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Photo credit:  This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication courtesy Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

The year is 1192. The island of Cyprus, seized from the waning Byzantine Empire but eight years earlier, is witnessing a quick succession of events, which includes: a somewhat accidental conquest by the English king, Richard the Lionheart, enroute his crusade to recapture Jerusalem; its subsequent sale to the powerful Knights Templar; an uprising by Cypriot rebels; followed by an almost immediate concession of the island to Sir Guy of Lusignan, vassal of the king. Against the backdrop of these tumultuous occurrences along the Cyprus coasts, the Cretan monk, Theodoros Apsevdis, a renowned artist of the time, is laying finishing touches on a breathtaking series of frescoes, in a church high up in the mountains.

Housed within a small monastery nestled within the Troodos Mountains, near the sleepy village of Lagoudera, Apsevdis would have started the church decoration project with a complex method of plastering the walls with a special mix, followed by painstakingly drawing and then etching a series of panels re-telling the stories of Christian saints and icons. Building on ancient Greek and Roman methods, he would have selected his pigments: for faces, a mix of Constantinopolitan ocher, cinnabar, vermillion, lead white and a hint of celadonite green; azurite and lead white for garments and folds, yellow and red earth for landscapes, black carbon for details and outlines. He would have then mixed his powdered pigments with a special blend of lime or lime wash and casein to adhere to the walls, techniques perfected over the years he trained as an artist in Crete and Constantinople. Along with his apprentices, he would have proceeded to wash the drawings delicately with colors, adding layers upon layers for subtle tinting, shadows, garment folds and transparencies. Characterized by elegant postures, gentle mannerisms, swirling folds and graceful forms with sophisticated gestures, Apsevdis’ decorative artistry was appreciated and paid for by local aristocrat and church patron, Leon Afthentis. Both their names are immortalized in the inscriptions found within the paintings today, giving the modern traveler a rare, tantalizing glimpse into the lives of generations past.

This church, Panagia Tou Arakou, is hailed as one of the finest examples of Byzantine art, the last truly Byzantine exemplar, as the island found itself thrust into political and religious turmoil while power transferred to the Frankish Lusignan dynasty. Unbeknownst to him, however, Apsevdis was a true artistic trendsetter of his day, with his style of painting influencing later frescoes found throughout the island, which also incorporate Italian and Constantinopolitan influences. The church itself is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with nine other churches found hidden within the same mountains, collectively known as the “Painted Churches of Troodos.” 

Scattered around quiet villages within the Troodos mountain range, the Painted Churches have remained unchanged for centuries, shrouding within them the largest treasure trove of religious art from the Byzantine Empire.

One would be forgiven for strolling unwittingly past these churches whose outer structures belie the treasures they hold within, a stark contrast to the rich murals decorating their interior walls. These unassuming rural buildings present a humble brick façade, rustically thatched to protect them from the winter snowfall descending from the peaks of the nearby Mount Olympos. Scattered around quiet villages within the Troodos range, they have remained unchanged for centuries, shrouding within them the largest treasure trove of religious art from the Byzantine Empire. They are unique in that they are also living monuments, used continuously as religious sites of worship and ceremony, some carrying forward the Eastern Orthodox monastic tradition for hundreds of years. While the sites themselves are protected by Cyprus’ Antiquities Law, and fall under the Church of Cyprus, the local priests and villagers are fully involved in managing access and upkeep, and visitors often have to pop into the local keeper of the keys, whether a coffeeshop owner around the corner, or a priest next door!

“Cypriots are delightful, friendly and joyous,” shared Mr. Misha Simmonds, Director at Esol Education’s American International School in Cyprus (AISC), who was introduced to the monuments by an AISC staffer whose husband is a researcher and an expert on the churches. Describing the experience of journeying to see the Painted Churches, he said, “Each church is in or near a different village, each known for something different like apples or wine, which is celebrated each fall at local festivals. Inside the churches, my wife, daughter and I were all awed by the detail, emotion and stories told by the paintings.” If you’re traveling to Cyprus, Mr. Simmonds recommends these as a must-visit - the villages are an easy one-hour drive from Nicosia or Limassol. He adds, “Overall, be ready for the diversity of the country: mountains, beaches, classical ruins, medieval churches, and more!”

Church photo
 

Sites to Visit

1.Panayia tou Araka, Lagouderia

A truly stunning building which appears bigger than it is from the outside, what’s really unique about this little church is its steep-pitched roof which extends beyond the main structure on three sides, with a wooden trellis concealing the building within. And that’s not to forget the other equally impressive and unique feature with the dome covered by a separate wooden roof; something unique amongst the churches of Troodos. Have a look at the inscription above the north entrance and you’ll see that the church was decorated with the donations of Leon Afthentis in December 1192.

2.Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis, Kakopetria

About two kilometres south west of the popular Kakopetria village, a little church built in the 11th century calls out for attention, standing as the only surviving katholicon (monastery church) of an 11th century Byzantine monastery on the island. With its steeped pitched roof a real site to see, made from a flat tile common in the Troodos area, its name ‘tis stegis’ directly translates to: ‘of the roof’. But it’s not just the outside, the interior is often hailed as a museum of Byzantine painting. Step inside to ogle at an inside space decorated with frescoes that cover a time span of about 600 years, with the oldest part of the mural decoration dating back to the 11th century and hailed the most significant wall painting which survives on the island from this period in time.

3.Agios Ioannis Lampadistis, Kalopanayiotis

With Kalopanayiotis having become a real hot spot with locals and foreigners alike, one of its key attractions is Lampadistis Monastery. A complex made of three little churches dating back to the 11th century, the building is dedicated to a young monk named John Lampadistis buried on the grounds. Legend has it that a man suffering from epilepsy once touched the grave and was miraculously cured. News spread quickly across the country, and his tomb has been credited with special healing powers.

4.Panayia tis Asinou, Nikitari

Three kilometres south of the village of Nikitari on the north foothills of the Troodos mountain range, this church used to be the monastery church of the Monastery of Forbion. Built with the donation of Magistros Nikephoros Ischyrios, he then became a monk known by the name Nikolaos. While no traces of the monastery survive today, it’s known that it was built in 1099, and was abandoned at the end of the 18th century. Step inside the church and you’ll be looking left and right, up and down, taking in the splendour of a place covered in wall paintings. With some dating back to the 1100s, they beautifully reflect Comnenian period style.

Opening times are seasonal and subject to change, please check before visiting.

-Panayia tou Araka, Lagouderia: 9am- 12 noon and 2pm- 5pm daily. Closed on public holidays.

-Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis, Kakopetria: Closed on Monday and public holidays. Weekdays and Saturdays: 9am-4pm. Sunday 11am-4pm. 

-Agios Ioannis Lampadistis, Kalopanayiotis: Closed on Monday and public holidays. Weekdays and Saturdays: 9am- 1pm and 2pm-5pm. Sunday: 10am-1pm and 2pm-4pm. 

– Panayia tis Asinou, Nikitari: Weekdays and Saturdays 9.30am-4pm, Sundays and public holidays 10am-4pm.

Reprinted with permission: original article from My Cyprus Insider (mycyprusinsider.com) by Action Global Communications.