The Byzantine painting of Cyprus
The Byzantine painting of Cyprus and its evolution to the present day
The icon is a conception of the invisible transcendental world which connects the faithful to the divine world. It is a kind of window allowing contact with eternity as well as the transmission of the devotion of the faithful to the represented figure – a figure which is reproduced in a far from accidental way. It is for this reason that Byzantine painting became a par excellence spiritual art with its own techniques and aesthetics, its own artistic criteria and values, that imply the abstraction of everything which alludes to the material dimension, remaining at the same time one superior, noble and precious art. The abstraction of the depth, the volume, the shadows and the gravity, the use of the golden abstractive and transcendental background, the particular method of application and treatment of pigments and of the light and shade distribution, the general manner in the modelling of the naked parts, the garments and the landscape, favour and accentuate the dematerialisation of the figures and emphasize the transcendence emanating from infinity.
Icon painting, contrary to widespread opinion, shows the variety, diversity and heterogeneity to be expected of an art which has a long history and spans a large geographic area including many different countries. There are marked differences in techniques and aesthetics as one goes from early encaustic icons of the first millenium up to the 18th and 19th century icons produced in lakes on a leaf- gilded surface, or again from Coptic icons to those produced under the impact of the Italian Renaissance. Although iconographical types were copied in order to safeguard the strict dogmatic tradition with its hieratic and spiritual rules and its prescriptions for the typological and prosopographical constitution of the different saints, each artist brought his own personal imprint, as well as the imprint of the political, social and economical conditions prevailing at the time. The maintenance of an absolute, centuries-long canonicity in techniques, materials, iconographical themes and aesthetic is difficult. Whether religious or secular, art by nature evolves and cannot remain static or indifferent to historical vicissitudes or to variations in taste and mentality. Nevertheless, a certain cohesion and homogeneity has been maintained throughout the centuries by respect for archetypes and well-defined iconographical types, especially as regards the physical representation of the Virgin Mary, of Christ and the saints, as well as general iconographical elements (garments, attributes etc) and sometimes the general iconographical conception and organization of a whole scene. As S. Runciman notes, the canons of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which took place in 787, became “the charter of Byzantine artists”. This conservatism of Byzantine painting has been assured by the very nature of the religion and its theological dogmas which lie at the foundations of pictorial creation. The icon makes allusion to the invisible and transcendental world; it renders .this spiritual world through the means of its technical and iconographical conventions, through its symbolism, and through its basic structure. It could be said that it is the art that renders visible the invisible using the terrestrial materials. According to John of Damascus’ definition, the icon must be different from reality; it is an image which depicts the prototype (the reproduced person) but in a way to differ and not to be a realistic copy of it. The icon abstracts the third dimension, volume, weight and the expression of sentiments, and prefers static and hieratic attitudes as well as the frontal position. According to Denys the Areopagite, the world “is but a cover masking the real meaning”.
Icon painting is a particular form of pictorial and artistic expression, linked to the world that it serves, that is to religion and the Orthodox Church as well as to the practices and other manifestations of the faithful towards saints and the divine world. A clear distinction between an icon and an occidental painting on canvas is that the first idealizes the divine and spiritual world (that of God, Christ, the Virgin, the Saints, and the Martyrs) and the other idealizes the terrestrial world and human nature. In Byzantine painting there is no shading; it could be said that the characters are not lit by natural light issuing from a luminous source, but by a transcendental lighting which accentuates the ethereal character, the spirituality and the dematerialization of the figures, who are depicted on a neutral and usually gilded background. Figures must, according to strict tradition, be devoid of the formal characteristics of the real visible world; depth, volume and weight should not be suggested in the pictorial space, leading with the aid of the special lighting mentioned above to a de-materialization. It is only during periods of retrospection towards Classical Antiquity under the Macedonians and under the Paleologues, or even – after the fall of Constantinople – under the impact of the international Gothic style and the world of the Renaissance, that Byzantine aesthetic accepted the humanization of the forms and the introduction of naturalism, sometimes idealized, as well as the third dimension – elements that have contributed to a despiritualization, perhaps reinforced as well by a philosophical shift of meaning.
