Project to examine images of Hell in the medieval churches of Crete


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 historians in England and Germany.

Angeliki Lymberopoulou of The Open University, and Vasiliki Tsamakda, from the University of Mainz, aim 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Around 750 Byzantine and Post-Byzantine frescoes survive in Cretan churches, but the majority remain unpublished or appear in general surveys but with no intention or space for in-depth analysis.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.

Dr Lymberopoulou writing in the Leverhulme Trust newsletter, states, “our team aims to create a corpus of material accessible to scholarship. We will provide a stepping stone for future research in key iconographic subjects for understanding their social and historic context by studying the examples in depth in order to determine the intentions behind their commission, the religious and political aspirations and the moral and legal parameters in contemporary cross-cultural Cretan society. Equally important is the aim to place and to assess these representations within a wider geographical and cultural context involving both Greek- Orthodox and contemporary western examples (the Balkans, Cyprus, Cappadocia and Italy).”

Sources: Open University, Leverhulme Trust