These walls house the wealthiest and most impressive collection of Byzantine artwork on the island (from the 9th-20th centuries). The museum contains church plate, vestments, books and other relics, aside from more than 300 icons, which have been placed on permanent display. The images date back starting from the 12th century when the art of icon painting experienced its greatest heyday. It was, however, short-lived, as it was quickly nipped in the bud by the appearance of the Franks.
Byzantine Art in Cyprus
As is well known, Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman Empire (395-1953), with its capital city of Constantinople, was a state formed as a result of the Roman Empire splitting into the western and eastern parts. Thus, it became not only а civilisation in itself but also a historical-cultural successor to Rome. Interestingly, Western-European researchers often call Byzantium the “Empire of the Greeks”, due to the domination of Greek in the state (from the 7th century), as well as its Hellenised population and culture.
Icon painting (εικόνα — from the Greek — image) from the Byzantine Empire was the most substantial artistic phenomenon in the Eastern-Christian world. Throughout the empire’s entire existence, Byzantium influenced icon painting beyond the limits of Cyprus, stretching to other Orthodox countries: Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Ancient Rus, Georgia and others. For a long time, Venice was also under the influence of Byzantine art.
During the heyday of the Byzantine Empire, smalt mosaics (plainly set with contoured figures) became the central element in decorating church architecture. The majority of mosaic panels depicted biblical and Christian scenes. The Byzantine technique of execution intended on images being perceived from a far-away distance — the mosaic strips had a specific unevenness to them and also differed due to the “velvet feel” of their shades and textures. Later, however, due to the high cost of the material and execution of the work itself, mosaics were gradually replaced with fresco paintings.
Together with carved works (wood carving), the Byzantine people simultaneously managed to reach a high level of mastery in processing metals, which were used to mint and cast items. Alongside this, master artisans were also considered exceptionally skilful in the art of enamelling (simple and filigree enamel).
At its core, Byzantine art was theological. By using a simple language of exposition, it sought to reflect a “symbol from above”, hidden behind the everyday phenomena of the objective world to which man is accustomed.
After the split of the Roman Empire, Cyprus found itself a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Empress Helena founded the monastery of Stavrovouni on the Hill of Crosses (on the site of a former pagan sanctuary). Over the 4th century, the island was tormented by cataclysms: the main cities were utterly destroyed by strong earthquakes but were rebuilt, at a later period, on the same sites. New basilicas and numerous chapels were also erected. By this time, Constantia (IV-V) had become the capital city. After the discovery of the tomb of St. Barnabas in 433, Emperor Zeno granted full autonomy to the Cypriot church and several privileges to its Archbishop.
Thus, from 726, Byzantine art was officially present on the island. Due to the iconoclasm (VIII), however, the most significant relic, which has survived to this day, is an ornament of the eastern arch on the five-domed church of St. Paraskevi in Geroskipou. By rights, the fresco painting from the church of St. Anthony in Kellia, is considered another valuable relic.
Examples of early-Byzantine art in Cyprus are scarce, but some can be found on wall mosaics inside the churches of Panagia Aggeloktisti in Kiti, Panagia Kyra in Livadia and Panagia Kanakaria in Lythrangomi. They are also present on the frescos of the temples in Khrysokava (Kyrenia region).
With the reinstated reverence for icons at the 6th Ecumenical council (787, Nicaea), the spiritual essence of Orthodoxy was preserved. After deliverance from the Arab conquerors in 965, Byzantine rule in the country strengthened.
A layer of paint from an early 10th-century work was uncovered relatively recently in the church of Agios Nikolaos-tis-Stegis (Kakopetria). The 12th century became the “golden age” for Byzantine art in Cyprus. The infiltration of Turkish Seljuks from the eastern outskirts and Romans from the West spawned a complicated external political situation. The Byzantine emperors, concerned with reinforcing their empire’s borders, thus devoted all the more attention towards Cyprus. As such, regular visits to Cyprus by high ranking individuals from Constantinople, in addition to the construction of the most important monasteries (Kykkos, Machairas, St. Ioannis Chrysotomos, Our Lady of Arakos and Panagia Phorbiotissa), resulted in the arrival of craftsmen to the island and the means to support various forms of art.