Cypriot Byzantine painting holds an important place in the historical evolution of the genre. The geographical position of the island as a crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean, where the rich and varied civilizations from three continents as well as strategic and political interests meet, has defined the orientations in different periods followed by this insular civilization. Cypriot icons can in principle be easily identified by their workmanship in that they retain most frequently a local character. The local flavour has been present in the Island’s artistic production since Antiquity. Sometimes it is accompanied by a certain provinciality, that reflects the incomplete or wrong assimilation of prototypes diffused by the great artistic centres; but most frequently it achieves a high level of artistic creativity especially during periods when the island constituted a productive artistic centre itself. Be it materials, techniques, iconographical themes, style, or even small details of ornamentation, there is often evidence that reveals the origin of the icon.
Christian painting developed quite early in Cyprus, judging from literary evidence and from the small amount of material documents that survives to us, such as mural paintings and mosaics and rare portable icons. The first millenium of Byzantine painting of Cyprus has not yet been fully studied. The portable icons known according to present data are very few. The icon of Saint Marina, dating to the 7th/ 8th century is considered to be the oldest Cypriot portable icon known in the island thus far, a rare art work to have been spared from the period of the Arab-Byzantine condominium in Cyprus. A few other specimens of portable icons are so far known, such as that in encaustic of the Virgin Orans, going back to the 8th/9th century; that with Saints Minas, Victor and Vikentios of the 10th century and another of the 10th century – that of Saints Kosmas and Damian.
Mosaics dating before the Iconoclasm, still exist, such as the three groups of the 6th century and others in a very fragmentary state of preservation. The three main groups are those in the church of Kanakaria at Lythrankomi which date back to the second quarter of the 6th century A.D. (Figs 1-2). These mosaics were detached from the wall by the Turks after 1974 and sold abroad, mainly at Indianapolis. Reclaimed by a procedure initiated by the Church and the Government of Cyprus, most of them have been repatriated and are now displayed in the Byzantine Museum of the Makarios III Foundation in Nicosia. The second group is that in the church of Angeloktistos at Kiti (second half of the 6th century) (Fig. 3), and the third was in the chapel of Panagia Kyra (first half of the 7th century) (Fig. 4) at Leivadia (completely destroyed by the Turks after 1974).
As far as wall paintings are concerned, one of the oldest known in Cyprus is that at Agiasma ton Nikodimou in Salamis, dating back to the 6th century. New discoveries in wall paintings add to our knowledge, such as the non- figural frescoes of the first layer in the dome over the sanctuary of the church of Saint Paraskevi in Geroskipou (8th/ 9th centrury) and the early layers of the frescoes in the church of Saint Anthony at Kellia (9th and 10th centuries) (Fig. 8). For examples from the 8th to 10th centuries, those of Geroskipou and Kellia apart, the preserved frescoes become more frequent. Those in the carved rock cave-chapel of Saint Mavra (called Chrysokava), near Keryneia (late 9th/ early 10th century) (Fig. 7), present affinities with contemporary ones at Cappadocia. The frescoes of Saint Solomoni’s chapel near Koma tou Gialou (Fig. 6) represent another example of the 9th century. It was only after the Arab invasions and the Byzantine and Arab condominium on the island from 649 to 963/4, that a real reflourishing of architecture and religious painting can be traced, though several preserved monuments attest to the continuity of artistic activity during the Arab interventions. The wave of destruction accompanying the Iconoclastic Controversy from 726/30 to 843, seems to have missed Cyprus due to its politically and militarily ambivalent status at the time.
As early as 963/4 Cyprus was reintegrated into the Byzantine Empire following Nicephoros Phocas’ victories against the Arabs, thereby dissolving the ambivalent political status of the island under the joint control of the Arabs and the Byzantines. Closer links between the island and Constantinople were established and the new political status which resulted favoured the development of ecclesiastical architecture and painting. About two hundred churches erected between 964 and 1192 (when Cyprus became a Crusader state) are thus far known; forty of these preserve their frescoes. During the 11th and particularly the 12th century, the number of monasteries and churches considerably increased on the island; from that period a rich architectural heritage as well as frescoes and icons have been preserved. The wall painting of The Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Fig. 9) in the church of Saint Nicholas of the Roof at Kakopetria dates from the early 11th century. A remarkable icon, the palladion of Machairas Monastery seems to date from around the second half of the 11th century. The aesthetic conception of the rendering of facial characteristics, the treatment of the pigments and similarities with equivalent Sinaitic icons, endorse this dating. The comparison of this icon with that of John Prodromos from the church of Asinou (No. 5), which is dated approximately around 1105/1106, shows the changes which occurred in the technical and aesthetical concepts of Byzantine painting under the rule of the Comnenian Dynasty (1081 – 1185). Those changes can also be seen on the two 12th century Sanctuary Doors from Lefkara (No. 6), contemporary to Saint Neofytos (1134 – 1219?) and the oldest to have been spared in the island.
