Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2000
Nancy Patterson Sevcenko and Christopher Moss, eds. Medieval Cyprus: Studies in Art, Architecture, and History in Memory of Doula Mouriki Princeton University Press. (0691007357)

Arguably, the “Sweet Land of Cyprus,” to use the words of the early fifteenth-century chronicler Leontios Machairas, is culturally and visually one of the most complex parts of the medieval Mediterranean. The arts of medieval Cyprus, especially the thirteenth-century icon and monumental painting, formed a central part in the scholarship of the late Doula Mouriki. Medieval Cyprus contains fourteen lavishly illustrated articles encompassing visual material from Early Christian to the Venetian period and is offered as a tribute to Mouriki’s memory and the wide range of her scholarship.

The essays in the volume build on Mouriki’s scholarship (outlined by Charalambos Bouras) and place her work within a wider historical and art historical framework. The contributors examine a wide range of materials, ranging from Early Christian rock tombs (Charalambos Bakirtzis) and stone carving (Susan Boyd), seventh- to tenth-century architecture (Slobodan Curcic), and Lusignan ceramics (Demetra Papanikola-Bakirtzis) to icons (Panayotis L. Vocotopoulos and Mary Aspra Varvadakis), manuscripts (Irmgard Hutter), and wall paintings (Anthanasios Papageorghiou, Melita Emmanuel and Efthalia Constantinides). The cults of saints are examined (Vera von Falkenhausen, Carolyn Connor), as is the relationship between sermons and church decoration (Henry Maguire).

The visual evidence examined contains many surprises, and Cyprus emerges from these essays as a center of artistic experiment and innovation and as an island that was in close contact with other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, but that nevertheless developed its own distinct traditions. S. Boyd, for instance, shows that Early Christian Cyprus was one of the most important centers in the Eastern Mediterranean for the production of champlevé stone carvings, a cheaper and very popular alternative to opus sectile. Boyd sees the champlevé carvings from several fifth-century basilicas in Cyprus as the product of a specifically Cypriot tradition with close ties existing between different workshops. The distinctness of Cyprus is also evident in its architecture. S. Curcic interprets the idiosyncratic character of Cypriot church architecture between 600 and 1000 not as reflecting a provincialism brought about by the Arab conquest of the island, but as the result of builders designing buildings that were better able to withstand the severe earthquakes that appear to have been responsible for the destruction of the Early Christian basilicas on the island. Thus, the use of increasingly massive masonry and the development of barrel vaulted or multidomed buildings replacing timber-roofed basilicas reflect a specific regional style created in response to the geophysical conditions of Cyprus.

The wealth of visual material from twelfth- and thirteenth-century Cyprus is reflected in several of the contributions to the volume. I. Hutter explores the marginal drawings in an eleventh-century manuscript containing part of a Commentary by John Chrysostom on the Book of Genesis (Magdalen College, Oxford, ms. no. 3). The pen drawings, comprised of 112 surviving images of Christ, Mary and saints, do not seem to relate to the text of the manuscript. In a detailed and perceptive iconographic analysis of these images, Hutter argues that the drawings represent a rare example of a Byzantine model book. Hutter makes a cogent case for a Cypriot origin of these drawings, dating them to the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. She concludes that the figures are probably copies of holy persons depicted on icons or their frames, rather than of wall paintings. This is suggested, for instance, by the close stylistic parallels that exist between some of the Oxford drawings and saints shown on the frame of a thirteenth-century double-sided icon from Mount Sinai of St. Prokopios and Mary Kykkotissa, which is attributed to Cyprus. Hutter also has other evidence that some the drawings are copies of icons. In the image of Christ Anapeson (the Sleepless Eye), Christ holds the scroll in his left hand, not in his right, as is customary. This reversal is probably the result of the artist using a tracing to transfer the image from its source into his model book. Hutter’s article provides important insights into Byzantine model books, and she rightly points out that Byzantine model books still require substantial research. Her analysis of the Oxford drawings shows that, in this particular instance at least, the book was a repository for artistic ideas to be reused at a later stage rather than a forum for experimentation.

