Traveling Classroom Foundation
Monday October 2nd 2023

El Greco: Old Becomes New

Driving west of Iraklion on the E75 highway, we turned southward toward Fodele (pronounced Foe-deh-lay). The road runs through the lush Pantomantris river valley filled with citrus groves and native forest. Fodele is a quiet farming village is known for its oranges and macramé artists, but it is mainly noted as the place where Domenikos Theotokopoulos, popularly known as El Greco (The Greek), was born in 1541. We came to visit the El Greco museum.

The platia of Fodele village is dominated by a thousand-year old plane tree An ancient plane (platanos) tree dominates the central platia of Fodele village

Passing through the village square beneath a thousand-year-old plane tree, we could see the river flowing through in a canal designed to prevent spring flooding. However, during summer months the river becomes a shallow stream, perfect for wading on a hot day.

About a kilometer beyond the village, we parked near the 14th century Byzantine chapel of Panagia (Holy Mother). There are beautiful murals inside, but the doors were locked (churches do not leave valuable art unattended).

Byzantine church of Panagia (Holy Mother) near the El Greco museum outside Fodele village Byzantine church of Panagia on the roadside near the El Greco museum

So we crossed the road and climbed stairs through several terraces to an ancient stone house converted for use as a museum. It is thought to be the artist’s home, but no one knows that for certain. Regardless, a bronze bust of El Greco is mounted by the doorway.

Bronze bust of El Greco at the entrance of the museum. A bronze bust of El Greco stands near the entrance of the museum

Inside, we found a collection of reproductions of El Greco’s paintings hung with back-lighting, accentuating their own light and color. Visitors are permitted to take photos (which is not allowed in most museums). We have seen a few El Greco originals in Greece, but most are scattered across Europe in churches and museums. So this was an opportunity to see many of his paintings in one place.

The museum displayed artwork as large, backlighted transparencies El Greco’s painting are displayed as large, backlighted transparencies

El Greco attended the Agia Ekaterini (St. Catherine) school in Iraklion. Their art department focused on the Byzantine style of those times. It produced some of the best religious artists of the century. Unlike his schoolmates, who worked within a framework of religious art, El Greco began to develop his own style at an early age.

StCatherine El Greco studied art at Saint Catherine school in Iraklion

One of his early works, the icon “Dormition of the Virgin” in the Cathedral of the Dormition on the island of Syros, exhibits a Byzantine style. But this soon evolved into something new and different.

The Dormition is one of the most famous of the artist's early works The Dormition is one of the most famous of the artist’s early works

Around 1566 he went to Venice and studied under Renaissance masters, which is reflected in some of his early work. El Greco combined Titian’s use of color and Tintoretto’s compositions of people and use of space. It was a clear departure from Byzantine icons.

In his painting The Disrobing of Christ, el Greco shows the influence of his teachers in Venice and Rome. El Greco’s Disrobing of Christ shows the influence of Titian and Tintoretto

When he later moved to Rome, where he was further influenced by some of the great Italian artists and sculptors of the time. However, disappointed by his inability to earn a living in Rome, in 1577 he moved to Spain in search of a patron for his work.

His first Spanish commission was for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The Assumption of the Virgin (now on display in Chicago) was based on that of his old master, Titian. But El Greco was already showing his own style. He used strange colors, groupings and proportions for the figures. Throughout the rest of his career these differences became more evident, though Byzantine influences  can still be seen through the mystic expressions and mood of his paintings.

The Burial of Count Orgaz is considered one of El Greco's finest masterpieces while living in Toledo The Burial of Count Orgaz is considered one of El Greco’s finest masterpieces

El Greco was well known and did have supporters in Toledo, but his style was unlike that of other artists of that time. He was forced to accept all kinds of commissions to pay off his debts, producing numerous portraits and religious images. He struggled for acceptance throughout his career, and he died trying to finish a commission in a hospital chapel.

For centuries after his death, El Greco was virtually ignored. Then, in the late 19th Century, he was rediscovered and studied by modern artists. Now he is considered an influential figure in the development of art in the 20th Century and into our time. This can be seen in the examples below.