The passage of the English king Richard the Lion Heart, who landed at Limassol in May 1191 during the third Crusade, marked the beginning of a new era. The dispute of the English king with the Cypriot authorities led to the conquest of the island and to its sale, first to the Templars, and then to the Frankish Lusignan family ruling the kingdom of Jerusalem. The settlement of Latins on the island led to the establishment of a Crusader Kingdom, joined to that of Jerusalem and long outliving it. While Jerusalem was conquered by the Arabs in 1187 and the last stronghold in Palestine (Acre) fell to the Arabs in 1291, the kingdom of Cyprus lasted until 1489. However, until 1489, the Lusignan kings of the island were crowned kings of Cyprus in Nicosia and Kings of Jerusalem in Famagusta. Since the reign of Peter I (1359 – 1369) they have also had the title of the king of Armenia.
The period of the Lusignan royalty witnessed the co-existence of Latins, Cypriots and other communities (Syrian, Maronite, Jacobite, Armenian, Jewish and Coptic). The co-habitation of these communities, the social and economic changes accorded more frequently with Western feudal models, and the establishment of a Latin Church alongside the Orthodox Greek Church produced cultural exchanges. Gothic architecture and painting were introduced on to the island and minglings and interchanges with the local Byzantine cultural background were operating.
In spite of Latin domination, the frescoes and icons of the 12th century and the majority of those of the 13th century follow the tendencies and the concepts of painting which developed under the rule of the Comnenian dynasty of Byzantine emperors (1081 – 1185), in particular the late Comnenian painting of the late 12th century and its continuation into the 13th century. Techniques and aesthetic values prevailing during the 12th and the 13th centuries present quite distinct characteristics as far as the outlining and modelling of faces, and also the treatment of the drapery, are concerned. In the faces, long noses are preferred, usually of aquiline form and joined at the root to elongated, arched eyebrows forming a V at the bridge of the nose; there are also large, almond-shaped eyes with the upper eye lashes elegantly stretched towards the sides, as well as lower eyelids which are well marked. The ample use of red as finishing on the flesh is very characteristic of the per-iod (nose and upper eyelid contours, strokes on the cheeks, and so on). Another typical characteristic of the time is the emphasis on line and contour, conferring thus graphic rather than pictorial result, seen in the rendering of the faces and the coiffures, the beards, and the garments. This linearity is frequently emphasized by an elegant calligraphy. The icon of the Christ from the now vanished Monastery of Megas Agros and the icon of Saint James the Persian, with the calligraphic linear treatment of the coiffure, the beard and the contours, constitute eloquent examples of that tendency.
At the end of the 12th century manneristic tendencies appear in the late Comnenian painting. They are expressed by elongated willowy figures in mannered and unrealistic poses, draped in garments with wavy and sophisticated folds giving extravagance and mannerism, as on the frescoes of the Arakiotissa Monastery dating to 1192 and the frescoes of 1191 in the church of Saint Georges at Kurbinovo. Traces of this taste for mannerism can be seen in the icon of Dormition dating of the early 16th century, perhaps owing to the fact that the painter of the work had in mind a model of the late 12th century.
Conservative artists of the same period avoid this manneristic tendency and produce works such as the icon of the Anastasis (Descent into Limbo), which are more oriented towards hieratism, stasis, and majesty in attitudes and gestures.
