Theophani's frescoes

Conforming to an old tradition, the most important monasteries of mainland Greece chose the best artists for their decoration. During the second half of the 16th century, monasteries seek the already renowned painters of Crete. At the same time, the Cretan painters develop a complete set of themes for the decoration of the churches, starting from the technique of portable icons, which they adapt to the exigencies of the monumental mural paintings.

The first Cretan who was asked to paint at the Saint Nicolaus Anapafsas monastery at Meteora, on 1527, is Theophanis Strelitzas, also known as Bathas (+1559). Eight years later Theophanis is a monk in the monastery of Lavra at Mount Athos. There he paints the nave of the monastery in a manner which became an exemplar for his successors.* The rules and aesthetic principles for the frescoes of the Cretan School are set.

Cretan art returns to the Palaeologeian standards of the 14th century, but it removes any lyric elements and imposes the austere, severe, well-balanced and rhythmically organised composition. Typical is a classicist monumental style of the erect figure, standing alone against a neutral dark background.** The garments are stiffly folded, but painted in rich colours. A noble refinement inspires the bearing, the posture and the gesture. Faces are modelled differently according to the age. Italian influences are implied by the frequent depiction of personalised facial characteristics and the sidelong glances towards the spectator. Illumination is internal and eerie, no specific light source can be identified. Late gothic and renaissance influences are apparent in the secondary compositions, but there is a constant effort to incorporate and adapt those new elements to the aesthetic principles of the orthodox tradition. Space is conventionally defined, without any obvious mistakes, but also missing any special care to render the perspective. Those serene scenes, with dogmatically faultless and time-honoured relations between human figures, buildings and landscapes portray an unshakeable truth. This lends to this art a classic character.

Theophanis, his sons, Symeon and Neophytos, and Cretan apprentices (notably Tzortzis) paint in Mount Athos, too, the nave and the refectory of Stavronikita monastery (1545-1546), the nave in Koutloumousiou monastery (1540), the refectory in Filotheou monastery (1540), the nave in Dionysiou monastery (1547), the naves in Dochiariou (1568) and Iviron monasteries. In Meteora, Metamorfossis monastery (1552), Megalon Pilon monastery (Dousikou, 1557), Rousanou monastery and the Cathedral of Kalambaka. Numerous portable icons in various Greek monasteries are attributed to Theophanis and his apprentices.***

Cretan painting was favoured by the supreme Church hierarchy and was almost imposed as the official form of orthodox art in many regions of Greece, particularly in monasteries. It spreads out in Macedonia, Moldavia, Wallachia, even in Georgia, where it merges with older schools and local traditions. Gradually, around the end of the 16th century, Cretan wall painting starts to repeat itself, loses its originality and creativity.

* The first fresco (Crucifixion, detail) is at the nave of Great Lavra monastery in Mount Athos and is a work by Theophanis (1535).

** The second fresco (Prophet Ezekiel) of Pantokrator monastery at Mount Athos is attributed to Theophanis (1535 - 1546).

*** The portable icons below, attributed to Theophanis, belong to a set of fifteen paintings (Dodekaorton) in Stavronikita monastery of Mount Athos. You can magnify them by clicking on them and being patient ...

(from the exhibition "Treasures of Mount Athos")

 

The Annunciation

The Raising of Lazarus

The Entry into Jerusalem

The Crucifixion

The Resurrection

The Assumption of the Virgin