Lady in Fur is a well known painting from his time in Toledo Lady in Fur is a well known El Greco painting from his time in Toledo Cézanne's "Lady in Fur" is the artist's tribute to El Greco Cézanne’s “Lady in Fur” is the artist’s tribute to El Greco’s work

Expressionism was a movement that used distortion to suggest mood and emotion, and El Greco was hailed as the forerunner of this style. In fact, he is considered a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. He is seen by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.

"Vision of Saint John" is a classic example of El Greco's elongated figures and bold colors Vision of Saint John (The Fifth Seal) shows El Greco’s elongated figures and bold use of color Pablo Picasso's "The Ladies of Avignon" was inspired by El Greco's "Vision" above (note the women to the right of St. John) El Greco’s work inspired Picasso’s “Ladies of Avignon” (compare the women to the right of St. John)

This week the Prado, Madrid’s top art museum, unveiled a major exhibit exploring the influence  of El Greco on modern greats such as Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Pablo Picasso.

El Greco's composition is the source of the Expressionist painting on the right. Note the figures and even the colors used. El Greco’s composition is the source of the Expressionist painting on the right. Note that the positioning of the various figures and the colors used are very similar.

It has been more than 400 years since Domenikos Theotokopoulos lived, but the fame of El Greco has been rekindled and continues to grow. His artistic concepts (so strange to those who lived in his time) have inspired artists who live today. What was old has become new.



Shadow Theater

Brightly colored posters went up last week announcing the “shadow theater” was coming to our village. Long before movies and television, Greece had a different form of entertainment based on folklore traditions and social satire.

shadow theater poster Shadow theater posters were everywhere in the village.

Known as Karagiozis (the main character’s name), it involved paper-made puppets operated by a puppeteer behind a white screen (perhaps a piece of cloth or a sheet) backlit by a lantern or some other light source (now electric lamps).

behind_screen2 Puppeteers manipulate characters behind a screen, and provide their voices

Shadow theater began in Asia as part of a religious tradition. By the time it came to Greece during Ottoman rule (around 1880), it was a form of entertainment. Greeks took it several steps further by turning it into an outrageously funny satire that poked fun at everything that made life hard for people.


The hero – Karagiozis – is a clever pauper who lives with his family in a rundown shack near the Ottoman pasha’s palace. He is always coming up with absurd schemes to make a lot of money – and these plots are always doomed to hilarious failure.  Even in failure, however, Karagiozis manages to show great cunning in making the pashas, Turkish overlords and wealthy/corrupt Greeks all come off as fools themselves.

The themes of each play were adapted to various current social and political issues, as well as to historical events in Greece. These historical “Karagiozis” plays were very popular in the past and during times of crises, as they lifted the people’s spirits and offered hope.Through Karagiozis, the puppeteer mocks authority figures and situations … often adapts the script to current events.

Ugly and hunchbacked, Karagiozis represents the common folk, always in conflict with injustice. He pretends to be a man of all trades in order to find work and devises silly but cunning solutions to the various difficult and strange situations he gets into. Karagiozis is famous for his pranks, which he uses to tease those around him.

Karagiozis offers the policeman a taste of his "special" mouse soup Karagiozis offers policeman his “special” mouse soup

From 1915 until 1950, which was a hard time for Greeks (wars, social unrest), Karagiozis was a continuous inspiration for the poor. He was an uncompromising hero who tried in vain to change his fate and fight against social injustice. The loud voice of the puppeteer, who portrays all the characters, could be heard in most of the cities and villages throughout Greece, with many generations of Greek children brought up with Karagiozis and the other characters.

karaghiozi characters Karagiozis characters represent a broad view of society, with all its faults.

Within each play one can find historical references, invention and much symbolism that makes the show enjoyable to intellectuals, ordinary people, and – of course – children.  Some suggest that Karagiozis plays are the histories of Greek people trying to conform to the laws, customs, values, and politics other countries have forced upon them. Noting the rising popularity of Karagiozis during the current political-economic crisis in Greece, this is something to consider.

audience The rapt attention of children is the biggest payoff for puppeteers.

