The Post-Byzantine Frescoes of Symi (16th–17th century)
The Post-Byzantine Frescoes of Symi (16th–17th century)

By Michail I. Asfentagakis | National and Kapodistrian University of Athens


The monumental painting of the Post-Byzantine period on Symi Island, and specifically of the 16th and 17th century, is represented in two churches: the small (4.,79 x 2.,22 m.) church of St. Dimitrios tou Ambeliou (of the Vineyard) and the katholikon of the Monastery of Archangel Michael Kokkimidis. Both of them are located in the mountains of the island, with no great distance between them.

We cannot be sure about the date of the erection of the church of St. Dimitrios, due to its simple architectural plan (one room building, with semi-circular roof, and holy bema with one semi-cylindered apse). In addition, it is covered by whitewash inside and outside and the examination of the walls is impossible so far. On the side walls of the naos, close to the templon, three depictions are still preserved, two in the north (enthroned Pantokrator and equestrian military saint, without hagionym) and one in the south (Panagia Vrefokratousa). Recently, the remaining frescoes were dated in the first half of the 16th century, perhaps in the first 30 years.

The foundation of the Monastery of Kokkimidis is dated in the Protobyzantine Period, according to a contemporaneous engraved epigraph on the base of the present altar. The architectural style of the katholikon is the same as the one of St. Dimitrios, but larger in size (6.,28 x 2.,91 m.). On the lintel of the church an inscription survives, which mentions the renovation of the church by the hieromonk Callistratos in 1697. The whole iconographic program (almost) is preserved in a good condition and it is constituted of the depictions of the Deesis with hierarchs performing the Divine Liturgy, archangels, equestrian military saints, apostles, et al. The wall-paintings are dated at the end of the 17th century as well.


After the surrender of Rhodes to the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520 - 1566) and the withdrawal of the knights of the Order of St. John (1523), the two biggest islands of the Dodecanesian Complex, Rhodes and Kos, started facing a lot of difficulties in various sectors, especially due to the economic recession and the strict administration of the Ottomans. The painting production was significantly reduced and almost none of the frescoes in the churches of the Dodecanesian capital and Kos can be dated in the rest 77 years of the 16thth century. Although, the other islands of the Dodecanese, especially the smaller ones, like Symi, maintained their independence, it’s not easy to detect iconographic programs from this period, apart from “safe” exceptions, e.g. in Panagia Spiliani in Aperi of Karpathos Island (1528, painter Iakovos Perkoudas or Perkoulas).

During the first quarter of the 16th century, before the siege of Rhodes, only specific churches of the island were decorated with new frescoes, like St. Nicholas in Trianta, Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity) in the Old Town (both between 1490 and 1510), St. Spyridon in the Old Town (second painting layer, second half of the 15th century or beginning of the 16th) and the katholikon of the Monastery of Archangel Michael in Thar(r)i (fourth painting phase, 1506). On Kos, frescoes from the first quarter of the 16th century are preserved only in a few churches. They are creations of a local painting workshop (active especially on Kos and Kalymnos Islands), whose artistic quality is pretty low.

In the 17th century, the general situation on Rhodes has been normalized and the painting production has been increased, but not magnificently. Wall-paintings dated in this century are displayed in only ten churches on the island, according to their inscriptions. Also, on the other islands of the complex the examples are not many.

The surviving frescoes in the church of St. Dimitrios tou Ambeliou consist a significant sample of the art of the 16th century in the Dodecanese, no matter if they are dated some years before 1523 or after. They were painted by an experienced painter, with a good knowledge in monumental painting and icon painting as well, and they are not connected to any other artwork, on Rhodes, Kos or other islands. We can’t be sure from which artworks he inspired his patterns, but similarities between his work in St. Dimitrios and pieces of art of the eclectic style from Rhodes to Cyprus probably show us the contact he had with Western masterpieces (e.g. the portable icon Christ Carrying the Cross in the Collection of the Rhodes Bishopric, ca. 1500). Certainly, portable icons influenced his art and the presence of the stylistic features of the Cretan School are pretty obvious. His origin is still unknown and we can’t be sure if the painter belonged to a local workshop or he was a traveling artist. Many Cretan icons have been detected in the Dodecanesian Complex and, from the Notarial Archives, we know that Cretan artists were invited later, at the beginning of the 17th century, to decorate churches in the Dodecanese. The creator of the frescoes in St. Dimitrios tou Ambeliou could be one of them.

As concerns the katholikon of Kokkimidis Monastery, the importance of the monument is based, not only on the inscription of the ktitor, which informs us about the erection of the new building, but also on the fact that the katholikon is the only church on the island with wall-paintings dated safely in the 17th century. Its decoration gives us valuable information about the iconographic choices of the patron, the painting style of the painter and consequently of the last period of the 17th century in the Dodecanese (only a few frescoes are dated then). The great, half-destroyed, depiction of Sts. Peter and Paul on the west wall, instead of the theme of the Last Judgment, is remarkable, as it reveals the special connection between the patron of the katholikon and the Republic of Venice (La Serenìsima). Of course, the diplomatic relations between Symi and the Republic were already known through a letter which was sent by Doge Francesco Morosini (1688 - 1694) to the Symians in 1684 (the hieromonk Ananias from the Symian Monastery of the Archangel Michael Roukouniotis had met him earlier in Preveza, before Morosini became a Doge).

Further Reading

Asfentagakis, Michail I. “The Wall-Paintings of the Church of the Archangel Michael Kokkimidis. A Mural Decoration from the End of the 17th Century on Symi” (in Greek). Dodecanesian Chronicles 28 (2018): 405426.

Asfentagakis, Michail I. Mosaic Pavements and Monumental Painting on Symi during the Βyzantine and the Knights Hospitaller Period (6th - beginning of the 16th century) (in Greek). Athens, 2021 (unpublished doctoral dissertation).

Lambadarios, Panteleimon P. (Archimandrite). The Wall-Paintings of the Great Fortress of the Chora of Kalymnos (in Greek). Johannesburg, 1988.

Psarri, Giota. “Wall-Paintings of the 17th century on Rhodes” (in Greek). In Programme and Abstracts of Major Papers and Communications of the 18th Symposium on Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Archaeology and Art (Athens, 8, 9 and 10 of May 1998), 7374. Athens, 1998.

In the first two studies, the frescoes of the two churches (St. Dimitrios tou Ambeliou and the katholikon of Kokkimidis Monastery) are examined and analyzed by the author for the first time ever.

In the third one, the majority of the frescoes of the local painting workshop of the 16th century is presented, with a short description.

In the fourth study the researcher presents shortly the safely dated frescoes of the 17th century in the churches of Rhodes (and some others) and makes some observations on their iconography and style.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.

Michail I. Asfentagakis, "The Post-Byzantine Frescoes of Symi (16th–17th century)," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,