Michalis Damaskinos (1530-1591)

Paintings from a Golden Era

The painter Michalis Damaskinos (approx. 1530-1591) was an important representative of the so-called 'Cretan School' of painting that flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Crete was under Venetian rule. Little is known about the life of Damaskinos. He was born in Candia (Herakleion) but since 1574 he lived in Venice for several years, where he learnt miniature painting and travelled extensively throughout Italy. While in Venice he participated in decorating the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of San Giorgio dei Greci. In 1584 he returned to Greece. Here he mainly worked in Crete and the Ionian islands. Although influenced by Italian renaissance painters he mostly maintained a traditional Byzantine style. As can be seen on this page he used a particular rose colour that characterised his paintings. In Heraklion there is an important collection of Byzantine icons. Six of those icons are works of Michalis Damaskinos. The collection is housed in the Church of Agia Ekaterini (Saint Catherine), which is a dependency of Mount Sinai Monastery and stands on the square of the same name.

The Cretan School

The term 'Cretan School' describes an important school of icon painting, also known as Post-Byzantine art. It flourished during the late Middle Ages and became the central force in Greek painting during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. It denotes a particular style of painting under the influence of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions. 'El Greco' was the most famous and successful representative of the school, but also the one who eventually left the traditional Byzantine style farthest behind him. Altogether about 120 artists worked in Candia (present day Heraklion) in the period from 1453 to 1526. It was what has later been called the 'Cretan Renaissance'. A golden era where both literature and painting flourished. The icon painting style of the Cretan school is characterised by "the precise outlines, the modelling of the flesh with dark brown underpaint and dense tiny highlights on the cheeks of the faces, the bright colours in the garments, the geometrical treatment of the drapery, and, finally the balanced articulation of the composition"
(Chatzidakis, 1987, p. 42)

Byzantine icons were much in demand in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. And as Crete had been under Venetian rule since 1204, the island had an advantage in the trade and soon came to dominate the supply. Back home on Crete the artists of the period were also very productive. A considerable number of wallpaintings in local churches and monasteries have survived. About 850 from the 14th and 15th centuries which is far more than from earlier or later periods.

(Quote: Chatzidakis, Manolis: From Byzantium to El Greco, Byzantine Museum of Arts, Athens 1987.)

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