However, last night “Karagiozis the Pirate” played to a full house of laughing children and adults. Hardly anyone was thinking about politics.

Way Station

The ancient Cretans, known as “Minoans” today, created a far-flung shipping and trade network with Europe, Africa and Asia. They built grand public buildings (palaces) with beautiful wall paintings, colorful stonework, light wells and sophisticated plumbing. However, after more than a century of digging up Minoan artifacts, archaeologists are still trying to explain who the Minoans were and how their society was organized. This is the main focus of a project started in 2007 near Sissi (pronounced “see-see”), a small fishing village on Crete’s north coast.

sissi-harbor Sissi is a small fishing and farming village near the Palace of Malia.

On our first visit to the excavation site, located on a seaside hill called Kefali, we found it fenced and locked.  Luckily, we were later invited to attend an on-site seminar hosted by Professor Jan Driessen, the project director.  Arriving at the site entrance, we found a large group of people, including some well-known archaeologists interested in learning about the progress of research.

Sisi_Driessen Dr. Driessen described the structure and orientation of Sissi building.

Sissi is within walking distance of Malia (one of the great palace complexes on Crete).  Therefore, one might assume Sissi served the ruler of Malia. However, like other Minoan palaces, Malia was supported by farms and villages that produced food supplies and manufactured goods to fill the palace store-rooms and treasure-houses.  Some of these products were consumed, and others were shipped out as trade goods to other countries.  However, Sissi was certainly not a peasant farmstead supporting the ruling class.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Scale model of Malia’s main palace buildings.

Malia was ruled by rich and cultured leaders, which can be inferred from the refined architecture, cultural artifacts and other records they left behind.  The ancient site at Sissi is similar to Malia palace – but on a smaller scale.  This raises some interesting questions:

  1. Why did Sissi exist, and what was its purpose?
  2. Who was in charge at Sissi?
  3. What was the relationship between Malia and Sissi?
  4. How did they interact?

These are the sort of questions the Sissi research team hopes to answer.

Study of the technology, production and use of material culture (pottery, architecture, stone and metal objects) at Sissi is starting to reveal much about the social, economic and political life of those who lived there.  In addition to traditional excavation techniques, the team is using high-tech 3D scanning equipment, ground-penetrating radar, and aerial photography to record both topographical and archaeological features.  Electronic data are then organized in a computer, which makes it easier for researchers to access data and images.

Plan drawing of the Sissi site, with technical data. Computer drawing of the Sissi site, with technical data.

Dr. Driessen guided us through the Sissi excavation, describing the architecture and purpose of the buildings and artifacts uncovered during excavation, and answering technical questions asked by archaeologists in the audience.

Sisi_Driessen2 Dr. Driessen explains the functions of the various areas of Sissi.

An impressive area of the “mini-palace” was the reception hall and related rooms, where visitors would have meetings and enjoy banquets with the lords (or managers) of Sissi.  Here we could see the bases of stone columns that supported the high ceilings and upper floors.  Beyond stone thresholds were storerooms and a kitchen where food was prepared for guests.  From this part of the complex we could look down to the harbor, where Minoan ships once moored.

Sisi_palace_layout Main meeting rooms and banquest hall of the Sissi complex.

Several excavation campaigns have revealed a settlement occupied between 2600 and 1250 BCE, and a large cemetery used between 2600 and 1750 BCE.  The cemetery, located below the “palace” and just above the shoreline, is in poor condition.  Many centuries of human activity and erosion by the sea, rain and wind have uncovered many of the graves and destroyed artifacts.  In some places, the bones of ancient Minoans are visible on the surface.

Bones of an ancient Minoan can been see on the surface in the cemetery. Bones of an ancient Minoan can been see on the surface in the cemetery.

Why did this place endure for so long, even after the palace of Malia itself was abandoned?  Dr. Driessen believes the rulers of Malia chose this hill at Sissi for strategic reasons. With steep slopes on three sides and the sea on the fourth, Kefali hill could be easily defended. Also, the hill guards the only mountain pass between Malia and the eastern regions of Crete. This gave Sissi a unique a special defensive and commercial advantage.

