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Wall painted churches of Crete

On Crete there survive more than 800 wall painted Byzantine churches; they are an invaluable religious, cultural and artistic treasure.

Description

Hundreds of wall-painted churches have survived in Crete today interspersed in rural areas in the interior of the island. The first attempt for their systematic study is owed to the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Gerola (1935), who listed 809 churches. In the early 20th century most of them stood in quite good condition, some had fallen down and in others most of the wall paintings had been damaged. More recent studies increased the original number; at present some 900 churches have been located, decorated with wall paintings dating form the 12th to the early 16th century. The wall-painted churches of Crete are not all of the same architectural type. There are small one-aisled churches, two-aisled and three-aisled basilicas, cruciform churches with a dome and cross vaulted churches. From a historical and religious point of view these churches reflect the political and religious situation having prevailed in Crete from the beginning of the second millennium after Christ up until the 17th century, when religious art on the island reached its peak of development. The flourishing time of Cretan painting art has become known through excellent works and prominent figures not only of the Greek but also of the world painting art; renowned among them is Domenicus Theotocopoulos (El Greco). Although these churches were decorated with wall paintings during a period when Crete was under Venetian Rule (1204-1669), the art is of pure byzantine style and indicates the strong influence of Byzantium as much upon art as upon people’s religious lives.

Responsibility

The wall-painted churches of Crete, as religious buildings, belong to the Church of Crete and more precisely to the nine Metropoles that comprise the Cretan Church. Responsible for their function as such are the priests and the parochial councils (usually there is one village per parish). However, involved in their function as monuments is the Greek Ministry of Culture and the two Ephorates of Byzantine Antiquities based on Crete, one in Heraklion and the other in Chania.

Role

The wall-painted churches of Crete are monuments with multiple meanings. They are works of exceptional art depicting the holy figures of the Orthodox Church in a metaphorical sense, taking into consideration not the beauty of the body but the charms of the soul. Moreover, they have played an active role in the construction of the national, cultural and religious identity of the population. Through the ages churches have served religious purposes and have always been flocked by the faithful Christians of each area, just like today. They are not church museums but sacred places belonging to the local Church and functioning even today, sometimes systematically (every Sunday) and at other times occasionally (on the patron saint’s feast day). Through the wall paintings, people come in direct contact with the religious art of past times, get familiar with it, perceive and interpret it. The wall paintings do not depict only figures but entire scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary or other saints. The narrative representations have an educational role and are means of transmitting the faith and morals of the local societies. The western walls of many churches are covered with representations of Hell with deep folklore significance.

Potential usability

The wall-painted churches scattered throughout the Cretan countryside constitute a cultural and religious wealth offering unlimited possibilities of exploitation. Their dispersion all over the island favours the designing of cultural routes for special groups of visitors, scholars wishing to study the byzantine painting, students, tourists with relevant interests and the general public. These itineraries can be combined with other monuments, such as monasteries, fortresses, archaeological sites and other attractions. The Greek Ministry of Culture has fostered the preservation of dozens of wall-painted churches; some of them are significant attractions for both local and foreign visitors, such as, for example, the Church of Our Lady in Kritsa, Aghios Nikolaos, or the convent of Kardiotissa in the municipality of Chersonesos. Further exploitation will contribute substantially to the development of the whole inland; there is no province or municipality lacking such religious monuments.


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