If you happened to be a Byzantine Greek in 1453, it was not a good year. It was a disaster. In that year Constantinople, the chief city of the Eastern Orthodox world, the focus of Byzantine civilization, fell to the invading muslim Turks.
The news sent shock waves as far north as Russia, where the fall of Constantinople, known as Tsargrad — the “Emperor City” — was seen as a judgment from God. It was felt in ultra-conservative Russia that the Byzantines had been much too friendly with the Latin Catholic West, much too interested in some kind of reunification between the Orthodox and Catholic branches of Christianity. And so, the Russians decided, God had taken the crown away from Byzantium, and had bestowed it upon “Holy Russia,” which took on itself the title of “Third Rome.” The first Rome had fallen, the second Rome — Constantinople — had fallen, Russia was now the Third Rome, and as they said, “a Fourth there shall not be.”
People in the 1400s had been very worried, both in Byzantium and in Russia, because according to Eastern Orthodox belief, the world had been created in 5,508 B. C. And just as the world had been created in six days, and God rested on the seventh day, it was widely thought that the world would last no longer than seven “days” consisting of 1,000 years each — 7,000 years. That 7,000 years would be completed in the year 1492.
Some icon painters in Byzantium, however, had seen trouble coming, and had already moved to a safer place. And after the fall of Constantinople, others followed them. That safer place, that haven for refugee iconographers, was the island of Crete, which at that time was known, after the name of its chief city, as Candia. There the business of icon painting (and it was a business, make no mistake) could not only continue, but could flourish. It was safe because the Island was under the control of the Republic of Venice (in what is now Italy), which had taken it from the Byzantines in 1205.
Venetian control meant not only that the icon painter refugees from the Byzantine Empire could practice their craft in peace, but it also meant they had a ready-made market for religious art in the Catholic West, through the Venetian Republic, and further that through a kind of cultural interchange, Cretan iconographers were exposed not only to Italian religious art of the Gothic period, but also to the art of the blossoming Italian Renaissance. That gradually brought Italian influence and softness and feeling into Cretan iconography.
Before the fall of Byzantium, much emphasis had been placed on the art of mosaic, used to ornament the walls of churches. But mosaic — and its cheaper substitute fresco painting — are by nature largely immovable art forms, and on Crete, which relied heavily on sea trade, it was very important for religious art to be easily portable. It had to transported by ship, and in large quantity. So the focus in Crete was primarily on the painting of icon panels on wood.
When Venetian merchants sent their orders for new icons to Candia — and they ordered them by the hundreds — they told the iconographers just what they wanted, sometimes even down to the color of garments. But the major distinction in the ordering of icons was between two different styles of painting. Some icons, it was specified, should be painted in the Greek style, the Greek manner — the maniera greca, but also large numbers of religious images were ordered to be painted according to the prevailing taste of the Italians — in the maniera latina — the “Latin manner.” The Greek manner was the style customary in Greek orthodoxy, and the Latin manner was that preferred at the time by the Latin-using Catholic Church in Italy.
The Greeks, in spite of their historical and theological differences, felt much closer to the Catholic West than to the church-and-icon destroying Turks, and certain iconographic elements of Western theology even began to enter Greek Orthodox art.
The icon painters of Candia, of Crete, then, had no qualms about painting images for western Catholics along with painting for Eastern Orthodox customers. After all, painting was their livelihood. In fact one Cretan icon painter eventually gave up icon painting entirely and moved west, ending up in Spain, where he was called by his new countrymen “The Greek” — El Greco. But he still signed his paintings — no longer icons but a kind of mannerist religious art — in Greek.
In fact speaking of signing, it was the icon painters of Candian Crete who popularized the signing of icons with the name of the artist. And so today we still know who the painters of many of those Cretan icons were, something that cannot be said of most earlier icons.
The Cretan School of icon painting began flourishing in the second half of the 1400s. Some iconographers, as mentioned earlier, had already immigrated even before the fall of Constantinople; others came after.
Among the well-known earlier Cretan iconographers was Angelos Akotantos — Άγγελος Ακοτάντος –who signed his icons ΧΕΙΡ ΑΓΓΕΛΟΥ — Kheir Angelou — “The Hand of Angelos” — and died c. 1457-1450. Though borrowing some western motifs, his painting was largely conservative, preserving the Byzantine style favored in the 15th century.
Here is an example of his work — ΑΓΙΟC ΦΑΝΟΥΡΙΟC — Hagios Phanourios — “Holy Phanourios,” a warrior saint. Notice the red border around the outer edge, and bright gold background, both generally characteristic of Cretan School icons; the red outer border is also found in later Greek iconography.
Phanourios is a rather obscure saint. His veneration, which was prominent both on Rhodes and Crete, is completely dependent on the story that when the Turks ruled Rhodes, they wanted to rebuild the city walls, and began taking stones from ruined buildings for that purpose. As they did so, they supposedly came across a church, and digging within it they discovered several old and disintegrating icons. Among them, however, was one that looked bright and new, depicting a young warrior and scenes of his martyrdom, and the title read “Holy Phanourios.” And that slim tale — whether true or not — was enough to put him in the calendar of saints. Later he became known as a patron saint of finding lost objects, probably because his name is derived from φανερώνω — phanerono — meaning “I reveal.” A folk belief in Greek Orthodoxy is that to get Phanourios to help you find something, it is considered wise to bake a panouropita (phanouropita) — a “Phanourios cake,” and to have it blessed by a priest.
There were a number of other Cretan School painters whose names are known today, and their work, over time, increasingly showed the influence of art in Italy of that period.
The same trouble that had brought Constantinople to ruin, however, eventually came to Crete. The muslim Ottoman Turks fought the Venetians for control of the island from 1645-1669, and finally the chief city itself, Candia (now Iraklion) fell in 1669. Even before its fall, however, icon painters had begun leaving the island, some going northward into Orthodox strongholds where they resumed the more conservative maniera greca, and others going to Italy, where they continued working largely in the maniera latina.
By 1715, the island of Crete was completely under muslim Turkish control, but by then its once flourishing “school” of icon painting had come to an end.