After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the center of Greek iconography moved to Crete – Candia, which became a refuge for icon-painters fleeing from the Turkish conquest. Between 1210 and 1669, Crete was under the rule of Venetian Republic that provided it with extensive trade connections and protection from Turkey. Many icons of that time were painted on commission from Catholic and Orthodox Christian countries and monasteries. The largest customers of the icons were Greek monasteries at Sinai, Athon and Pathmos. The fall of Constantinople increased interest in its culture in Italy, France, Flandria and Western Europe in general.
The Cretan iconography is usually classified into two basic artistic directions: “in maniera Latina”, based on the Venetian Gothic style, and “in maniera greca” following the Paleologian iconographic traditions. But in practice, these two directions were closely interwoven. Crete’s masters often signed their artworks; today we know some 240 names. At the same time, many icons by well-known artists were replicated owing to a great demand.
In the second half of the 15th century the Cretan iconography reached its peak of development. The artists appealed to the Constantinople icons of the 12th century, copying their themes and adding some new details. It was when Angelos Acatantos, Andreas Ritzos and Nicolaos Tzafouris created their icons. The first two artists followed the Byzantine artistic style; it is possible that Angelos came to Crete from Constantinople. On his icons the saints are depicted in enlarged monumental proportions in a universe where a specific source of light is absent; this feature along with a golden background makes an impression of spacelessness and timelessness of the event depicted on the icon. The colors are subdued and warm while the shape of the faces and figures are expressed through a play of light and shadow. Later on Angelos painted his icons in transparent and clear colors, bearing the traces of Italian Gothic art influence. A combination of these intensive colors creates an impression of all-pervading light of Byzantine icons. Angelos’s icons clearly convey Eschatological feelings but such sentiments are generally typical of icon-painting of that time. The fall of the empire and the earlier predictions of the Judgment Day that were made in 1492 (7000 since the Creation), along with hopes for unification of the Eastern and Western churches drove the artists to develop new iconographic themes. Among Angelos Acantantos’s other works are The Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple, Christ the Grape-vine and The Meeting of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The artworks of Andreas Ritzos continue Eschatological themes of his predecessor. A mixture of Byzantine and Italian artistic traditions manifests itself in the appearance of material features in the extraterrestrial universe of the icon. Ritzos was the famous master of semi-figured images of the Virgin with the Child seated on the throne. His works were imitated and reproduced by other Candian workshops.
Nicolaos Tzafouris’s icons combine features of the two artistic directions “in maniera latina” and “in maniera greca”. The features of the Byzantine artistic style particularly manifest themselves in the faces, painted in sankir. But the boundaries between light and shadow in the wrinkles of the icon characters’ vestment are as diffused as in the Western iconography. Ritzos also painted an icon of Christ Entombed – a special version of the composition representing the influence of the Venetian Gothic style and the works by Giovanni Bellini (Christ Entombed, the Mother of God and John the Theologian, the second half of the 15th century, Crete, Museum of Art History, Vienna).
In the early 16th century the icon-painters began to leave Crete or went to paint monasteries in Athon or Meteora. The place of residence had a strong impact on the icon-painters’ work: thus, Pitzamanos’s icons are based on the graphic art of the Renaissance epoch (Shepherds Worship Jesus, after 1518, Crete, kept in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). Since the mid-16th century Greek icon-painters have appealed to mannerist expression. One of the best-known artists who painted in the mannerist style is Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who was born in Candia and later moved to Venice where he became famous as El Greco. The icons by other artist, Michael Damaskinos, after the Venetian period of his life, are also distinguished by mannerism but his style is nonetheless based on the Byzantine image system. Three-dimensional space, complex turns of the figures, main characters relieved by an architectural background, contemporary characters and clothing are the main features of mannerism. Its Byzantine origin can be seen in the absent source of light, its equal distribution across the icon’s space, and a golden background. The artists’ appeal to the Western graphic art manifested itself in sharper contours of color splashes.
In 1669 Turkey conquered Candia, leading the artists to move to the Ionian Islands, Greece, Southern Italy, Venice, Pathmos, Sinai and Jerusalem. Greek iconography lost the powerful artists of the 16th century; the art of that period is notable for the appeal to old samples combined with a continued tendency for mannerism and a more detailed elaboration of icon scenes based on the Paleologian style.
Apart from Crete, icon-painting also developed in Central and Northern Greece, in the monasteries of Athon, Meteora, Ioannina, Thessalia, Beotia, and Macedonia. During the 15th – and 16th centuries, the Macedonian iconographic school was leading in this region. Expressive, but loyal to the canons, almost unaffected by innovations, it followed the artistic traditions of the 14th century.
Since the second half of the 15th century, after the fall of Thessaloniki, many artists have moved to Athon that became yet another largest iconographic center. Subdued and dark colors mixed with bright plashes and fragile shapes betray the Macedonian iconographic school. However, the new generation of the Athon painters was not innovative; furthermore, its style became more simplified, with local color splashes appearing in combination with sharp lines. While this period of time is notable for increased interest in the Cretan school, the local icon-painters remained loyal to the Athonian tradition, with this tendency being traceable throughout the entire 16th century. In the second half of the 16th century many artists in Thessalia, Beotia and Ioannina appealed to the icons produced by the Cretan workshops.
By the end of the 15th – 17th centuries, Athon maintained old artistic traditions of the local and Cretan iconography, despite the appearance of the new painting styles, such as Duerer’s engravings. But on the whole, Greek iconography remained conservative, simply reproducing the earlier icons that were presented as gifts to Christian rules and numerous pilgrims. Since the 18th century, Greek icons have depicted the monasteries of Athon and its vicinity with topographic precision characteristic of engravings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, given a general tendency for simplification, the artists always followed a canon, staying loyal to the Byzantine traditions.