Visitors to the National Gallery in London in the Spring of 2006 or to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in late 2005 who saw the Bellini and the East exhibition may remember, among several icons included in that show, a painting of similar type to no. 30 (see fig. a below)[see footnote 1]. The iconography originates from a frescoed icon in the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Rome and was introduced into the Cretan canon by Nikolaos Tzafouris in the 15th century. The Institute of Neohellenic Research/ National Hellenic Research Foundation describes Tzafouris (or Zafouris) as ‘An important Cretan painter of icons in which the preference for a micrographical rendering of the synthesis elements is often perceived. He worked in Irakleion and was a contemporary of Ritzos and Pavias. He also created new iconographical types of his own.’[see footnote 2] Examples of his work are widely known both within and outside Greece. See for example the New York Metropolitan Museum’s Christ Bearing the Cross (Bashford Dean Memorial Collection)[see footnote 3].
After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the iconographic and stylistic traditions of Byzantine art were continued in the new centres that gradually sprang up on the periphery of the empire in northern and central Greece, the Peloponese, on Crete and on other islands. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the island of Crete was undoubtedly the greatest centre of artistic activity and Chandakas-Candia (modern Iraklion) became the major centre of icon-painting. The island had come under the suzerainty of Venice in 1204, when Constantinople was sacked and occupied by the Crusaders. The economic prosperity of the large cities was accompanied by a flowering of arts and letters which was enriched by Cretan contacts with the Renaissance currents of Italy and Western Europe. The high cultural level attained by Crete was a decisive factor in the prestige and influence enjoyed by their painters. Such fame was not only in the Orthodox Balkans and the Near East but also in north and south Italy and on the Dalmatian coast and even further afield in Burgundy and in Flanders.
The number of Byzantine painters who migrated to Crete from as early as the fifteenth century was greatly increased after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Many enjoyed great renown and their icons were much in demand in Venice, elsewhere in Italy and in northern Europe. Painters such as Ritzos, Damaskinos and Tzafouris are thought to have employed as many as thirty assistants. The Ritzos family atelier survived through three generations. Later in the seventeenth century, after the fall of Crete, many important painters settled on the Ionian islands of Zakynthos, Kephalonia and Corfu. Links with the Greek community in Venice were strengthened in this period and some of the most important painters, such as Emmanuel Tzanes and Theodoros Poulakis, were invited to stay there.
It was in this milieu that Domenikos Theotokopoulos, later known to the world as El Greco (1541 – 1614), had been trained and acquired his mastery.
The Temple Gallery summer exhibition of 2006 also showed a Cretan icon of the same subject and of similar date (see fig b. below)[see footnote 4]. Another, attributed to Tzafouris, can be seen in the Byzantine Museum Athens (fig. c). The Bellini and the East catalogue points out that the gestures of both Christ and the Virgin, her expression and his garment decorated with gold highlights are all elements that originate in Byzantine art. The catalogue goes on to say that ‘the decorative patterns on the Christ Child’s chiton (tunic) are inspired by fabrics and paintings of the Italian trecento. Similarly the brooch fastening the Virgin’s maphorion (headscarf) in front of her chest is a common element of western art…This combination of Byzantine and western elements made this type of icon equally appealing to its two clienteles’. i.e. the Roman Catholic Venetians and the Greek Orthodox Cretans[see footnote 5]
The present example is a work of outstanding quality, superior to the comparative examples in the British Museum and in the Byzantine Museum, Athens that are cited here. These should be regarded as works done, or partly done, by assistants in his workshop or by talented imitators.
2. The programme aims to build up an archive of Greek painters after the fall of Constantinople (1450-1830), with biographical details and an index of their works, whether portable icons or church frescoes. A systematic record of artists and their paintings for this period has not been attempted in Greece before.