“Ah, Fodele, that’s where the famous Cretan painter El Greco was born!”
“In your dreams, Nikos, he was born in Candia, present-day Heraklion.”
“Nonsense, he was born in Fodele, and we have the proof! There’s a museum at his family’s house!”
“Rubbish, it was Candia!”
To be honest, I do not care where El Greco was born, as I do not particularly like his work (although I will admit it is both interesting and puzzling). But the inhabitants of Fodele do care and they firmly believe that Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), nicknamed El Greco, was born in their village. Well, not actually in their village, as old Fodele is about a kilometre west of modern Fodele. But it was definitely Fodele, and not stinky stupid Candia.
Tourists are usually made aware of the presence of an El Greco museum in Fodele when they drive on the E75/90 coastal road from Heraklion to Rethymnon and Chania. A brown sign with yellow letters points to the correct exit. Fodele actually consists of two parts. Fodele Paralia (Greek for ‘beach’) is where you find the holiday resorts, beach clubs, bars and mass tourism. If you do not like these things, skip this part of Fodele. Fodele Village on the other hand is a charming little village, some two kilometres inland.
You can leave your car near the park and then walk west towards the El Greco museum. It is very small and – surprise, surprise – not a single painting you find here is original work by the master himself. In fact, the pictures you see at the museum are not even paintings. They are all reproductions in the form of photographs, placed on light boxes so you get a good idea of how Theotokopoulos used colours and shapes. El Greco is known for his peculiar style, which can certainly be considered sui generis. It is immediately recognisable for its frequent use of strangely elongated figures. You either like his style, or you do not.
The truth is, Crete possesses just two original El Greco paintings. In the Historical Museum of Crete, which is in Heraklion, one can find View of Mt. Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine and The Baptism of Christ. Theotokopoulos studied on Crete before departing for Venice in Italy – Crete was Venetian territory at that time – around 1567. The painter later moved to Rome and then to Spain, where he would settle in Toledo. El Greco would live and work there until his death in 1614. It is therefore no surprise that much of his work can be admired in Toledo and Madrid, but also in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Paris and London. More work can be found in Rome and Milan.
Opposite the museum is a small church that I found very interesting. It is an eleventh or twelfth century Byzantine church dedicated to the Panagia, i.e. to Mary, mother of Jesus. I erroneously assumed the name referred to ‘all the saints’, but was corrected by the church’s guard, who told me the correct meaning of the word: Mary is “all holy” (pan – agia). The church is built upon the remains of an earlier, larger church that was presumably destroyed when the Arabs invaded in the early ninth century. It was rebuilt about a century or a century and a half after the Eastern Romans recaptured Crete in 961. You will find many churches like this one on Crete, “little mushrooms”, as the guard called them.
Since it was raining cats and dogs outside, the guard – a woman in her mid-twenties who spoke perfect English – invited us all to stay a little longer so she could tell us about the history of the building and the frescoes inside. The guard had certainly done her homework, as she knew just about every little detail of the church and the wall paintings. Most of the frescoes are weathered and damaged, and during the Ottoman period, some of them were damaged on purpose. A couple of the saints had had they eyes gouged out, as Islam usually follows the strict commandment that prohibits portraying people.
One of the frescoes has an interesting piece of graffiti written on it. It is hardly legible, but the year is clear: 1482. The text is definitely in Latin and I could make out ‘hic fuit’ (‘he was here’), followed by what is presumably a name. So a fifteenth century hooligan wanted posterity to know that he had been to Fodele and decided to carve his name onto the image of a saint. The guy certainly had a bloody cheek.