The rich heritage and iconography of Cyprus' Orthodox Christian makes for a fascinating lens through which to explore the small island nation. Visiting the Byzantine Museum of Paphos, and the 7 St. Georges taverna of Geroskipou offers fascinating insights into some of the conventions of iconography, and the influence of the Orthodox Christian faith on the cuisine of Cyprus.
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.
According to Athanasios Papageorgiou, a former director of the Cyprus Antiquities Department and a Byzantine expert, there is intention behind the standardized presentation of the figures.
“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.”
“On the other hand the icon must be different from reality,” Papageorgiou continued. “This difference is expressed through certain technical principles—the rhythm in the line movement, the absence of the third dimension and bulk, the disregard for anatomy, the emphasis on some parts of the body like eyes, nose, hands, the use of gold and red backgrounds, and lastly, the unnatural use of light which is diffused and not derived from a certain source. These principles show that the portrayed person belongs to a supernatural world and they underline the spirituality of the icon.”
“The religious importance and the spirituality of an icon do not prevent it from being a work of art,” he asserted. “The painter shows in the icon not only his faith but also his skill and sensitivity. His ability in design, and generally the technique he uses become means of expressing his inner self and his aesthetic qualities.”
Emerging from the museum, Tom and I fell into conversation with passer-by Yiannis Loizides, a lawyer. When we asked him what an icon meant to him, he replied “For all Orthodox Christians, an icon is a reminder of the person who appears on it, respect. Every village has its own saint and icons of that saint. I am from Anarita, for whom the patron saint is St. Marina.”
I was beginning to connect the dots, realizing that the saint with which Loizides felt a personal connection was the subject of the museum’s oldest icon.
From this leafy Paphos neighborhood, we made our way to neighboring Geroskipou, where we navigated the town’s busy main street and found a parking spot across from the village square. The plaza was a large rectangle, anchored on its far left corner by Agia Paraskevi, a 9th century Byzantine church capped with five domes in the shape of a cross. The caretaker, an old salt in a Greek fishing cap, appeared to be ready to lock up and scowled at our late arrival but let us pass. Not wanting to keep him waiting, we enjoyed just a brief glimpse of incredible 15th century murals of scenes from the New Testament and, above, a praying Madonna depicted on the vaulted dome.
Geroskipou means “sacred garden” in Greek and that is what we felt we had entered upon taking our seats on the outdoor patio of 7 St. Georges taverna. At a table under an arbor spilling with fragment purple hardenbergias, we met the establishment’s owner George Demetriades. He told us the restaurant is so-named because there are seven chapels dedicated to the saint in the immediate area.
We soon had ten dishes on the table–olives, capers, salad, cheese, fried eggs, cured and smoked meat and fish. Demetriades described St. George’s cuisine, which he told us means “delicate taste,” originating from Farsi, the ancient Persian language.
“Meze is a culture of eating, meaning that you have a variety of dishes of delicate tastes in small quantities, but at the same time, it is an occasion,” he said. “You take your time, you relax, you converse and, many times, you sing.”
Demetriades attributed the country’s varied cuisine to its climate, soil, and location as a stepping stone to three continents, as well as to its Orthodox religion.
“Religion is a very big part of our gastronomy,” he explained. “For open-air fairs commemorating saints’ days, klephtiko is prepared, sometimes in a clay oven or a hole in the earth with a big bonfire on top.”
Kleftiko is slow-baked lamb dish, said to be named for the Klephts, country bandits who would steal lambs or goats and cook the meat in a sealed pit to avoid the smoke being seen.
“Almost half the days of the year are fasting days– this means that people make meals of vegetables, legumes and fruit,” Demetriades continued. “For days like Christmas, a pig is killed and every single part of it used. For Easter, a lamb or kid is killed for meat after Lent.”
The celebration of fresh beginnings central to these holidays reverberated the next day when our taxi driver Andreas Neophytou told us that his last name means “new life.” As we rode in his backseat toward Larnaka, he regaled us with having embarked on one himself in 1969. That year, at 16, he moved to South Africa to earn an income to help support his parents and 11 siblings. He told us that life was difficult in Cyprus at that time and that thousands of young people emigrated as he did, many to his destination of choice, others to Australia and Great Britain. In 1974, he returned to Cyprus to meet the woman he would marry—his father had arranged his marriage.
Andreas recounted the conversation with his father, who told him “I’ve got the right woman for you,” to which he responded “Dad, I am a man of the world now!” Shaking his head and laughing, Andreas said “It wasn’t a bed of roses at first but we have made a very happy marriage.”
“Weddings used to be three days, now they are three hours,” he continued. “For a traditional Cypriot wedding, they were always held in the summer, you would invite the whole village, people would come on their donkeys. On the first day, Saturday, the meal would be fixed, a beautiful traditional dish called resi. On Sunday after service, the wedding would be held, everybody would be fed. The singing and dancing would go on until midnight. The music was always live and two men would get up and dance against each other, showing off their techniques, trying to prove who was the better dancer. On Monday morning, the bride would put the sheets outside to show the blood and that she had been a virgin.”
Andreas said that today the government gives families 12,000 euro to have a traditional Cypriot wedding, an attempt to keep the customs alive. He told us that 4,000 people came to his son’s wedding and that he bought his daughter a furnished house when she got married, to give her a good start in life.
“It is typical to invite everyone you know—this weekend I have four invitations,” he said. “I will put something in the envelope, even if only 30 euros. The whole amount in the collection adds up. My son got 20,000, my daughter 10,000.”
As we arrived in Larnaka, I asked Andreas what the icons meant to him.
“As a plain man, as children we grew up with the idea that we communicate with God, or Christ, or the Virgin Mary, through the icons,” he said. “The icons represent healing power or wealth. We do kiss the icons, having in our thoughts the high spirits, our thoughts go through the icons to ‘up there.’ This is coming from my heart. We are very, very strong believers. I believe that what is meant to be is what happens. Of course, it all depends on your faith.”
After meandering through the ancient streets to the southern part of Old Larnaka, we found Agios Lazaros, its four-story tower standing sentinel against a brilliant blue sky. While shafts of light streamed from its high windows, the stone interior was cool and a welcome relief from the blazing heat.
Agios Lazaros is an edifice founded on the theme of “new life.” According to Cypriot tradition, Lazarus, whom Jesus is said to have raised from the dead, moved to Cyprus after his resurrection. He became the first bishop of Cyprus, ordained by St Paul. After his final death, the name of the town was changed from Kation to Larnaka, which means in Greek “At the sarcophagus.” Agios Lazaros was built in 900 A.D. at the site of the saint’s grave.
The church’s ornately carved, gilded iconostasis featured rows of saints, with an image of Lazarus rising among them. To the right of the nave was a reliquary reputed to contain his skull. Descending stairs to the crypt, we found several stone sarcophagi beneath a row of hanging silver incense burners. One of the tombs is said to have housed the remains of the saint and bears the inscription “Lazarus, friend of Jesus.”
Returning upstairs, we stood at the back of the church and watched an old woman in black, her head covered with a kerchief, as she hobbled from one large icon mounted on a pillar to another. At each, she bent slightly in a partial kneel and kissed the image, before shuffling to the next.
Emerging into the bright sunlight, we found a small crowd gathering. Dressed in special occasion attire, generations of a family beamed at each other and laughed. From the toddler in a suit and sneakers, to the grandmother with a cane, they took turns admiring the center of attention, an infant in the arms of his mother. Tom and I watched as a priest came to the door and the family began filing into Agios Lazaros for a baptism and celebration of a new life.