The concepts of Comnenian and post-Comnenian art were so deeply rooted in Cyprus that their continuity can be traced into the 13th s and even into the 14th century. On the other hand, the Paleologan innovations produced in Constantinople and in other artistic centres of the Byzantine world with the coming of the Paleologan dynasty (1261-1453), after the dislocation of the Byzantine empire in 1204 by the Crusaders, were to be introduced only at a later stage, as a result of the special conditions prevailing on the island under the hegemony of Latin rule in Cyprus. Furthermore, during the 13th century, alongside the continuance of post- Comnenian painting, frescoes and icons appear which present borrowings from Western painting. This impact from Gothic painting, though isolated, is explained by the presence of western Europeans in Cyprus and the other Crusader States in the eastern Mediterranean at the time, making possible repeated contacts with Western art.” These contacts are at the origin of the so- called “Crusader group” of icons and frescoes in Cyprus, Syro-Palestine and in Mount Sinai, including paintings that intermingle Byzantine and Western fea- tures. A frequent characteristic of this group of icons is the ornamentation of the frames with various motifs – a custom rare in Byzantine icons – though the ornamentation of the frames can be found on earlier Byzantine miniatures. It is, in our opinion, difficult to classify icons and frescoes within this conventionally qualified “Crusader” group, apart from those bearing Latin or Frankish inscriptions or portraits of Crusaders which identify them as paintings of crusader patronage and use. But even in such cases there is evidence that icons of Latin patronage were dedicated in Orthodox churches, for instance the icon of saint Nicholas (No. 26) which had been dedicated to the monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Roof. It would thus be risky to classify within the so called “Crusader group” all works following the post-Comnenian trend with isolated Western technical, icono- graphical or aesthetic borrowings.
The 13th century heritage of Cypriot icons is being gradually enriched as the work of cataloguing surviving paintings proceeds, including works that had been unknown to the present day. Such is the case of the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah, Saint Mamas, Virgin with Child from Fasoula and from Agios Theodoras and the Crucifixion from Pelendri.
Certainly, the impact of Western art on traditional Byzantine art is not only to be seen in paintings, but extends also to the domain of religious architecture with the construction in the Island of cathedrals, churches, and monasteries in the Gothic style for the use of the Latin Church established in Cyprus. From the 14th century on, this coexistence created architecture in a composite style combining Byzantine and Gothic elements in the so-called “Franco-Byzantine order”.
The relief ornamentation, achieved in gesso, is a very characteristic element of Cypriot icons dating from the 12th into the 19th century; it is less frequent or even rare outside the island and could therefore point to Cyprus as origin of this technique.
The “anti-classic” disposition of Cypriot 13th century painting, with its linear character yielding graphic results, and its taste for decoration, is in sharp contrast to the classicizing values that start to be established in other artistic centres during the last quarter of the 13th century under the impact of the Paleologan revival of the ancient Graeco-Roman aesthetic values. Only a few isolated examples of Cypriot icons from the end of the 13th century bear the mark of Paleologan painting, which at least supposes a renewal of contacts with the Byzantine Empire after the expulsion of the Crusaders from Constantinople in 1261 and the restoration of the Empire. Classicizing values of Paleologan painting can be identified as the idealization of the figures, the illusionistic treatment of pigments, and the plasticity of volumes, that go together with other techniques and aesthetic concepts, such as the play of chiaroscuro on the garments aiming to obtain luminous gradations giving the illusion of metallic glints, as well as linear high-lights radiating round the eyes or applied by beams on other parts of the flesh, as on the icon of Christ at Kolossi and other icons.
A group of frescoes constituting an important document for the evolution of Cypriot painting during the first decades of the 15th century – and more precisely for the mutual borrowings between the Byzantine Paleologan trend and Western painting – is that of the Royal Chapel at Pyrga, because of their precise dating to 1421, the date of the construction of the church. In the frescoes, king Janus (1398 – 1432) and his wife Charlotte de Bourbon appear as supplicants; the legends of the frescoes are in medieval French.
The technical and aesthetic principles and the stylistic tendencies of the 14th century are carried on also in the 15th century, even after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (see Nos 35, 37, 39, 41 and 50). A blending between Paleologan painting and the Gothic International style took place during the 15th century; a remarkable specimen of this syncretist style is the Crucifixion of Geroskipou (No. 32b). A certain insistence on International Gothic style can be observed on icons that are more nearly Italian Madonnas, some of which are copies, adaptations or variants of the Italian type of the Madre della Consolazione (see here Nos 33-34, 36 and 38). This syncretist tendency was amplified at the end of the 15th and during the 16th century by the impact of the Italian Renaissanc. The same tendency, in its more westernized aspect, produced examples of completely Italian conception such as the Adoration of the Magi (No. 56). Certainly, the influence of Western painting on the Byzantine can be found, as we saw, even earlier in the 13th century as isolated borrowings, but from the 15th century it becomes even greater.
