Crete has a long and illustrious religious history, stretching way back to Zeus and the Phoenician princess that gave her name to the European continent. The Byzantine religious heritage on this island is as special. At the beginning of the twentieth century an Italian scholar recorded over 800 Byzantine churches with wall paintings. While many more have been found since, sadly not all 800 plus churches have survived to the beginning of the twenty first century.

A view over a hillside village in Crete.

Previously I have written that Crete is my favourite archaeological destination. Since then I have been seduced by others, notably Rome, but I still come back to my photographs taken during various visits to the Greek island. Knossos and the many other Minoan sites intrigue me, but it is the Byzantine frescoes in tiny, quaint churches scattered about the island that I never tire of visiting. Here are a few of my favourites.

A Brief Background to the Byzantines in Crete

Early Byzantine mosaics beneath the walls of a more recent church.

A mosaic floor of an early Byzantine church beneath a more recent church.

There have been two Byzantine periods in Crete. The first between 330 to 824 AD, and the second, after a brief period of Arab rule, between 961 and 1204 AD. Although over four hundred years of Venetian rule then followed, Cretans still considered themselves Byzantines looking to Constantinople not Venice, attested in part by continued Byzantine cultural practices and traditions during this period.

The Byzantine wall paintings are to be found in churches that date to the second period, between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Often these churches were built directly on top of the remains of earlier churches. In some cases we see the remains of mosaic floors under the walls of more recent churches (as above). Bits and pieces of mosaic floor from the earlier Byzantine period can be seen at various sites around the island. But it is the triple-aisled and domed basilica of St Titus at the archaeological site of Gortyn that is the most important church still standing from that first period of Byzantine rule in Crete.

Byzantine Churches

There has been a considerable amount of research carried out on the Byzantine frescoes in Crete. And scholars have identified a distinct pattern, or canon if you like, in the themes selected. The frescoes are not random religious images of Christ, the Virgin and other Christian personages. Rather specific scenes and saints are placed in specific locations within the church. Of the small churches scattered about the island there are broadly speaking two types, the cross domed church and the single nave church. Not surprisingly, it is the differing architecture in each that influences the themes that were painted on the walls.

An example of a cross domed church.

The cross domed Church of St Paraskevi.

The church of St Paraskevi is a typical cross domed church, located on the edge of fields and an olive grove not too far from Rethymnon. The dome in this type of church represents the heavens and is decorated with a figure of Christ the all ruler, while the drum of the dome has images of the Virgin and prophets. Unfortunately, little remains in this particular example.

St Paraskevi, on the edge of fields and an olive grove.

Single nave churches are more common on the island. The most important part of this type of church is the apse, and so Christ appears in the half domes of the apse in these churches. The first example, the Church of the Archangel Michael in the village of Monastiraki, has one of the most exquisite examples of the Dormition of the Virgin I have ever seen. The second example of a single nave church below is the Church of Saint Anna, which is set on a hillside overlooking an olive grove. This church is thought to be the oldest surviving frescoed church in Crete. Understandably then the preservation is quite bad.

A typical single nave church.

Church of the Archangel Michael, Monastiraki.

The Dormition of the Virgin.

A fourteenth century fresco depicting the ‘Dormition of the Virgin’.

A close up of the figure of Christ.

Christ holding the soul of the Virgin.

The church on the hillside.

Church of Saint Anna.

The apse, with its badly preserved frescoes.

The apse with its badly preserved, eleventh century frescoes.

A close up of a better preserved part.

A close up of the section to the right of the window.

Visiting Byzantine Churches

Many of the churches are open, and visitors are free to enter, others are locked and one has to find the keyholder. Like most kinds of prehistoric and ancient art, the frescoes in these churches are very fragile, and the usual archaeological site etiquette applies – take only photographs and leave only footprints. Comparing my photographs to those of the same images in the various books I have, anyone can immediately notice the deterioration. In the example below, the face of the Virgin is now barely visible. One should alo bear in mind that many of these churches are still an important part of their communities lives, and so due respect should be paid when visiting them.

An apse with the figure of St Anne and the Virgin in the half dome.

The apse in the Church of the All Holy Virgin. The church was built in the 11th century, but these frescoes are later – 14th century.

A close up of the wall painting in the apse, showing St. Anne and the Virgin.

St. Anne with the Virgin in front of her chest.

Crete can get very hot in the summer months. Most people recommend a spring visit, the cherry blossom adding a special touch. But any time up to June is comfortable, as is the autumn. To get the most out of any exploration of the Byzantine past in Crete, I recommend starting at the Historical Museum of Crete and the icon collection in Saint Caterina’s Church, both in Heraklion. Then get yourself a good guide book and set out for the hills and villages. Besides the Byzantine churches, I have not mentioned the many monasteries to explore.

Books on Byzantine Crete, Churches & Art