Right until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Byzantine art produced a series of extraordinary events and beautiful works: frescos and mosaics in churches and monasteries, as well as magnificent samples of short literary works. It must be stressed that under foreign rule, Cyprus continued to remain, in the centuries that followed, a part of the cultural field of Byzantium, as its heir.
Naturally, icon painting, mosaic crafting and fresco painting, continued to later develop when the island was seized, at first by the Crusaders (1191-1571) and then by Turkish invaders. In later ages, the Byzantine tradition steadily continued to hold itself in religious art. All of this is exemplified today, at the Nicosia Museum of Byzantine Art, as well as in many other small, albeit, no less significant collections across Cyprus.
In the Museum Halls
The main body of the collection totals 48 icons, which have been displayed in the “Tresors de Chypre” mobile exhibition (it opened in Paris in 1967 and then passed through several other European cities). Thanks to this exhibition, valuable icon paintings originating from the now occupied lands of Cyprus, were saved from pillaging and destruction after becoming museum exhibits.
We visited the hall to see the permanent display dedicated to cultural treasures and Christian relics which have returned and are now in the collection of the Makarios III Cultural Foundation.
The exhibition has been constructed in chronological order: from the heyday of Byzantine art in the 12th century, right up to the somewhat recent, in our case, 20th century.
Something which struck me: the condition of a significant number of pieces will surprise those used to a set standard in many modern exhibitions of ancient relics. It will also shock those accustomed to the demand for a gentle hand when in their presence. The picture layer and primer are in a relatively acceptable condition, however, many of the icon panels have been damaged in corners by beetles or scorched in fires. Restorers, having preserved the former state of the paintings, still refuse, for some reason, to transfer tempera paintings to a new “host”. In the eyes of experienced museum workers, this presents a threat to the preserved state of the exhibits — a sad fact, of course. All that remains is to hope that the management and Museum employees still devote sufficient attention and care to the collection.
In fact, many underlaid icons have long been damaged, but differently, as marauders have stripped the gold and silver framing. The picture layer has also disappeared right down to the wood, something which is evident in the image of “Panagia” in the church of Panagia Chrisaliniotissa (Nicosia, XIII) and others similar. Meanwhile, copper framings have survived, most likely due to their lesser cost in comparison with that of precious metals: expertly minted sheets, which have darkened over time, cover the backgrounds of images, as well as halos and fragments of attire. We can see this in Panagia Hodegetria (XV, and similarly in the unique Museum of Byzantine Art in Kalopanagiotis).
There are even panels on permanent display where only small fragments of their images have survived, while time (not so much the sole culprit in this) has erased the faces on them forever.
To the right of the entrance, you will see the exceptional, magnificently crafted and well-preserved icon of Agios Nikolaos Stegis from the end of the 13th century (the measurements of the figures, as a rule, depended on the size of the church). Aside from the talent of the icon painter, the high level of restoration work is also staggering (Italy, the Rome Superior Institute for Conservation and Restoration, 2006-2009).
An interesting fact: some of the icon painting works on display are not only single but double-sided (the icon images cover the panel from both sides. As a rule, they are dedicated to a Saint or Jesus Christ, despite being from different times, as is evident with the icons from the church of St. Marina in Kalopanagiotis). Incidentally, such pieces appear quite often and are traditionally set up behind the altar in a church. They are removed during processions so that the images on both sides are visible to those in attendance. There are sometimes two-sided icons in the church itself, housed in special icon-cases.
The exhibition houses both portable and stationary church icons, as well as fragments of internal church decor from under arches; therefore, some of the icon paintings are semi-circular or arched in shape.
It is interesting to observe how iconography and the mode of execution for these images has changed with the passing of time: in later centuries, more gold was used for backgrounds (from XVI-XVII), folding icons appeared (the diptych from the church of St. Mikhail in Lefkoniko, XVI), the images of figures were flattened, while iconography itself was enriched with new canons. Scenes from the Day of Judgement and the Entrance of God into Jerusalem were introduced, as well as the lives and images of numerous local saints and apostles: St. Paraskeva and Christos, St. Marina, St. Basil, the apostle Paul and others. The icon of St. Anna (there are several of them), for instance, has always been crafted by the principle of “an icon in an icon”: the Saint is pictured holding an icon in her hands, which in turn depicts the Virgin Mary, who is also holding an icon with Baby Jesus (the church of St. Anthony, Nicosia, XVI). More images with symbolic and allegoric scenes began to appear.
