Famous Cretans

1. El Greco

A self-portrait by El Greco (1600) now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York
A self-portrait by El Greco (1600) now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York

El Greco or Domenicos Theotocopoulos is one of the best known Renaissance painters.  He was also known for his sculptures and architecture.  El Greco’s painting style was so individual that it could not be categorized as belonging to any particular school of his time.  For this reason it was not always appreciated by his contemporaries.  However, in the 20th century El Greco’s reputation soared and he influenced most of the best known artists of that time including Cézanne, Dali and Picasso.  Due to the fact that El Greco’s work is more influential and widely appreciated now then it was in his own time he has been described as being three centuries ahead of his time.

El Greco was born in 1541 in a village just outside Heraklion to a wealthy family    .  Initially he trained as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition and also studied the classics learning both ancient Greek and Latin.  By the age of 21 El Greco had already established himself as a painter in Crete.  In 1567, when he was 26, he moved to Venice who then ruled Crete to continue his studies.  After studying in Venice he went to Rome where he started a workshop.  In 1577 he migrated to Spain and lived in Toledo until his death in 1614.  During his stay in Spain he produced some of his best known works.  Even though he left Crete at an early age El Greco never forgot his Greek heritage and nearly always singed his work in Greek with his full name of Domenicos Theotocopoulos.

Christ on the Cross (1590) now in the Louvre
Christ on the Cross (1590) now in the Louvre
St Peter (1605) now in the Athens National Art Gallery
St Peter (1605) now in the Athens National Art Gallery
The Assumption of the Virgin (1579) now in the Art Institute of Chicago
The Assumption of the Virgin (1579) now in the Art Institute of Chicago
An early work at the Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin on the Greek island of Syros (1567
An early work at the Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin on the Greek island of Syros (1567)
The Holy Trinity (1579) now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid
The Holy Trinity (1579) now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid
The Repentant St Peter (1585) now in the Bowes Museum England
The Repentant St Peter (1585) now in the Bowes Museum England
The Burial of Count Orgaz (1588) now in the Toledo El Greco Museum
The Burial of Count Orgaz (1588) now in the Toledo El Greco Museum

2. Eleftherios Venizelos

img_famous09Eleftherios Venizelos is the most important politician and statesmen in modern Greek history.  He was born in Mournies near Chania on 23rd August 1864.  From early on he felt the effects of Crete’s struggle for freedom as his family was forced to flee Crete soon after his birth because of his father’s involvement in the Cretan uprising.  His early experiences created a deep desire in him to play a leading role in Greece’s national struggle to expand its territory and free fellow Greeks that were still being suppressed under Ottoman rule.

After studying law at the University of Athens he became a leader of the Liberal Party in Crete and played a major role in the 1896 Cretan uprising against Turkish rule that eventually led to the islands autonomy.  In 1905 he became a minister in the government of the autonomous Cretan Republic.  However, his ambition went beyond Crete and in 1910 he moved to Athens and by the end of that year had been elected Prime Minister of Greece.

Venizelos immediately began to re-organise the country and prepare it for a war to liberate all of the lands with Greek populations still under Ottoman control.  In 1912 after careful preparations and alliances with other Balkan countries he allowed Cretan deputies to take their seat in the Greek parliament.  This, along with other demands from Greece and its Balkan allies, led to the First Balkan War between the Christian nations of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottoman Empire was soundly defeated in the First Balkan War and this, together with Bulgaria’s defeat in the Second Balkan War of 1913, led to a significant expansion of Greek territory into Macedonia, Epirus and most of the Aegean islands.  Crete’s formal union with Greece was also sealed on 30 May 1913 when the Ottomans signed the Treaty of London.

In 1915 when the First World War broke out Venizelos wanted Greece to join the Allied powers of Britain, France and Russia.  However, he was thwarted in his attempts by the pro-German King Constantine and he resigned from office.  In March 1915 Venizelos was re-elected in a landslide victory.  He immediately mobilised the Greek Army and invited the Allied forces to Thessaloniki.  His actions infuriated the King who dismissed him from office.  Venizelos returned to Crete and formed a provisional revolutionary government and with the support of the Allies he planned to march on Athens.  However, in June 1917 the King was deposed and Venizelos regained power and led the Greeks during the rest of World War I.  At the Versailles Peace Conference after the war Venizelos was able to win substantial territorial gains for Greece at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

The tomb of Venizelos overlooking Chania
The tomb of Venizelos overlooking Chania

Unfortunately, despite his achievements, Venizelos was defeated in the Greek general elections of 1920.  The new pro-royalist government invited King Constantine back to power.  Subsequently, many of the territorial gains achieved by Venizelos were lost following the defeat of the Greek army in Asia Minor during the Greco-Turkish War of 1920-1922.

