Cyprus Icons: Byzantine Museum of Paphos
This is the second in a four-part series on Cyprus, which explores the island through the lens of its Orthodox Christian heritage and iconography. This piece visits the Byzantine Museum of Paphos, some of the conventions of iconography, and the influence of the Orthodox Christian faith on the cuisine of Cyprus. — MP
Entering the museum’s marble hall from the oppressive Cyprus heat, we were greeted with cool air, a hushed ambiance, and attendant Andreas Sarikas. The slight man welcomed us by proffering a dish of loukoumia, a sugary confection also known as Turkish Delight. He proudly explained that his daughter is the former mayor of neighboring Geroskipou, which is renowned for workshops that produce the candy. He laughingly told us that he was continually being given packages of the homemade treats and always had more loukoumia than was good for him.
The Byzantine Museum in Upper Paphos, or Ktima, provided an in-depth introduction to the world of icons, with a panoply of more than 100 pieces of this form of religious imagery. On a side street off the main square, the gallery is housed in a Byzantine-style building that also serves as the residence of the Bishop of Paphos.
Spanning several rooms and more than ten centuries, the collection lays claim to the oldest icon preserved in Cyprus, an image of Saint Marina which dates to the 7th or 8th century. Pieces exhibited include frescoes and wood carvings, many of which are fragments of church doors, iconostases and crosses. Most of the icons were rescued from the walls of abandoned, un-roofed churches where otherwise the imagery would have been lost, only to decay under the elements.
I moved from icon to icon and began to recognize recurring figures and poses and the simple lines and naive manner in which they were depicted. I studied several renditions of the Virgin and child in a view called Hodegetria that depicted Mary holding Christ in her left arm. His body is that of an infant, but his face appears adult. I later learned that the concept being communicated is that Christ is both God and man, wise even as an infant.Hodegetria means “guide.” In iconography, the Virgin never draws attention to herself, she is usually pointing to her Son, drawing the viewer to Him.
Other figures I saw depicted again and again in the icons included St. George mounted on his steed and St. John the Evangelist on his knees. In each image of St. John the Baptist, his wild locks of hair spilled past his shoulders. I found out that this representation reflects the saint’s lack of concern for how he looked or “earthly” matters and rather with spreading Christ’s message. A number of icons showed Christ as a young man, with right hand held with his thumb connected to his ring finger and pinky and a Bible in his left hand—a pose that signifies a blessing.
“The similarity is a necessary element because the grace of Christ, the Virgin, or of a saint portrayed is transmitted through similarity,” he explained. “This similarity also interprets an aesthetic point of Byzantine painting in general and icon painting in particular. The transmission of the Holy grace requires an exact copy of the original. It is easy therefore to distinguish the saint that each icon portrays irrespective of the time that icon was painted.”
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