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1 March 2015
A Saintly Experience: UNESCO World Heritage Churches
While the rugged mountains that rise high above the island’s flat land provide for some great outdoor adventures, what many people don’t realise is that the area is also a treasure trove when it comes to the island’s religious heritage.
Well worth seeking out are the ten Byzantine churches of the Troodos district, which are so spectacular that they’re included on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list. Built and painted between the 11th and 16th centuries, the main body of the churches was made from ‘unfinished’ local stone.
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Bricks and porous stones were used for the vaults and domes, which were roofed with tiles. Because damage from winter rain and snow was a prime concern, a second, steeply pitched roof with flat, hooked tiles was added for their protection.
Step inside these quaint buildings and you’ll find yourselves ogling at colourful frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, saints and sinners and, interestingly enough, portraits of the earthly patrons and ladies of the church. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the images can be overwhelming at first. To really appreciate the artistry on display, stop a minute, catch your breath and then, slowly, take in all the grandeur.
In many old churches, the intensity of colour will take your breath away. Artists worked on wet plaster, so pigments penetrated rather than remaining as surface decoration. This fresco technique ensured the centuries-old duration of the colours.
As Constantinople dictated the style and content of church painting, there was no room for artistic license. Christ is in the dome, which represents Heaven, and Mary’s place of honour is in the apse. They are accompanied by angels and prophets. Around the walls, an upper series of scenes generally depicts events from the lives of Christ and Mary.
The lower series is related to the deeds of a supporting army of martyrs and saints. The faces, clothing and positions of the depicted figures remained much the same from church to church, from century to century.
The continuity came from approved copybooks, which served as references for artists working across the far-flung Byzantine Empire. Even so, styles, influences and artistic skill, particularly of local artists, resulted in some variation.
Strictly speaking, painting portraits and murals on church walls was neither art nor decoration; it was considered education as vast populations – mainly illiterate – were being lured away from larger-than-life gods such as Apollo and Aphrodite.
To make its most revered figures familiar, Orthodox Christianity placed them face to face with its converts through mosaics, frescoes, and icons. It was an effective way of instructing an illiterate population, who could then read the stories for themselves (in almost comic-book simplicity) and recognise them wherever they worshipped.
Church painters were considered craftsmen rather than artists and, in general, neither signed nor dated their work. Recognition instead went to the wealthy patrons who commissioned the building, renovation or painting of the church.
As a whole, the ten painted Byzantine churches in Troodos were awarded the distinction of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage because they represent an outstanding cultural tradition in the monumental art that developed at a particular juncture in regional history.
The Check List
1. Agios Ioannis Lampadistis, Kalopanayiotis
2.Agios Nikolas tis Stegis, just outside Kakopetria