In addition to controlling the mountain pass (now called Selinari Gorge), Sissi had its own protected harbor and easy access to the beach at Milato.  Both of these might have served as extra shipping ports for Malia (which is also located on the sea shore).  In other words, Sissi may have operated as a sort of “way station” handling security, cargo transfer, and perhaps tolls at import-export routes to Malia.  Who might have been in charge of such an important center?  Perhaps they were trusted Malia administrators and military leaders.

Sissi controls the sea and mountain pass routes to Malia. Sissi controls the sea and mountain pass routes to Malia.

After the decline of Malia, Sissi was still important to those who wanted to regulate trade and security in central Crete.  The Greeks, who came after the Minoans, controlled Selinari pass and (at Gournia) trade routes from the south coast.  Over the centuries, many rulers (the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans) tried to manage shipping and trade.  Even the German military established a base at Sissi (with an artillery emplacement just below Kefali hill) to defend against Allied ships during World War II.

view from selinari to sissi Direct view from the mountain pass to Sissi and Kefali Hill.

Ancient Sailors

Until recently, it was thought that humans began sailing the Mediterranean Sea around 12,000 BCE. But scientists now believe early Stone Age people arrived on Crete at least 130,000 years ago.

High, rocky bluffs around the village of Plakia were the shoreline zone in prehistoric times. Rocky bluffs around the village of Plakia were actually the shoreline zone in prehistoric times. This is where the team began excavations.

Why the huge timeline shift? A Greek-American research team found man-made tools in 130,000-year-old rock formations in southwest Crete, near the village of Plakias. And since Crete has been an island for more than five million years, the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. In other words, they could have been the world’s first sailors.

The boats of Stone Age migrants were probably log rafts with sails made of animal skins sewn together and mounted on poles to catch the wind. The boats of Stone Age migrants were probably log rafts with sails made of animal skins sewn together and lashed to a tree limb to catch the wind.

The Plakias Survey team collected over 2,000 artifacts at 29 sites around limestone caves and rockshelters, where ancient humans lived and made their stone tools.

Caves and other ancient dwellings that were on the beach are now in the ridges above the sea. Caves that were on the beach are now high on the ridges above the sea.

The researchers think that prehistoric humans must have found Crete an attractive place to hunt for food. In fact, Crete had many edible plants and a variety of wildlife – including small elephants and dwarf hippopotami (much smaller than the big hippopotamus you might see at a zoo).

Several cave dwellings were found near Preveli Gorge, which flows into the sea. Several cave dwellings were found near Preveli Gorge.

Upon examining all caves and rockshelters near fresh water streams and rivers emptying into the Libyan Sea, the survey team discovered stone artifacts on the slopes directly below the openings.

Survey team examine a stone tool found on the marine terrace below cave. Survey team examine a stone tool found on the marine terrace below a cave.

The geological context (known age of the soil/stone strata) at five of the sites allowed an approximate date to be assigned of 130,000 years. However, some artifacts may be much older.

Layers of ancient beach were excavated to locate man-made stone tools. Layers of ancient beach were excavated to locate man-made stone tools.

Quartz (which can be given sharp edges) was the main raw material used to manufacture such things as hand axes, cleavers, scrapers, and other tools. These artifacts not only represent the earliest tools ever discovered on Crete, they also demonstrate the talented seafaring abilities of ancient humans. The Plakias team wants to conduct more archaeological and geological research into these early phases of prehistory in the region.

Handaxe excavated near one of the ancient cave homes. Quartz handaxe excavated near one of the ancient cave homes.

It is thought that these early arrivals on the island of Crete were Homo heidelbergensis – forerunners of modern humans. They were not the grunting cavemen depicted in movies. On the contrary, they were intelligent toolmakers who had a language, formed family and social groups, and buried their dead with gifts for the afterlife (suggesting they had a religion).

Scientists think first settlers on Crete were probably Homo heidelbergensis, an expert toolmaker who predates modern man by thousands of years.

