American University funds study of frescoes in Cretan churhes

American university William & Mary Assistant Art History Professor Cristina Stancioiu will spend much of this summer in Crete and Rhodes, thanks in part to a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society.

“They fund library, archive and field work, and I meet a little bit of all of that,” Stancioiu explained. “I think it appealed to them that I would take the grant abroad, away from my home institution.”

Stancioiu is using the grant to further her first book, centred on portraiture in the Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the 13th century through the 17th century.

Stancioiu finds the portraits in remote Orthodox churches in the Greek countryside, in areas that were originally part of the Byzantine Empire but had shifted to Venetian or European rule by the time the portraits were created.

stancioiu-in-crete-content“I go and literally travel from church to church,” she said. She hikes across fields, down through ravines, to the tops of mountains to find the tiny and all-but-forgotten churches.

“The people in the villages are happy to hear that I’m interested in the old church, and they always ask me, ‘How do you know about that?’ And when I say, ‘From books’ they are amazed there are books about their church.”

Actually, there’s only one book. A 1907 collection published by an Italian scholar who walked the countryside, recording every church and making watercolors of the frescoes, is to date the most exhaustive catalog. For illustration, there are about 800 medieval churches just on Crete alone.

“These are small churches. They are not your gothic cathedrals,” Stancioiu said. “It’s impossible to maintain and restore all of them, so I think there is an immediate need to at least photograph what is still there.”

But more than simply cataloging the portraits, Stancioiu is interested in what they tell scholars about the people who created them.

The churches’ remoteness allowed the former nobles to be bold in the portraits. “No lord would ever step foot in those churches; they are exclusively for the local community, so it’s a safe place to make that kind of statement.”

They are still safe from the lords today, though the monuments they house are technically under the aegis of the Department of Antiquities.

“The church does what it can. The government does what it can, and the people in the villages do what they can,” Stancioiu explained. “So they try to fix the roof and not let water leak or they keep the door shut, things like that.

“But I’m always touched by how much they care about these monuments. There is always a candle lit. Even if the church is no longer in use, they still will light candles at the icons. Things like that show me they care, and explains why they are so welcoming when they see me coming and being interested in their monuments.”


She estimates that of the 800 or so churches on Crete, probably 70 feature portraits. She’ll try to see as many of them as she can in June and July, also conducting research in libraries in Athens, Nicosia and Venice. She hopes to have the manuscript written by August next year.

The College of William & Mary in Virginia is a public research university located in Williamsburg, Virginia, United States. it was founded in 1693