Ioannis Pagomenos – 14th century Byzantine painter

Possible Pagomenos signature (top left) at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Alikampos

Possible Pagomenos signature (top left) at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Alikampos

So at last I come to the Cretan painter Pagamenos, mentioned fleetingly in my previous posts on Kyriakoselia, Alikampos 1 & Alikampos 2 and Argyroupoli. He is a mysterious figure because nothing is known about his life: not even when he was born and died or where he lived. The only record of his life is through the surviving churches that he decorated, some of which record his name as the painter (see above picture).

It is from these inscriptions that we get a picture of his artistic activity over a period of 34 years. He is first mentioned in a building inscription at the Church of Aghios Georgios, in the village of Komitades in Sfakia, which refers to him painting the church in 1313/4. The last reference is an inscription of 1347 in the Church of the Dormition at Prodromi (Sfakidia) in the Selino district. If, allowing for a lengthy apprenticeship, Pagomenos was aged 25-30 when he painted his first signed church then he must have been born in the mid to late 1280s. This would have made him 65 by the time he completed his last church.

The name Pagomenos, which means ‘frozen’, is not found still in south west Crete where most of the churches he decorated are found. However the surname can still be found in Herakleion, so maybe this is where he came from originally.  It is likely that he trained here, as at the time Chania was not well developed. Perhaps he even trained in Byzantium.

There are 845 decorated churches in Crete (as catalogued by Gerola and Lassithiotakis in the 1960s), most of them in the countryside and by far the biggest proportion in the Selino district of south-west Crete, including half of the churches painted by Pagomenos.

Why were so many churches decorated in this part of Crete? Typically the churches are small single aisled, vaulted churches, built in often rather remote spots. It seems to me that the churches had existed for a while (perhaps 100-200 years) before they were decorated. So perhaps it was a combination of changing tastes and increasing affluence caused by the Venetian occupation of Crete that stimulated the demand for decorating churches in this way.

The congregations for them must have been tiny, yet they became aware of the possibilities of church decoration and more importantly they had the money to commission an artist to paint them. It has been argued that the money came from the sales of products that the Venetians valued, such as wine, wheat, cheese or wood (for shipbuilding / repairs). In this part of Crete it is more likely to have been wood that was traded. Probably the traders who took the wood from the south-west ports to Herakleion became aware of the possibilities for adorning their own churches and made contact with artists there that they then commissioned to do the work. The evidence is from church inscriptions that there were multiple sponsors of the work, rather than a small number of wealthy individuals.

There are apparently 8 churches that can be attributed from inscriptions to Pagomenos:

  • Agios Georgios in Komitades, Sfakia (1313/4)
  • Agios Nikolaos at Moni, Selino (1315)
  • Theotokos in Alikampos, Apokoronas (1315/16)
  • Agios Georgios in Anidros, Selino (1323)
  • Agios Nikolaos in Maza, Apokoronas (1325/6)
  • Michael the Archangel in Kandanos, Selino (1327/8)
  • The Panagia in Kakodiki, Selino (1331/2)
  • The Panagia in the village of Prodromi (Skafidia), Selino (1347)

Looking at this list, I am puzzled by some of the gaps, especially the ones between 1316-1323 and 1332-1347. What was Pagomenos doing during these years? Did he paint other churches, which have not been preserved? Did he work on other larger churches in collaboration with other painters? Did he turn to other types of religious painting (eg icons)? If he trained in Herakleion he must have been aware of the trade in icons. Crete had been controlled by Venice since 2011 following the sacking of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade and there was an increasing demand for icons from Italy.

In addition to the 8 churches mentioned above that can be attributed to Pagomenos there are others which may be by him but which cannot be authenticated, including:

  • Church of Agios Ioannis in Kandanos (1328/9)
  • Agios Panteleimon in Prodromi
  • The Virgin Mother of God in Kadros, Selino, in the community of Kakodikio

Apart from these, there are other churches (eg the Panagia in Anisaraki) which, whilst not Pagomenos’s work, were possibly completed under his influence. And of course, as I found at Argyroupoli other churches beyond this list have also been attributed to him because he is a well-known fresco painter, though there are about 15 other painters whose names are known from inscriptions.

Since most of his work was in the west of Crete, it is possible that he was based somewhere in the Chania area. He couldn’t work in the winter because the weather would have made travelling very difficult. Chania is the closest place from which he would have been able to buy the materials he needed and he must have had to base his family somewhere (there is evidence of a son who worked with him).

Finding and travelling over the mountainous terrain to the remote churches which commissioned him must have been very difficult. It has been estimated that by mule a traveller could cover up to 14km per day; so on that basis it must have taken up to a week to get to some of these churches from Chania. Travel was also very dangerous for someone on their own, so maybe he travelled with an assistant and used pack animals to carry his materials (a special plaster was need to prepare the base for the frescoes). Also on arriving in the area where he was commissioned to work there would have been few houses which would have been big enough to house him in addition to the people who already lived there.

From my experience of trying just to photograph his work, I marvel at how he managed to create his frescoes. How did he light the interiors sufficiently well to paint them? Did he use oil lamps? There seem to be so many obstacles to his creative activity. It was clearly a very difficult and precarious way of life, yet he managed to produce work of the quality of the Alikampos frescoes.

I am very grateful to Dr Angeliki Lymperopoulou, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University and an expert in the decorated churches of Venetian Crete for her help and encouragement in writing this series of blog posts. In particular I have been greatly stimulated by, and taken an enormous amount of information from her article Fourteenth-century Regional Cretan Church Decoration: the Case of of the Painter Pagomenos and his Clientele (Series Byzantina VIII, pp150-175).

In addition I would also like to acknowledge the following article in Greek on Pagomenos by Konstantinos Kalokyris, Ioannis Pagomenos, o Vyzantinos zografos tou ID’ aionas (Kritika Khronika 12 (1958) pp347-367).

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