years of Venetian rule, life in Heraklion created conditions that fostered a significant cultural growth that persisted and was strengthened until the fall of Constantinople.

Many Byzantine scholars, foreseeing the danger of an Ottoman conquest, had already left for European cities (mostly in Italy). In Crete, they favored Heraklion and their influx boosted the city’s cultural development in all areas. The great spiritual and educational force behind this was the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Sinai. Large numbers of young citizens of Heraklion also traveled to Venice and other Italian cities to study. Gradually, the town of Heraklion absorbed the influences of the early Renaissance and established an independent, local, intellectual and cultural tradition – particularly for painters, poets, and dramatists. This Cretan intellectual creation is particularly visible in the later part of Venetian rule (1594-1669).


Erotokritos is a well-known lyric poem written by Vitsenco Kornaros and one of the most important examples of modern Greek speech. It was written in the period 1640-1660 and was one of the most powerful educational tools of Cretan popular culture. It depicts the most beautiful aspects of Cretan culture, praises all those qualities that form the basis of Cretan “leventia” and is one of the classics of modern Greek literature. The 10,000 verses of the poem refer to the love story of Erotokritos and Aretousa and at the same time describe important facts about the conditions and daily life of the time. It was first published in 1713 in Venice and since then has been regarded as a book about and for the Cretan psyche.

Cretan School of Hagiography

During the years of Venetian rule after the fall of Constantinople, Crete developed into one of the most important artistic centers of the Venetian territory. Around 1600, only in the city of Heraklion, which then had 20,000 inhabitants, there were more than 200 painters. Their works and fame spread far beyond the borders of the island and they were commissioned to decorate large monastic centers not only within Greece but also all of Orthodoxy in various countries. In this context, the “Cretan School” of painting was slowly established. Important icons and illustrated manuscripts traveled throughout the Venetian-occupied east and major orthodox monastic centers and cemented their presence.

The Cretan School of Painting created important works of art which today can be found in museums, monasteries, private and public collections and as a whole constitute a very important and special chapter in the history of art. Unfortunately, after two centuries of prosperity (16th & 17th) with the occupation of Heraklion (Candia) by the Turks, all this spiritual prosperity of the Cretan renaissance was violently interrupted. Important representatives of the Cretan School of Painting were Angelos (17th century), Damaskinos Michael (16th century), Theotokopoulos Domenikos (16th century), Theofanis Kris (16th century), and Klontzas Georgios, (17th century).

The exhibition of the collection of St. Catherine, which is housed in the katholikon of the monastery of St Catherine of Sinai and in the adjacent chapel, offers a great representation of the Cretan School of Painting. The collection includes icons, church utensils and books, manuscripts, wood carvings, and sculptures. The most important exhibits of the collection are the six icons of Michael Damaskinos which were transferred to Heraklion in the 19th century from the Monastery of Vrontisiou. These images (Adoration of the Magi, First Ecumenical Synod, Theotokos or Vatos, Do Not Touch Me, Last Supper and Divine Liturgy) will impress you with the richness of their iconographic and symbolic compositions. Unfortunately at this time, the exhibition is not open to the public and the church of St. Catherine is open only during its feast day.