The (in)visibility of the Bema as means of religious identity at the Cretan churches from the middle Byzantine to the early Venetian Period

The Iconostasis is considered as the Par Excellence liturgical furnishing of the Orthodox churches. Usually the handbooks of Byzantine art maintain a threefold evolutional scheme concerning its apparition and establishment:
1) In the early Christian period the Bema is limited through low chancel slabs, thus permitting the direct visual contact between the congregation and the Eucharistic altar.
2) In the middle Byzantine period the initial chancel barrier is modified as a higher construction with chancel slabs, colonnettes and a beam. The spaces between the intracolumnia are covered either with veils or with portable icons, while the ensemble is accomplished with the symmetric juxtaposition of prostration images of Christ, Virgin or the Patron Saint.
3) In the Post Byzantine period the templon is transformed into a solid wall of Icons, known as “Iconostasis”. This installation reinforces the “mystical” meaning of the Orthodox Liturgy and opposes to the “open” liturgical character of the Catholic Eucharist as it is developed after the Council of Trent (1550-1565).

The archaeological evidence of the Cretan Churches implies a multiplicity of cultic forms that challenges the above mentioned scheme. In the middle Byzantine period, it seems that few cathedrals adopt the official arrangements. Yet, a considerable number of provincial churches seems: a) to be equipped with low built walls that crudely imitate the early Christian chancel slabs, b) to be deprived of any kind of a barrier that would hinder the direct view to the Bema. In this period when the Orthodox dogma is not endangered these cultic arrangements seem to be applied and accepted.

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 and the subsequent Venetian dominion of Crete, numerous wall-painted churches were constructed on the island. Their commonest arrangements included the placement of life-sized images of Christ, Virgin or the venerated saint of the church at their walls. These images are often presented as framed icons and seem to spread the iconographic program of the templon at the vertical walls of the edifices. The absence of initial templon spurs and the posterior adjustment of wooden ikonostasis suggest that in these churches the congregation had an unhindered visual contact towards the altar. This specific visual concept of the Liturgy could raise important questions concerning the “Orthodox” character of the rite on behalf of the Zealots, whose frequent accusation against the Catholics and the Unitarians focused on the accessibility of the Bema and the open view towards the altar. A minor group of 14th c./15th c. Cretan churches (ca. 20 examples) that is equipped with fresco painted masonry screens, underlines the opposition to the “open” arrangement and reveals the existence of a cultic duality that needs to be interpreted within the broader frame of cultic interrelationships and conflict between the native Orthodox population and the Catholic new-comers.

During the last years the scientific research is oriented towards the investigation of a religious osmosis. Few sources concerning Crete and Cyprus hint that some priests were not bothered to practice the Liturgy of both Confessions (Catholic or Orthodox). Additionally textual evidence from Anti-unitarian priests as well as representatives of the Catholic Church reveals the strong opposition of religious purists towards such mixed practices. Through this prism the frequent absence of the templon at the Cretan churches poses new questions, such as: the actual visual appearance of the Bema at the Cretan churches already in the middle Byzantine period, the possible retain or transformation of the former practice in the 14th and the 15th c. and its reinterpretation within a period of religious fluidity and conflict. The scope of the project is to document the most characteristic liturgical installations and iconographic arrangements of the Cretan churches from the 11th up to the 15th c., and to interpret them according to the ritual customs of each period-aiming to research the transformations of the architectural and liturgical forms as collective expressions of individual cultures simultaneously stressing out the importance of the regional monuments, which often challenge the stereotypes dictated by the Handbooks of Byzantine Archaeology.


  • A. Mailis, From Byzantine Monasticism to Venetian Piety. The Double Church of Hagios Panteleimonas and Hagios Demetrios at Perivolia (Chania) In: F. Daim/ D. Heher/ C. Rapp (Hrsg.), Menschen, Bilder, Sprache, Dinge. Wege der Kommunikation zwischen Byzanz und dem Westen. 1: Bilder und Dinge, BOO 9,1 (Mainz 2018) 183-204. 
  • A. Mailis, Obscured by Walls. The Bēma display of the Cretan churches from Visibility to Concealment. BOO 18 (Mainz 2020).