02 Aug 2010

Damned in Hell in the Frescoes of Venetian-dominated Crete (13th- 17th centuries)

Frescoes from the island of Crete depicting scenes of Hell and the punishments of the damned are the focus of a new research project led by Angeliki Lymberopoulou, The Open University, UK and Vasiliki Tsamakda, University of Mainz, Germany.

The research team aims to place and assess these representations within a wider geographical and cultural context involving both Greek-Orthodox and contemporary western examples (the Balkans, Cyprus, Cappadocia and Italy). The material will be accessible to scholars and will provide a stepping stone for future research in key iconographic subjects for understanding their social and historic context.

Dr Lymberopoulou, Lecturer in Art History, said: “The island of Crete was ruled by the Venetians from 1211 until 1669. This extended period was culturally very prolific and provides one of the most prolonged case-studies in cultural interaction between two different groups – the native Greek Orthodox population and the Venetian colonists. One of the lasting monuments to this thriving era is formed by the surviving churches with fresco decorations. No fewer than 77 of these fresco cycles contain representations of Hell and these will form the basis of our study.”

The subject has a wide range of cultural connotations, since it reflects religious and moral beliefs, social structure and expectations and the most common illegal activities (e.g. live stock theft). Moreover, while customarily depictions of Hell and of the sufferings of the damned form part of the wider context of the Last Judgement, this is not always the case on Crete. Hell and the punishment of sinners can be depicted independently on the island - a fact which underlines the importance that such representations had for patrons and the faithful. Furthermore, the scenes of Hell reflect more than anything the complex interaction between (Byzantine) East and (Venetian) West that took place on Crete during its Venetian occupation, especially since they often include Orthodox as well as western sinners burning in the eternal flames. Therefore, the choice of this iconographic subject carries a wider appeal and interest for cross-cultural studies in general, including the way different cultures influence each other today.

Around 750 Byzantine and Post-Byzantine frescoes survive in Cretan churches, but the majority remain unpublished or appear in general surveys but with no intention or space for in-depth analysis. The research team has received £176,600 from The Leverhulme Trust to photograph, catalogue, examine and publish all frescoes with representations of Hell within these churches.

Editor's Notes
1. Dr Angeliki Lymberopoulou was awarded International Network funding of £176,600 from The Leverhulme Trust in July 2010 for 36 months.

The expertise of the participants reflects the intentions of the project and combines different approaches for the best possible results. Hence, Angeliki Lymberopoulou (Open University, UK) and Vasiliki Tsamakda (University of Mainz, Germany), the two co-managers of the project, are both experts on Venetian-dominated Crete, as is the chosen project’s facilitator, Diana Newall.

Athanasios Semoglou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece), Annemarie Weyl Carr (Southern Methodist University, USA), Rainer Warland (University of Freiburg, Germany) and Rembrandt Duits (Warburg Institute, UK) are experts on the Balkans, Cyprus, Cappadocia and Italy, respectively. Finally, Charalambos Gasparis (Institute for Byzantine Research, Athens, Greece) and Dionysios Stathakopoulos (King’s College London, UK) will provide the political, social and economic perspective on Crete and the wider Byzantine and post-Byzantine context.

2. The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*). Art History was rated in the top ten departments nationally for its subject area, with 40% of its research rated internationally excellent and 25% world-leading.

The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, some 1,300 are postgraduate research students.

The latest edition of the Open University’s Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from:

Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: ORO has around 35,000 visitors from over 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fifth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

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