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Museum of Christian Art “St. Catherine of Sinai”, Heraklion

Updated: Nov 27, 2019


In the center of the old town of #Heraklion (Candia in the Venetian period) there is one significant and unique historic #monument, that often remains under the radar of the visitors despite (or because of?) being in the vicinity of the impressive Cathedral of the capital city of Crete. This monument is St. Catherine of Sinai (Agia Aikaterini ton Sinaiton / Αγία Αικατερίνη των Σιναϊτών), the church of the Orthodox monastery which was constructed in the Venetian period, as a dependency of the famous monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai, Egypt. The monastery was a cultural center of the period. From that monastery only the church survived and from 1967 has the adaptive reuse of a museum of holy icons and liturgical objects of the Archdiocese of Crete. In recent years conservation works took place in the monument and the #museum reopened in 2015 implementing a new museological approach in the permanent exhibition.

The new Museum is really interesting, and the reviews are showing the positive impression of the church and refurbished museum to the visitors. The museum is an ideal place to learn about the evolution of the Christian art in the island from the late Byzantine period the early modern through the influence of the Renaissance into a unique merging between eastern, Greek-orthodox, and western, Catholic, religious depictions. The narrative of the new museological approach is based on this hybrid form of creative evolution in Crete during the late medieval and early modern periods. Therefore, you can admire some of the best portable icons of the so-called Cretan school of Painting, namely the paintings of Michael Damascenos, contemporary to El Greco (Domenicos Theotocopoulos) highlighted in showcases in the center of the nave, and significant icons by Angelos Acotantos and other local painters, as well as mural paintings, limestone sculpture for architectural decoration and woodcraft, liturgical objects and silverware, priestly vestments, manuscripts and old printed books, and a collection of coins.

If you are interested in religious art and the exploration of the unique merging between eastern and western European artistic traditions, this is certainly a place you must visit.

Museum of Christian art, St. Catherine of Sinai, Venetian monument, Greek-orthodox church, Byzantine art, Heraklion, Greece, Crete
The facade of the Museum of Christian Art "St. Catherine of Sinai" from the west

Monument: architectural history

The church was originally build in the 13th or 14th century following a cruciform plan, with an annexed pareclession. The initial phase is surviving in the east part of the building in the long vaulted nave and the transept placed in front of the Bema (sanctuary). The western rectangular room of the parecclession, which is today dedicated to the Ten Martyrs of Gortys (Hagioi Deka), belongs also to the initial building phase of the church’s complex, as the archaeologists suggest, adding that: “During the second half of the 16th c. the church to the West of the transept was rebuilt in the Renaissance style. Τhe decoration of the imposts of the buttressing arches of the nave is a representative element. The restoration was completed in 1576, according to the inscription over the main entrance. In the beginning of the 17th c. the parecclession (dedicated today to Hagioi Deka) was altered. East of the initial building was added another rectangular room, which was covered with an octagonal ribbed dome, according to the Renaissance style. The dome leans at the corners upon squinches and on the sides upon blind arches. The ribs end down in a rich sculptural decoration with floral motifs. The dome is crowned by a cupola (lantern). The western face of the building received a new façade with an architrave. The renovation works were completed in 1620, according to the inscription over the western entrance”. St. Catherine was converted into a mosque (Zülfikar Ali Pasha Çamisi or Ayia Katerina Çamisi) by the Ottomans, after the fall of the Candia, and a minaret was added to the building. During the first half of the 20th century Crete annexed to Greece, Muslims departed from the island, and the minaret was demolished due the intolerance of the period. Since the mid-twentieth century the monument is again an Orthodox church.

Destination management

The Museum of Christian Art “St. Catherine of Sinai” is run by a governing committee under the jurisdiction of the Holy Archdiocese of Crete, and supervised by the local Greek Archaeological Service.

Physical settings

In the old town of Heraklion, within the, enlarged circuit in the 16th century, of the Venetian walls. Adjacent to St Catherine of Sinai, St Menas (Άγιος Μηνάς), the Greek-orthodox impressive Cathedral, was built in the second half of the 19th century. Both monuments, St Catherine of Sinai and St Menas Cathedral, as well as the old church of St Menas set a square named after St Catherine’s church.

Things to do

The day of St. Catherine celebration is the 25th of November, and a mass is taking place in the chapel. Occasionally there are also temporary exhibitions in the parekklision. Cafés are available around the monument, and you can also visit a nearby grocery shop selling authentic Cretan products.

(MO-SA 9:30-19:30, SU 10:30-19:30. Normal entrance fee: 4 €, reduced 2 €).

Pros: interesting and modern museum in a unique sacred building, the museum is ideal for a visit while having a tour in Heraklion, since in about half an hour the visitor can have an overview of the Christian art in Crete during 14th-19th c.; wheelchair accessible, located at a scenic square; decent and resourceful website.

Cons: No toilets, narrow gift shop; website and social media need amelioration.

Our rating 4.9/5

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