The museum also features a unique icon which is rarely met in Cyprus — a dual icon (of two hypostases), depicting the Virgin Mother holding the Child: of Love and Sorrow (the church of Panagia Chrisaliniotissa, XVI).
Since long-gone ancient times, the images of the Saviour, the Virgin Mother, St. Nicholas and St. George (as well as in Russia), have continued to be revered in Cyprus.
Gradually, from the late 17th to early 18th century, the canonical strictness in iconography became noticeably more academic in style (almost “portrait-like”) and the Heavenly Father was depicted with the regalia of a king on earth, wearing a tiara and golden garments in several cases. Incidentally, icons of a later age were not only crafted with tempera (mineral colours, stirred with an egg yolk) but also oil. In the 19th century, several canons changed once again: relying on old samples, icon painters followed a more “life-like” manner, examples of which can be observed on the exhibits at the Byzantine Museum.
Moving on with the exhibition: an iconostasis with the Holy Gates stands at the centre; to the right and left of the central exhibition space, there are reconstructions of church apses with three-tier arches, which have had frescos transferred to them: for example, from the apse of Agios Nikolas-tis-Stegis in Kakopetria (a wall image with scenes from the Ascension of the Virgin Mother, the appearances of Jesus to the Apostles and Descent of the Holy Spirit — dating back to the 14th century). You can also find vestments and regalia (sceptres), a cathedra (within the limits of XVIII-XIX) and elements of church furnishings (XV-XVI).
A unique part of the exhibition (carrying on from the historical section) describes both the dramatic and inspiring moments when the lost, in other words, stolen treasures, from Cypriot art and culture, were returned to their historical homeland: fragments of mosaics from the churches of the Virgin Mary of Kanakaria in Lythrangomi (VI) and St. Evphemianos in Lysi (XIII), as well as the remains of wall drawings from the church of Antiphonitis in Kalograia (a whole 36 scenes with iconography depicting the Saviour and the Virgin Mother with the Forthcoming, in addition to images of Byzantine emperors and Cypriot Saints — all relating to the 16th century). There are also icons from many churches and chapels located, in the present day, in occupied Turkish territories.
Amongst the most significant and impressive exhibits on display, it is worth stopping and providing a separate account of the early Byzantine mosaics from the 6th to 7th century, which originated from the church of Panagia-tis-Kanakaris. The abundance of colour in the works will not fail to enchant you, equally with the dramatic story of their reacquisition and return to Cypriot soil... Please Note: the image of Jesus Christ differs to the many other well-known pieces of Christian art to which we are accustomed. In this image, He is a young boy with a halo shining above his head (the so-called “early canon”). The faces of the Apostles are also lively, filled with vibrant expression. The mosaics were initially looted and exported by Turkish contrabandists “specializing” in antique items, to then be sold for $1.2m to an American dealer. A trial took place (the case of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus vs “Goldberg and Feldman Fine Art Inc” 1990), in which the federal court of Indiana sentenced that all mosaics be returned to their lawful owner. Incidentally, this particular case set a serious precedent in the United States with regards to the protection of cultural and artistic property. Albeit only in the Museum, today we can see these mosaics in their homeland, where the 1500-year history of Cyprus has just passed before us.
The museum halls offer educational programmes for primary school pupils, as well as temporary exhibitions held regularly. They concern Byzantine art, as well as the theory and practical methods used to preserve cultural heritage in the occupied territories of Northern Cyprus. Here you can also see periodical exhibitions of works by contemporary icon painters and mosaicists from Cyprus. Despite the numerous conquerors of the past, not only have relics of religious art survived on the island, but they continue to be created to this day. New works emerge in which, thanks to the master artisans of the modern age, this carefully preserved tradition comes to life again and again.
As we finish our account of the Byzantine Art Museum, it’s worth mentioning that the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation Cultural Centre has an art gallery and scientific library, open to the public. We previously discussed the Western-European, Cypriot and Greek art gallery…
Address: Archbishop Kyprianou Square (outbuilding of the Archbishop’s palace), Old city in Nicosia
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday 09:00-16:00; Saturday 09:00-13:00 (The Museum is open all year round)
Entry: 2 Euro
Telephone: +357 22430008
Until Next Time!