The meeting of Byzantine painting (as it evolved up to the 15th century) with International Gothic and Renaissance art produced a pluralism in stylistic trends and tendencies under Venetian rule. This extended from the more conservative in line with the strict Byzantine tradition (Nos 37, 41, 49-53 and 86) to the works of an intermingled style, up to those of a totally Italian conception. The icons of Panagia ton Konnaron, that of Saint Mamas and that of Noli me Tangere on the iconostasis of Panagia Katholiki at Pelendri, are more Italian than Byzantine in conception, though they still use the materials and a great number of the techniques of Byzantine painting.
The simultaneous contribution of the Byzantine background, the late fla- boyant Gothic, and the Renaissance is obvious in the carving of the large, multiregister, gilded iconostases that began to appear in Cyprus towards the beginning of the 16th century as on the iconostases of the church of Panagia Katholiki at Pelendri, that of the Monastery of Saint Neofytos and that of the church of Saint Nicholas at Klonari, as well as on the Sanctuary Doors from the church of Saint Kyriaki at Polis tis Chrysochous, studied in the framework of this book. The propagation of the late Gothic style during the 15th and 16th centuries in Cyprus forms part of a more general phenomenon affecting all the territories spreading from the Balkans to Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus and elsewhere. In spite of the Western influence that became predominant in the wake of Cyprus’s passage under Venetian domination in 1489, materials, techniques and iconography rooted in the theological background regulating Byzantine painting remained essentially the same in Cypriot painting, with just a few isolated exceptions. However, the impact of the Renaissance humanistic tendencies favoured plasticity, tenderness, mobility, depth and realistic inscription of the figures in the space to the detriment of the rigidity, spirituality, dematerialization and bidimensionality of genuine Byzantine painting, and confer upon the figures weight and volume and illusionistic depth in the architectural or natural landscapes in the backgrounds; it also reduces other formal characteristics of Byzantine painting, such as the hieratism, frontality, austerity, ascetism, as well as the conventionalism and formalism in the gestures, attitudes, and the general rendering of the figures. Also techniques are occasionally modified so as to produce more humanized effects and render correct perspective in the background of the icons. The organization of the pictorial space can thus undergo transformations with the introduction of the third dimension and of a more or less accurate notion of perspective.
From the 15th century onwards and during the 16th century, one finds several names of Cypriot painters who have left their signatures and dates on frescoes and icons, as well as Iosif Chouris, who signs the iconostasis of the Monastery of Saint Neofytos, a fact that allows a better and more precisely documented diachronic study. Among names of painters of the 15th and 16th century can be mentioned those of Minas, Philippos Goul, Iosif Chouris, Symeon Axentis, Titos, Theofylaktos, Georgios, Loutsios, Dimitrios, Silvestros, the priest Stylianos, Tzenios Papaleontiou and others.24 The great majority of artists remain anonymous, though, due to the lack of signatures on the works. Other Cypriot painters were active in Venice; examples are Tzortzis the Cypriot and John the Cypriot whose works are preserved in Saint George of the Greeks in Venice. And yet others worked elsewhere in Italy, such us the painter known as “Domenico Ciprioto depentor” and the sculptor Cesati called “il Grechetto”, who died in Cyprus in 1564.
From the second half of the 16th century onwards, a transformation in Cypriot painting took place, which can be explained not only by the natural evolution at the time, but also by the key event in Cypriot history of the 16th century, the Ottoman invasion in 1570, the siege and fall of Nicosia, and the complete occupation of the island in 1571 with the fall of Famagusta. The incorporation of the island into the Ottoman empire following the war and its consequences in the last quarter of the 16th century (social reconfiguration, economic, administrative and political reorganization) triggered emigration abroad, in particular of people of letters and artists; it also brought a transformation and a gradual elimination of the former nobility and a certain isolation of the island, going together with the weakening of artistic relations with Italy and the Western World. The events of 1570/ 71, as well as their consequences, resulted in the gradual reorientation of aesthetic values and occasionally of techniques in Cypriot painting that can be traced on many Cypriot icons of which some examples are presented here (Nos 60-64). The change becomes more visible at the beginning of the 17th century, when signed j and dated icons begin to appear in far greater numbers than in the last quarter of the 16th century (see No. 87), thus facilitating the study of the evolution of icon painting.
