Text: Christina Georgiou
Armed with a map of religious sites in Cyprus, and with UNESCO as your guide, the unique and rich heritage of the island will unfold before you.
Monasteries, churches, UNESCO sites, murals, icons and oral traditions compose a picture of Christianity’s heritage and cultural influence on Cyprus and her people. Cyprus began her relationship with Christianity shortly after the birth of the religion. Some two thousand years ago in 45 AD the apostle Paul, Barnabas, and Mark arrived at Salamis and travelled to Pafos, proclaiming their faith as they went. Byzantine art and architecture are prolific on the island.
Cyprus is blessed with fascinating monuments, their histories cut across the millennia. No fewer than ten churches built during the Byzantine period have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. All are in the Troodos mountain region. Despite the simplicity of their exteriors, their interiors are graced with fine examples of Byzantine and post-Byzantine murals, these covering a range of different schools of painting. Dating from the early 11th to early 16th centuries, they are all in excellent condition. The churches are representative of rural parish architecture. With interiors adorned by lovingly rendered murals, the churches are akin to miniature museums of Byzantine art and repositories for the island’s history, conquerors and people.
In Kakopetria, Ayios Nikolaos tis Steyis (the church of ‘Saint Nicholas of the Roof’), whose murals were painted over a 600 year period, is typical in this respect. However, it is also unique in being the catholicon (monastic church) of a Byzantine monastery. Built on Cyprus during the first half of the 11th century, its murals are the most important of the period. These include depictions of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of Lazarus, and other individual figures. In the late 12th century, the church acquired the nickname ‘of the Roof’ when a second roof was added.
The Church of Panayia Phorviotissa, more widely known as the Church of the Virgin of Asinos, dating from December 1192 was privately funded. The murals represent the most complete series on Cyprus to have survived from the Middle Byzantine period.
Ayios Ioannis (St John) Lambadhistis Monastery is situated just below the village of Kalopanayiotis. A visit here should be combined with a walk around what is one of the most beautiful and picturesque mountain villages in Cyprus. Fragments of 11th and 12th-century murals survive on the Monastery’s interior, while others date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The latter include some rare subjects, including a portrayal of Saint Mandilios.
On the list of UNESCO sites are the Church of Panayia (The Virgin) Moutoullas, a small Orthodox church from the period of Frankish rule, and the 14th-century Church of Timios Stavros (Holly Cross) that resides in the village of Pelendri and is decorated with murals from the Palaiologan era.
In Pedhoulas, the popular resort in the mountains, the Church of Archangel Michael is graced by a hand-carved altar screen rendered in wood. Close by and housed in the old primary school are works from other Byzantine churches in the area that date from the 13th to 20th centuries.
Some three kilometres outside Platanistasa is the Church of Stavros of Ayiasmati. Inside are some of the most complete murals in Cyprus from the latter half of the 15th century. The entire interior of the church is decorated, including the four beams supporting the wooden roof. The paintings are of special interest due to their unique composition of combined Palaiologan, Byzantine and local folk art with Italian Renaissance stylistic elements. They were painted by Philippos Gool, a Hellenised Syrian-Orthodox artist.
In Galata village, the Church of Panayia (The Virgin) Podhithou stands out for its murals painted in the Italo-Byzantine style. These appeared on the island in the late 15th century. The monastery remained operational until the early 19th century. Like many others in Cyprus, it was abandoned when the Archbishop and other Cypriot prelates were executed during the Greek Revolution of 1821.
In the mountainous region Pitsilia, between the villages Lagoudhera and Saranti, is the Church of Panayia (The Virgin) tou Arakou. Its murals are executed in the style characteristic of the late Comnenian period (1192) and can be compared to surviving works by Theodore Apsevdis in Greece, the Balkans and Russia. However, the murals on the archway differ from the rest, and that is why they’re believed to have been painted earlier by another hand.
In Palaichori, the Church of Ayia Sotira (Transfiguration of the Saviour) is the most recent to have been added to the UNESCO list. Although we do not know who painted its interior, his work distinguishes him among some of the finest artists of the 16th century.
The Church of the Virgin of Asinos is built just outside the village of Nikitari.