Theotokopoulos before El Greco

The illustrated codex painted by Greek painter and miniaturist Georgios Klontzas, a work belonging to the Marciana Library in Venice, was being carefully placed in a glass displace case at the Byzantine & Christian Art Museum in Athens ahead of a press conference earlier this week on the El Greco exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the grand master’s death.

“A long, difficult preparation, which lasted nearly three years, has come to a close,” the Culture Ministry’s general secretary Lina Mendoni told journalists ahead of the official opening on Wednesday. Exhibitions on the Crete-born artist, better known here as Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541 – 7 April 1614), have already been staged on the southern island, as well as at the Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. Each of these shows casts light on a different aspect of the artist. It is the first time that Greece has staged exhibitions about Theotokopoulos in a systematic manner.

The title of this exhibition, “Domenikos Theotokopoulos Before El Greco,” is revealing: The works presented here, crafted by the artist himself as well as his contemporaries, highlight the social and artistic environment of 16th-century Crete. During that time, painting reached stunning levels of artistry. Also, it was the time that shaped the personality of Theotokopoulos before he left for Venice in 1567.

The exhibition is divided into three parts. The first section takes us to Venetian Crete in the 16th century. The works on display document the trade routes, military might, social stratification, economy and religion.

Section 2 presents the scholarly environment that influenced Theotokopoulos, his readings and cultural events in cosmopolitan Cretan towns. The exhibition showcases the efforts of Cretan painters to bridge Byzantine and Western tradition.

In the last section of the exhibition visitors are treated to an interpretation of Theotokopoulos’s Cretan period through the particularities of his style and an interesting dialogue with works by Georgios Klontzas and Michail Damaskinos.

“I believe that in terms of research and expressing fresh opinions, this is a very important exhibition,” said the museum’s outgoing director Anastasia Lazaridou.

“With works [belonging to Greek collections] and loans from foreign institutions we are trying to recreate the social fabric of Crete in all facets of life,” she said.

Next to works from Theotokopoulos’s Cretan period, the exhibition showcases works by other artists including a work by Klontzas depicting a sermon, which has been moved out of the Sarajevo Church of the Holy Archangels for the first time, Plotinus’s Enneads, with a rare illustration by Cretan painter Markos Bathas, “The Wedding at Cana” attributed to Damaskinos, and works from Mt Athos.

The exhibition will remian on display at the Byzantine & Christian Art Museum (22 Vassilissis Sofias, tel 210.721.1027, through March 31. The catalog will be published in the coming weeks.