During Ottoman rule (1570/71 – 1878), pictorial production was largely restricted to ecclesiastical circles and those around them. Most of the 17th and 18th century painters were clergy. At the same time, Cretan icons were imported or painted on the island by itinerant Greek artists (Cretans in particular), some of whom had worked in Venice.
Several trends flourish during the 17th and 18th century, some more faithful to the strict Byzantine tradition and others perpetuating the impact of Western painting, though in remarkably different ways from equivalent paintings of the 16th century. The reminiscences of the Italian Renaissance world were to last till the early 19th century with the production of icons of quality such as the two works dating from 1802 thanks to the signatures and dates artists left on their works and the existence of more written sources. Among the Cypriot painters who appear in the 17th century are Loukas, Pavlos, Leontios, Dimitrios, Thomas,35 Ioannikios and others, the majority of whom are members of the priesthood. Several painters from the 17th into the 19th centuries bear the name of Ioannikios. One of the best known is the 18th century hieromonk Ioannikios, who had as his pupil the deacon Nektarios, who in turn had Lavrentios as a pupil, all of whom were clergymen. This Nektarios must be the same person as the deacon Nektarios who signed the iconostasis in the church of the Holy Cross at Pano Lefkara in 1761 (on the icon of the Deposition) together with his pupils the monks Leontios, Filaretos and Filotheos. Other painters of the 18th century, apart from those bearing the names Ioannikios and Leontios whose works have not yet been recorded and classified so as to distiguish each master, are Panaretos, Antonios, Savvas Nikolaou, Theofanis, Nikiforos, Dimitrios, Christoforos and others. The art of these painters remains quite close to the dogmatism and the norms of Byzantine painting and its theological background, though sometimes one finds works very far removed from traditional concepts. We can also mention Michail from the region of Marathasa, who was active until the age of 98 and worked from the late 18th until the 19th century. At the same time changes in techniques and aesthetics appear with the use of lakes and the introduction of borrowings from the world of the Baroque. These Baroque elements, along with the introduction of decorative Rococo motifs during the second half of the 18th century, favoured the development of the school established on the island by the Cretan painter and engraver Ioannis Kornaros, who worked in Cyprus from 1787 (or 1789) until at least 1812 and left behind him many pupils. One of his earliest collaborators is Ioannikios who worked with Kornaros on the iconostasis of Saint John Cathedral in Nicosia in the years 1790. An excellent example of the work of Ioannis Kornaros is the icon of the Virgin of Kykkos a dedication from the Dragoman of Cyprus Chatzigeorgakis Komesios in 1791. The techniques and personal style of Kornaros flourished well into the second half of the 19th century with works such as the enthroned Virgin with child of 1853 on the iconostasis of the church of Saint George at Kellaki and many others. Painters such as Niko- laos Petridis, Christodoulos and many others follow during the 19th century the style of Kornaros. The style of Ioannis Kornaros was to be progressively replaced by a realistic style or a tendency towards this style more or less successful or naive and very distant in conception from the traditional Byzantine manner, such the style of Ioannis Michailidis in the second half of the 19th century and that introduced from Mount Athos particularly cultivated and diffused by the monks of Stavrovouni, and those of the monasteries of Saint Barnabas and Agios Georgios Alamanos during the first half of the 20th century. It is only after the mid-20th century, under the instigation of a retrospective study of the history of Byzantine art that a revival has begun to take place towards original Byzantine painting, a tendency promoted particularly by the Greek painter Fotis Kontoglou (who left us a very useful manual) and his pupils among which are some Cypriots, for example Georgios Georgiou and the monk of Stavrovouni Monastery, Kallini- kos. Of great importance to modern Cypriot Byzantine paintings are the works of the Archimandrite Symeon and his pupils (see for example the Nos. 77-78), those of the painter Georgios Lykourgos. Mayor of Lamaka, as well as those of other painters which are in the framework of traditional Byzantine painting.