published 11.16.2009

"The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete" on View at the Onassis Cultural Center

by Onassis Foundation USA

NEW YORK, NY, November 16, 2009 -- The Onassis Cultural Center, whose most recent exhibition was the highly praised Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens, will bring together an extraordinary group of 15th and 16th century paintings, including early works by El Greco, in the exhibition The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, from November 17, 2009, through February 27, 2010. Tracing the cross-currents of Byzantine and Renaissance influences in the workshops of 15th and 16th century Crete—the setting in which El Greco was trained—the exhibition is the first to focus on the evolution of the multifaceted relationship of Cretan painters with Western art during this rich period. 

Curated for the Onassis Cultural Center by Dr. Anastasia Drandaki, Curator of the Byzantine Collection at the Benaki Museum, Athens, The Origins of El Greco will present 46 exceptional works from public and private collections in Greece, Europe, the United States and Canada, many of which will be traveling to the U.S. for the first time.

According to Dr. Drandaki, “The icon painters in the workshops on Crete in the 15th and 16th centuries were renowned for their skill in painting impeccable panels not only in the traditional Byzantine manner but also in a style inspired by Western models. Although a dialogue with Western painting was not new to Byzantine art, a number of special factors undoubtedly helped to encourage the immersion of Cretan artists in Western iconography and style, especially after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.” The Origins of El Greco will illuminate these fascinating developments as seen in rare panel paintings that span the course of two centuries. 

Exhibition Highlights
At the core of the exhibition will be eleven superb icons from the Collection of St. Catherine of the Sinaites in Heraklion, Crete. Founded around the 10th century as a dependency of the monastery of the same name at Mount Sinai, the Church of St. Catherine in Heraklion supported a large and learned monastic community by the 16th century and since 1967 has housed a highly important collection of Orthodox icons and religious objects. Ten of the panels from the Collection of St. Catherine have left Crete only once before, in 1993, for an exhibition in Athens. The eleventh of this group, a Last Supper by Michael Damaskinos, has been outside of Greece only once, for a 1999 El Greco exhibition that traveled to Athens, Madrid and Rome. 

Four icons in the exhibition from The State Hermitage Museum—Pietà, Resurrection and Noli Me Tangere, Virgin with Greek Saints and St. Rocco, and St. Dimitrios—have never traveled at all since entering the St. Petersburg collection in 1930. A Deesis by Nikolaos Tzafouris, from the Antivouniotissa Museum in Corfu, is also traveling for the first time.

As another unprecedented feature of the exhibition, the Onassis Cultural Center will reunite two wings of a triptych by El Greco—a Baptism of Christ belonging to the Municipality of Heraklion, and an Adoration of the Shepherds belonging to Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario—which have only recently been identified as having once belonged to the same altarpiece. 

Two other exhibition highlights are a famous early painting by El Greco, The Dormition of the Virgin, which travels very rarely from its church in Ermoupolis and will be lent by the Metropolis of Syros; and a late, Spanish-period work by El Greco, The Coronation of the Virgin, on view in New York for the first time courtesy of the collection of the Onassis Cultural Center’s parent institution, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. 

Exhibition Information
Greek lenders to the exhibition will be the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, Athens; Antivouniotissa Museum / Twenty-first Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, Corfu; Benaki Museum, Athens; Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens; Holy Metropolis, Church of the Dormition of the Virgin, Ermoupolis, Syros; Marianna Latsis Collection, Athens; Municipality of Heraklion, Crete; National Gallery-Alexander Soutzos Museum, Athens; Public Library of Lefkada; Saint Catherine of the Sinaites, Collection of Ecclesiastical Art, Heraklion, Crete; and The P. and A. Canellopoulos Museum / First Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, Athens. Among the lenders in Europe, the United States and Canada will be the Museum of the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, Venice; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; and Queen’s University, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario. 

The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Benaki Museum, Athens and the Holy Archdiocese of Crete, and is exclusively funded by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA). The exhibition will be on view at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. 

Curator Biography
Anastasia Drandaki graduated from the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Athens and received her PhD from the same university with a thesis on Byzantine metalwork. From 1994 to 1996, she was a Research Fellow at the Artificial Intelligence Division-School of Computer Science of the University of Westminster, London, where she worked on the design and implementation of a computer program for the documentation of the Benaki Museum Byzantine Collection. She has published articles on Byzantine metalwork and icon painting and a monograph on Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons. She is the Curator of the Byzantine Collection at the Benaki Museum. 

Exhibition Catalogue
Accompanying the exhibition will be an illustrated 132-page catalogue, featuring entries on each painting in the exhibition and essays by curator Dr. Anastasia Drandaki; Dr. Olga Gratziou, Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology, University of Crete; and Dr. Nicos Hadjinicolaou, Professor of Art History, University of Crete.

Onassis Cultural Center
The Onassis Cultural Center is the public forum of the Onassis Foundation (USA), an affiliate of the
Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation established according to the will of the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis upon his death in 1975. Now marking its tenth anniversary season, the Onassis Foundation (USA) aims to disseminate Greek culture and civilization of all time periods throughout the United States and Canada. The Center seeks to give the public greater access to significant aspects of Greek culture through its ongoing series of exhibitions, lectures, musical events, literary evenings, and theatrical performances. To learn more about the Foundation and the Onassis Cultural Center, please visit

For additional information, please contact:
Amy Wentz / Ruder Finn Arts & Communications Counselors
212.715.1551 /


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