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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Byzantine art of Cyprus

Cyprus posseses a treasure of Byzantine art and this is only natural, since it became one of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire as soon as Constantinople was founded, in 334 AD. Having inherited ancient Greek and Roman art, Cyprus was ready to develop a new form of art, which was, in a way the continuation of the Hellenistic heritage. The first period of Byzantine art in Cyprus begins at the end of the fourth and ends in the seventh century when the devastating Arab raids begin. From this period some basilicas with wooden roofs, now ruined, are preserved, very few icons and three beautiful apsidal mosaics. Technically, the mosaic of the Panaghia Angeloktisti church is the most important and it belongs to the Hellenistic tradition. It shows the Virgin Mary holding the Child and assisted by the Archangels. It reflects the art of Constantinople. The Arab raids from 649 to 965, when the island was liberated by Nicephoros Phocas, destroyed most objects of art in Cyprus. From this period very little remains, like the basilicas of Panaghia Aphentika and Haghios Varnavas. By the end of this period domed churches appear on the island like the church of Haghia Paraskevi in Yeroskipou. The paintings in the rock-cut chapel of Haghia Mavri near Kyrenia, (10 th century) are considered as very important to this period.

The mid-Byzantine period in Cyprus is rich in churches and wall paintings, which reflect the metropolitan style and are most valuable since contemporary paintings of Constantinople have been destroyed. In the church of Haghios Nikolaos tis Steghis near Kakopetria there are some eleventh century wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of Christ, like the Resurrection of Lazarus. The figures are highly spiritual and are rendered in a hieratical and austere manner, with pale, oblong faces and wide open eyes. The twelveth century wall paintings belong to the Comnenian style emanating from Constantinople, like those of the Crypte of Haghios Neophytos and of Panaghia tou Arakou. The colours are soft and harmonious, the face expressions are calm and majestic, the anatomy of the bodies is correct and the draperies undulate gracefully and vividly around the lithe bodies. This art reflects grace and spirituality with a mannerism, which also seeks beauty and harmony. The Frankish occupation (1192-1489) severs the island from the artistic centre guiding Byzantine art and Cypriot artists turn for inspiration to the already existing art forms. Thus, we have a kind of conservative art which repeats the twelveth century style and ignores the Palaeologian Renaissance that started in Byzantium during the thirteenth century. Towards the end of the thirteenth century Byzantine art in Cyprus is influenced by the art of the Crusaders. The short, rectangular bodies and the disproportionately big heads, the linear features and the simplified and linear folds and draperies characterise this form of art and can be seen in the wall paintings of the Panaghia tou Moutoulla church and in several icons from this period. The impact of Western art was at the beginning hardly visible on Cypriot paintings but its influence increased progressively and ended with the creation of an Italo-Byzantine school, at the end of the fifteenth / beginning of the sixteenth century. Wall paintings of this school are those of the Panaghia tou Podithou near Galata, the Panaghia lamatiki at Arakapas and of the Latin chapel of the monastery of Haghios loannis Lampadistis. The iconography in these wall paintings is Byzantine but the style is influenced very much by the Italian Renaissance with naturalistic landscapes, correct perspective, the gothic architecture in the background and the harmonious colours. The Macedonian school also affected the Cypriot painters, although it arrived a bit late in the island. Still, there are some beautiful icons painted in the Palaeologian style, like the one of the 14th century showing Christ on the throne with two angels and three donors. The broad, calm faces, the robust bodies, the smooth draperies and the translucid, harmonious colours belong to this style that reflects the humanistic tendencies of the court of the Palaeologi. Next to these modern styles and influences one can always detect the archaic features preserved in wall paintings or icons of Cyprus. The lack of an artistic centre and guide must be held responsible for this mixture of styles where archaism stands next to the Italian Renaissance elements and where an old, almost forgotten feature of the former Byzantine art was brought back and inserted, under a new form in the Byzantine art of Cyprus.