The network of religious art workshops ,
in 17th and 18th century Europe

Eugenia Drakopoulou

The network of religious art workshops in 17th and 18th century Europe has been composed of a carefully selected part of the archive of the Programme of Religious Art by the Institute of Historical Research, National Hellenic Research Foundation (religiousart). The aforementioned material aimed at depicting the network of religious art workshops of Orthodox painters, who, setting out from Crete, the Ionian islands and Mount Athos, are active in the European space during the 17th and 18th century.

Crete, the Ionian Islands, and Mount Athos constitute landmarks in the history of Orthodox religious art, since they not only presented great artistic activity, but were also the sites of the formation of new trends in painting. The great number of commissions of portable icons and mural decorations attests to the fame acquired by painters from Crete, the Ionian Islands, and Mount Athos in the area of Southeastern, Western and Central Europe, where there were Orthodox communities or monasteries.

More specifically, just after the fall of Constantinople, the art of painting in the Venetian Crete, directly and profoundly influenced by Renaissance Italian art and Mannerism, reached a high level of quality. For centuries to come, it remained a model for Orthodox painters and attracted even Italian or other Western European clientele. The majority of the works by Cretan painters of the 17th century is found in Orthodox churches of Dalmatia and among the dynamic Greek community of Venice.

This high quality painting, namely Cretan painting, was transferred to the Ionian Islands, which were under Venetian rule, and followed the movement of painters who left the island of Crete after the Ottoman conquest in the second half of the 17th century. The society of the Ionian Islands in this era was characterized by a dynamic bourgeois class, which was oriented toward Italy, would seek new artistic manners —without directly turning against traditional painting— and would embrace a new aesthetic ideal.

Within the same period, new prospects open up for the residents of the Ionian Islands in the cities of nearby Italy. While the formerly thriving Greek community of Venice dramatically shrinks before it receives the final blow with the conquest of the city by Napoleon, the Greek communities in Naples, Lecce, Barletta, Ancona, Livorno and, even to the North, Trieste flourish thanks to the presence of refugees from the Peloponnese and the Ionian islands and, simultaneously, thanks to the dynamic contribution of merchants from Epirus. The 18th century is the era when Hellenism thrives, taking advantage of both the sea routes and the ever-declining Ottoman power in the Mediterranean. Preexisting and newly-built Orthodox churches in the Greek communities seek out Orthodox painters for their decoration.

Mount Athos not only played a highly important religious and political role, but was also a center of apprenticeship and organization of the movement of Orthodox painters. The art of Mount Athos in the 18th century maintained its high prestige throughout the Orthodox world since it gathered the best painters of every era —thus, remaining the best school for religious painting in the Balkan Peninsula. Especially, the Orthodox inhabitants of Southeastern Europe shared with the Greeks the common heritage of Byzantine artistic tradition.

In the current territories of Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania —particularly in monastic foundations, as well as central churches of big cities— dedicatory epigrams and inscriptions on portable icons attest to the presence of the Greek heritage of Orthodox painters.

Research directed by: Eugenia Drakopoulou. Collaborator: Georgia Foukaneli. GIS Cartography: Dimitris Triantakonstantis