In later years Venizelos regained power and helped Greece recover from a decade of wars and the absorption of 1.5 million refugees who had been expelled from Turkey.  He served as Prime Minister in 1924, 1928-32 and again in 1933.  He died in exile in Paris on 18th March 1936.

Venizelos & the “Megali Idea”

img_famous11When Greece achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire nearly three quarters of all Greeks, including Cretans, lived outside the small Greek state.  The “Megali Idea” was the dream of the new Greek state to expand and one day encompass all or most of the ethnic Greeks in the surrounding countries.  Under the “Megali Idea” Constantinople would be recaptured from the Turks and replace Athens as the capital of a much larger Greece.

Eleftherios Venizelos was a great proponent of the “Megali Idea” and did more than anyone else to achieve it.  Great gains were made during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.  At the end of World War I, with the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, the greater part of the “Megali Idea” seemed to have been fulfilled.  Unfortunately, the events that followed and in particular the defeat of the Greek armies in Asia Minor led to the loss of some territories that had been gained and the complete uprooting by the Turkish authorities of the 3,500 year old Greek presence in Asia.

One can only wonder as to what may have been achieved if Venizelos had not lost the election in 1920 and if the King of Greece had supported him rather than constantly seek to undermine his authority.  The national schism that occurred as a result of the rivalry between Venizelos and the King paralysed the Greek nation during a time when unity was paramount and was a primary cause of the Asia Minor catastrophe and continuing political instability that lasted for decades.

A map showing the great territorial gains made by Greece between 1832 and 1947 most of which were achieved at the helm of Eleftherios Venizelos. Unfortunately, the gains in yellow were lost following the disastrous Greco-Turkish War of 1920-1922
A map showing the great territorial gains made by Greece between 1832 and 1947 most of which were achieved at the helm of Eleftherios Venizelos. Unfortunately, the gains in yellow were lost following the disastrous Greco-Turkish War of 1920-1922

3. Nikos Kazantzakis

img_famous13Nikos Kazantzakis is one of Greece’s most important and influential modern writers and philosophers.  His books have been translated into many languages and sold millions of copies.  His philosophy encapsulated in his epitaph (“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free”) appeals directly to the Cretan spirit of freedom, individuality and love of life.

Kazantzakis was born on 18 February 1883 in Heraklion when Crete was still under Ottoman rule.  He studied law at the University of Athens graduating in 1906 and then went on to Paris between 1907 and 1909 to study philosophy and political science.  He returned to Greece where he served in a non-combatant role in the Greek army during the Balkan Wars.  In 1919, he was appointed as a Director General of the Greek Ministry of Social Relief and helped to arrange the repatriation of 150,000 Pontic Greeks from the Caucasus region of Russia that were being persecuted by the Communist Government in Russia.  This experience provided material for some of his later works and also started a personal love of travel which continued until his death.  In 1957 Kazantzakis missed out on the Nobel Prize for Literature by one vote.  The winner, Albert Camus, was later quoted as saying that Kazantzakis deserved the honour “a hundred times more” than himself.

Kazantzakis is probably best known for his novel “Zorba the Greek” which was turned into a very successful international film by director Michael Cacoyiannis.  The story is about an uneducated yet interesting person who lives life to the full and loves all the everyday pleasures of life.  The strength and conviction of this simple but fascinating character as well as the inherent rejection of materialism has left a lasting impression on many generations of readers and its message is as strong today as when it was written.

The funeral procession of Nikos Kazantzakis
The funeral procession of Nikos Kazantzakis

Other well known works by Kazantzakis include “Freedom or Death” about Cretan society and its struggle for freedom, “Christ Recrucified” about religion, the epic poem “The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel” and his autobiography “Report to Greco”. Another famous work which was also turned into a film, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, portrayed Christ as an emotional human being with normal passions, fears and guilt.  This led to a great deal of controversy and angry reactions from Christians and the book was banned by the Roman Catholic Church and Kazantzakis was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church.

Kazantzakis died on 26 October 1957 from leukaemia and is buried on Crete as he had requested.  The Greek Orthodox Church refused to give him a Christian burial and that is why his gravesite is on one of the bastions of the Venetian fort surrounding Heraklion rather than in a cemetery.  However, the people of Crete made sure that he was given a heroes farewell and thousands took part in his funeral procession.

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