Where did these early humans come from – the Greek mainland, Europe, the Near East, Africa? No one knows for certain. Wherever their origin, the findings at Plakias alters the way we must think about how people spread across the world. Until now, most scientists thought early man migrated by land routes. Since the first settlers on Crete came across the sea, it is possible that there could have been sea routes crossed by long-distance seafarers moving at will throughout the Mediterranean.

How long did these early humans stay on Crete, and what effect did they have on the environment? We know Homo heidelbergensis was an experienced hunter, and we also know prehistoric animals that once populated Crete vanished long ago. Did the early settlers hunt these creatures to extinction and then move on?

The dwarf hippopotomus was widespread across Crete, but became extinct long ago. Dwarf hippos were once widespread across Crete, but became extinct.

Such questions remain unanswered for the moment. However, recent discoveries at Plakias make us think about the significance and impact of early seafaring on the peopling of the Mediterranean, Europe and the world.

Olive Harvest

When the last tourists return to northern lands in autumn, Cretan interests swiftly turn to the olive harvest. Workers at the olive mill in Koutouloufari prepare for a flood of local olives. Not far away, near our home in Ano Hersonissos, growers inspect their crops for maturity. We had several rainfalls, but many olives were still small and hard in October. Important choices must be made.

Olives are still small and hard in early October

Harvest time depends on many things, including olive variety, temperature, sunlight and water. Every grower knows his decisions affect the value of his harvest. Cooler weather can result in unripe fruit clinging to trees well into winter. To avoid damage from frost or storms, farmers are sometimes forced to pick olives earlier than they want – which means less olive oil and lower quality. Careful planning ensures the harvest crew and equipment are ready when needed, and milling must be scheduled for a quick turnaround. You can’t leave olives sitting around in sacks without losing quality and flavor.

The olives are ready to harvest when they become plump

In October some growers from our village were already bringing their catch nets to the olive groves and preparing their storage tanks to receive the precious oil after milling. The harvest begins when the fruit is three quarters ripe, and it lasts through the winter months of November to January.

Nets are spread under the trees to catch the olives when they fall

During the harvest, families, friends and hired hands converge in the olive grove at first light. Nets are spread under the trees, and sacks are laid out nearby. Every winter harvesters can be seen coaxing the ripe fruit with sticks, long plastic forks, and hand-held motorized rakes. The fruit drops on to the nets beneath the trees, ready to be collected.

Rods with spinning heads knock olives down without damaging them

As workers move from one tree to the next, the gatherers sort through olives and leafy debris in the nets. They strip fruit from twigs that have been knocked down, discard the waste, and carry the olives to screened hoppers. The olives (and some leaves) fall through the screen into a funnel and then into a sack. When the sack is full, it is tied and set aside with others or loaded into a truck for a trip to the mill.

Olives are dumped into a hopper which fills the sacks

At midday women and children often join the workers in the grove for lunch and family time. Then it is back to work for the remainder of the day. Just before sunset, full sacks of olives are carefully bundled into trucks and taken to the mill for processing.

A short lunch at mid-day before returning to work

Each grower labels his sacks, so that his olives are not mixed with those from other groves on the production line. The mill washes the olives and removes any remaining leaves and debris, and the fruit is reduced to an olive slush. A press or a spinning centrifuge is then used to extract the precious extra virgin (top quality) oil, for which this region is famous. (See Making Olive Oil for details.)

Sacks of olives sit in the shade until they are taken to the mill

This winter, the olive harvest has never been more important. As the Greek economic crisis continues, many thousands of people are returning to their ancestral villages in search of jobs to support themselves until tourists (and summer jobs) return in spring.

Electric olive rods make the harvest go faster

Here in Crete, olives are on everyone’s mind. With over 1.5 million trees and near-perfect growing conditions, Cretan growers claim the highest percentage of extra virgin oil, and reputedly the tastiest in the world.

The commercial growers sell off their oil to the big brands, who distribute it around Greece. A large volume is shipped to Italy, where it is bottled (as Italian oil) for export around the world. However, the olive harvest in this local grove will provide oil to the local market. In fact, a much of that oil will be used to prepare tasty meals at Georgios Place, a traditional taverna near our home.

Much of the oil from this olive grove goes to a local taverna
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