A concise account of the tradition
of Byzantine icon painting in Greece


4th-5th c. AD

The encounter between Eastern (Muslim), Roman and Hellenistic art produces the Christian Art of the East, widely known as «Byzantine art». It was named after the city of Byzantion – later Constantinople – the capital of the Byzantine Empire in which the famous church of Haghia Sophia was built in the year 532.
The cradle of Byzantine art, which promoted architecture, sculpture, ivory, frescoes, and mosaic, was Asia Minor, an area close to Persia but also with age-old centres of Greek civilization (Ionia) and major Greek cities like Smyrna and Ephesus. In his book "L’art Byzantin" (ed. Flammarion), the historian Henry Martin, who sees in Byzantine art a fertile fusion of classical Greek and eastern (Asian) aesthetics, writes that «Byzantine art has been wrongly accused of being monotonous and adhering to rigid rules […] on the contrary, it evolved and was renewed several times throughout the centuries».

5th-6th c. AD

First golden age for Eastern Christian Art; expands into Syria and Egypt.

7th c. AD

First age of decline, due to Muslim incursions.

8th-9th c. AD

Second age of decline due to the iconoclast Byzantine emperors who banned the worship of icons, seeing it as a relic of idolatry (726 – 842 AD).
As a result, the image-worshiping monks gathered in the Monastery of Studion in Constantinople. This period marked the stylistic distinction between the official art of the imperial court and the theological popular art propounded by the monks.

9th-12th c. AD

Second golden age. The most important monuments of that time are found in Greece (Monasteries of Daphni and Osios Loukas); Constantinople (Pantocrator); Italy (San Marco).

13th c. AD

Third age of decline due to the seizure of Constantinople by the Crusaders. Despite this, the art of the Palaeologues from that era plays a decisive role in setting the foundations for the Italian Renaissance.

14th-15th c. AD

Final golden age for Eastern Christian Art, now centered in Athos rather than Constantinople. Expansion to the Balkans and further up north into Serbia, Bulgaria, Vlachia and Russia. The ‘iconostasis’ or altar screen is introduced in most Russian churches – a partition between altar and temple, decorated mostly with portable icons painted on wood.
Two schools of Byzantine fresco painting emerge around this time – the Macedonian and the Cretan school.


After 1453

Constantinople falls to the Turks in 1453 and marks the end of the Byzantine Empire. The icon painters flee to the monastic centres of Athos and Meteora, to the free Crete and Castoria and dedicate themselves to the preservation of their tradition. In the Balkans there is a development of religious painting by the Bulgarians, Russians, Slavs and Serbs whose art is directly descended from the Byzantine art. In Syria the Arab-speaking Christians produce the Melkites icons from the 16th century onwards.

15th-16th c. AD

The Cretan school, more powerful that its Macedonian counterpart, is influenced by the Italian painting of the same period; it makes use of bright colours and dominates Athos from the 16th century onwards.


33-213 AD

Early Christian Period

313-823/8 AD

1st Byzantine Period
Crete is influenced by the Byzantine Empire. Due to iconoclasm and the abolition of representational religious art, the only findings are non-figurative decorations of geometrical patterns.

823/8-961 AD

Arab Occupation
No Christian monuments survive from that time. Icons are reinstated in churches after 843. The depicted human figures are rendered in an emaciated form, the third dimension is reduced, the figures appear elongated and the drapes of clothing conceal the body.

961-1204 AD

2nd Byzantine Period
Crete becomes part of the Byzantine State.

1645/69 AD

Venetian Occupation
Icon painting assumes an archaic form during the XII and XIII centuries. In the XIV c. the archaic tradition is broken and the forms of the saints become more plastic. The paintings from the time are characterized by a classicist morphology. Around the beginning of the XV c. the standardization of the saints’ forms reaches the point of austerity.

-1898 AD

Turkish Occupation
The adoption of the idealistic school of Constantinople in Crete leads to the preservation of the thousand-year old Byzantine tradition. This is the most important period in Greek painting.


1922 - 1930

After the defeat of Greece in its campaign in Asia Minor, thousands of Greeks were forced to cross the Aegean sea and settle as refugees in mainland Greece eager to restore their national self-respect. The need to define ‘Greekness’ in art was born out of that defeat as well as against the domineering influence Western Europe exerted on the young Greek state with the ancient civilization. Among the refugees from Asia Minor was Fotis Kontoglous (1896-1965), painter, icon maker and writer, who passionately propounded the revival of Byzantine art —the bridging between ancient and modern Greece through folklore and the Orthodox faith.


In the 1930s most leading Greek intellectuals and artists ‘renounced’ the foreign schools and sought to trace ‘Greekness’ in modern Greek art by means of reviving the Byzantine tradition and studying the popular traditions and the indigenous aesthetic values. They formed the so-called «Generation of the 1930s» which was pioneered by Fotis Kontoglous and promoted by painters such as Vassiliou and Asteriadis; these two artists represent the Greek version of post-Impressionism, successfully enriched with influences from Byzantine icon making.

«La grammaire des styles: L’art Byzantin» Ed. FLAMMARION
«Heraklion and its district», Ed. Heraklion Prefecture, 1971

© ART TOPOS, 1996, 1999
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