The Representations of the Virgin on Cretan Icons in Serbian Churches in Bosnia-Herzegovina

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After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the island of Crete, which had been under Venetian occupation since 1204, became the most important artistic centre in the Greek Orthodox world. Many scholars and artists who had fled to Crete from Turkish-occupied territories even before the fall of Constantinople contributed to this blossoming. The development of a style which is a direct descendant of the more idealizing and classicizing tendency of Constantinopolitan painting can be traced from the beginning of the 15th century. In Crete religious painting developed into an independent "Post-Byzantine" school. Artists were organized into a guild, the Scuola di San Luca, which in the second half of the 15th century consolidated its own artistic principles and iconographic standards in a program of instruction and apprenticeship that gave it continuity and coherence for at least 250 years. A considerable amount of information, from archives and icons, made it possible to determine the formation and development of this school of painting, which is the only one of Orthodox artistic schools that had a legitimate right to the title during this period. (1)

The development of art on Crete was directly dependent on the development of Cretan towns as important commercial and shipping centers. Documents from archives show that Cretan painters received many commissions from foreign traders, mainly Venetians; from Catholic bishops of the Greek territories occupied by Venice; from Orthodox monasteries, like those of Sinai and Patmos; and from Greek and Venetian nobles and other citizens of the Republic. Thus Cretan painters turned almost exclusively to the production of portable icons.

In comparison with other parts of former Yugoslavia, the largest number of Cretan icons can be found in Dalmatia and Bosnia. This can be explained by strong trade and other connections between Crete and Venice, since many of mercant ships surely made stops at diferent Dalmatian ports. At the same time, important trade roads from Bosnia led over Herzegovina to Dalmatia. During the hard times of Turkish occupation in Bosnia, many rich Serbian merchant families were buying and presenting icons to their Orthodox churches, which they considered the only defenders of their national identity. This was especially the case in bigger centers such as Sarajevo and Mostar, were the largest collections of icons were in fact to be found. Apart from that, many of family icons were often placed in churches to be preserved in the dangerous times of living under the Turks, as their owners hoped that they would be able to get them back and keep them in their homes one day again. (2)

Works of the most important Cretan painters, such as Andreas Ritzos and his son Nicholaos, whose activity is documented in the 15th century, (3) have been preserved in Ston (Dalmatia), Mostar (Herzegovina) and Sarajevo (Bosnia). (4) Geographical position of these towns shows exactly the mentioned trade links between Bosnia and the Adriatic coast. (5) These painters and their famous contemporaries, who had workshops and considerable numbers of apprentices, created icon prototypes for the following generations, strongly embedded in Palaeologan and earlier Byzantine tradition. The Virgin, in the types of Hodegetria, Glykophiloysa or the Virgin of Passsion, was among the most popular subjects copied from such common iconographical models. An important group of Cretan icons from the middle of the 15th to the beginning of the 16th century have their own particular character and a distinguishing technical execution. The painters of these works, masters of the technique inherited from Palaeologan art, frequently displayed an eclecticism that enabled them to include elements from Italian art in their painting. They preserved iconographic types of the Virgin from traditional Byzantine art, and yet made new prototypes, which were extensively repeated during the 16th and 17th centuries. …