The drawing of Christ Anapeson in the Oxford model book is one of the earliest examples of this type of image. The inventiveness of Cypriot artists is evident elsewhere in the volume. A. Papageorghiou shows that the imagery in the dome of the recently restored late thirteenth-century fresco decoration of the church of Panagia Chryseleousa at Strovolos is unusual: Christ enthroned on a rainbow represents the only full-length Pantokrator in Cyprus with echoes of the Ascension and the Last Judgment. Similarly, one of the three thirteenth-century icons from Moutoullas in central Cyprus, which P. Vocotopoulos examines for the first time, shows a fairly rare image: St. John the Baptist is depicted looking up at Christ. In front of the saint is his severed heard in dish placed atop a column. The inclusion of a donor makes this image one of earliest surviving Cypriot icons with a donor representation.

One of the merits of “Medieval Cyprus” is the inclusion of essays that place Cypriot art in a wider hagiographical or cultural historical context. Both V. von Falkenhausen and C. Connor explore cults of saints in Cyprus. Von Falkenhausen elaborates on an observation made by Mourki that Cypriot religious painting depicts a large number of bishops but very few monks by considering the hagiography of Cyprus. Von Falkenhausen connects the preponderance of bishops and the virtual absence of monks in Cypriot hagiography with the specific historical circumstances of Cyprus. The veneration of saintly bishops was encouraged by the institutional circumstances of the Cypriot church, which gained autocephalous status in the fifth century, and is a reflection of the urban character of Early Christian Cyprus. However, the absence of saintly monks arises from another set of historical circumstances: when monks became popular in Byzantine hagiography, Cyprus was under Arab domination. After the Byzantines regained Cyprus in the tenth century, a saintly monk did eventually emerge: St. Neophytos, but his cult was stifled by the Latin conquest of Cyprus. C. Connor examines depictions of female saints in Cypriot churches from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. Already more common and more prominently displayed than in other Byzantine churches during the Komnenian period, the number of female saints shown in Cypriot churches proliferates during the Frankish period and continues to be strong under the Venetians. Some of these saints are said to reflect the interests and status of donors, others may relate to concerns with family traditions, especially in cases where female saints are shown in the presence of their husbands or mentors.

Several articles in the volume build on Mouriki’s interest in Cypriot icon painting and the interplay of East and West in the arts of Cyprus following the establishment of Lusignan rule over the island. Vocotopoulos affirms Mouriki’s interpretation of Cypriot icon painting of that period. M. Aspra-Vardavadakis pursues the artistic links between Cyprus and Mount Sinai that permeate Mouriki’s work. She discusses three thirteenth-century icons of St. John the Baptist in the collection of Monastery of St. Catherine’s at Mount Sinai, and argues that they were painted by a Cypriot artist active at Mount Sinai and are based on a Cypriot model. These icons probably formed part of Deesis ensembles which originally appear to have been placed on top of a templon epistyle. These icons thus also throw light on the development of the Middle Byzantine templon to the late Byzantine iconostasis. The late medieval wall paintings explored by M. Emmanuel and E. Constantinides show parallels with late Palaiologan painting but also show the impact of Western Renaissance art. Both investigate the reasons that may have led to the commissioning of such hybrid works. The character of these paintings may be linked to their patrons who were Western converts of Orthodoxy, as Emmanuel and Constantinides suggest with regard to the two monasteries at Kalopanagiotes, St. Herakleidios and St. John Lampadistes. Such analyses probably require further investigation of the religious and social history of late medieval Cyprus. To what extent, for instance, were Orthodox monasteries converted to the Latin faith? Even though, as Constantinides points out, an inscription in a donor image in the Last Judgment in the joint narthex at St. Herakleidius and St. John Lampadistes refers to a “Catholic church,” this term, as Emmanuel points out, more likely refers to the “katholikon”, the main church of the monastery, rather than the Church of Rome. What is perhaps most striking about late medieval Cypriot paintings, such as the so-called Latin chapel at Kalopanagiotes, is the receptiveness of Orthodox viewers to the artistic idiom of the Renaissance. The present volume does much to widen our understanding of the arts of medieval Cyprus. It also points the way towards further research into the artifacts from this diverse and complex culture. As such, it is a fitting tribute to Doula Mouriki.