For connoisseurs of “off-the-beaten-track” Cyprus, there is a hidden gem to be found at a remote location inside the Paphos District in the form of a little stone-built church dedicated to Ayios Nikolaos. This church, within which one finds magnificent sections of original wall painting, is tucked into a largely abandoned landscape within the upper reaches of the fantastic Xeros Potamos river valley. For many years, it could only be reached by travelling along a narrow dirt track emerging out of the nearby Galataria Village. However, in recent times, access has been considerably improved with a newly widened and asphalted road that crosses the entire breadth of the valley, connecting Galataria with Salamiou Village high on the opposite eastern ridge. Seen from the outside, the church stands out not only because of its magnificent physical setting, but also because of the prominent rock outcrop into which it is built. In fact, the rock type itself is quite unusual and has an impressive story behind it, but inside there are several unique features that make this one of the more special painted churches in all of Cyprus.
A Traditional Story about Ay Nikolaos – Galatarias
In compiling his 1936 book “Historic Cyprus: A Guide to Its Towns & Villages, Monasteries & Castles”, Rupert Gunnis is said to have spent several years travelling across Cyprus and making visits to 670 villages and 1800 churches and chapels. Altogether, Gunnis spent ten years in Cyprus (1929-1939), first as private secretary to British Governor Sir Ronald Storrs (Governor 1926-1932), and then as “Inspector of Antiquities” for the Cyprus Museum, a position that ended with the 1935 Antiquities Law that created the Department of Antiquities Cyprus (first Director: A.H.S. “Peter” Megaw in 1936). During his travels through Cyprus, Gunnis was able to write descriptions of many sites as they appeared during those years, and he collected many traditional stories and local legends from villagers. Here is what Gunnis writes about the church of Galataria – Ay Nikolaos:
Church on the Rocks
One of the unique features of this church concerns the floor. Instead of using the familiar method of paving the floor with flagstones or terra cotta tiles, this church is actually cut into the bedrock, and uses that rock itself as the flooring. Parts of the building use the excavated bedrock as foundations for the main superstructure of the church. The lowest sections of this building are literally carved out of the ground upon which it stands.
Some of the questions to ask about a church: Was this the first building of a spiritural nature to occupy this spot? Can we say definitively that the carving out of the bedrock was orginally and exclusively connected to this church? Or is it possible that prior to the construction of this late 15th/early 16th century church there might have been earlier religious (or non-religious) buildings, perhaps pre-Christian temples or early shrine sturctures here? At present, we cannot answer these questions one way or the other. However, we can point to numerous examples of churches of similar date that overlie the ruins of Classical, Hellenistic and/or Roman period temples across the island. In fact, we might consider that churches of this date are more likely to have been preceded by earlier buildings on the same spot than not. Food for thought…
In this case, the bedrock involved is part of a larger rock mass, which forms the western extension of a linear series of prominent rock outcrops that are exposed along a ridge line starting at the huge boulder locals call “Lagoudhia” (‘The Ear of a Hare’) on the valley floor to the east. The rock type belongs to a unique class of recrystallized limestone monoliths that geologists have nicknamed “Knockers”. They are amongst the oldest rocks in Cyprus and their origins are believed to be external to Cyprus. The best match for them is found on the coastline of Egypt and Libya, which makes them detached fragments of the African Continental Plate. Gibraltar is perhaps the most famous example in the Mediterranean, and it is positioned exactly where the African and Eurasian Plates virtually meet. Within Cyprus, the best-known examples are at the coastal location “Petra tou Rhomiou” (we strongly recommend avoiding the bogus name “Aphrodite’s Rock”), but there are several other inland examples: “Kourtellorotsos” and “Mesorotsos” (in the Dhiarizos valley), “Lagoudhia” along with numerous smaller fragments (in the Xeros Potamos), “O Vrakhos tis Episkopi-Moronero” (in the Ezousas valley), to name a few.
Knockers of Distinction
Apart from the rock-cut nature of the floor, the rest of the building is composed of locally collected fieldstones assembled into four well-built walls and crowned by a roof of terra-cotta tiles. In terms of architectural typology, this church has been described as “a single-aisled small building with a pointed vault supported by a transverse arch carried on pilasters.” The dimensions of the church: approx. 8.5 x 3.7 metres (28 x 12 feet).
The Action Within
Access to the building is via the south door. Once inside, give yourself a moment or two for the eyes to adjust to the changes in light. This church presents certain challenges in terms of viewing the wall paintings that survive in various states of preservation within the church interior. The interior of the church is quite dark, so if you visit, the use of a torch/flashlight is strongly suggested to see the paintings clearly. There is a considerable amount of soot adhering to the walls inside the church, which Gunnis, who visited the church in the mid-1930s, observed and attributes to warming fires lit by local shepherds in the past. However, this is pure speculation and is by no means confirmed. Many church interiors of similar date display evidence of past burning on the inside walls due to accidental fires caused by overturned oil lamps and/or candles, etc. Interestingly, Stylianou and Stylianou, who visited the church many years after Gunnis, do not refer to the soot, but instead mention “salt deposits” covering the eastern side wall paintings.
The Painted Scenes
Inside the Apse
- The Platyteria (“the Virgin Mary Orans”)
- A Dedicatory Inscription
- The Communion of the Apostles
- A Row of “six officiating prelates in ‘polystavria phelonia’, converging in groups of three towards the centre: Cyril, Epiphanios, Khrysostomos, Basilios, Gregorios, Spyridon.” All the figures have halos and wear outer garments decorated with crosses (the “polystavria phelonia”), indicating their position as Bishop Saints.
On the Vault in front of Apse: North Side
- Three Youths in the Furnace
- Sacrifice of Isaac
- A Deacon
On the Vault in front of Apse: South Side
- The Evanglismos (“The Annunciation”)
- The Philoxenia tou Avraam (“The Hospitality of Abraham”)
- Ay Stephanos
On Right Side between Apse and South Side of Vault
- Ay Athanasios dressed as a Deacon
On South Wall next South Side of Vault
- Arkhangelos Mikhail
Other significant wall paintings
- On the north and south pillars in the central church nave, Ay Pavlos (St Paul) and Ay Petros (St Peter), occupy their traditional positions as the two “founder saints of the Orthodox Church”.
- On north wall next to Petros: Ay Andreas (St Andrew) and Ay Nikolaos (St Nicholas).
- There are a few scraps of painting on sections of the western wall next to the door, some of which have been identified as Ay Mamas riding the lion, others seem to be just decorative motifs.
Analysis and Discussion of Specific Scenes
In the upper conch region of the apse itself and occupying its proper place according to strict Byzantine tradition is the depiction of the Virgin Mary flanked by the two usual Archangels, Michael and Gabriel. This scene is often called the “Platyteria” in Greek Orthodox nomenclature, otherwise as “the Virgin Mary Orans”, where she is represented in a gesture prayer (“Orans”), specifically with elbows close to the side of the body and arms outstretched upward, palms of the hands facing heaven.
Just below this Platyteria scene, we see a dedicatory inscription in which the date of the church’s painting is discussed. As seen above, Gunnis reports the date as 1550, but perhaps a stronger argument for an earlier date is put forward by Stylianou and Stylianou. They question the accuracy of Gunnis’ dating and instead propose a date between 1510-1520 based on the style and details of the iconography being similar to the paintings inside the church Metamorphosis tou Sotirios (“Transfiguration of the Saviour”) at Palaikhori in the Pitsylia area of the Troodos Mts.
The Communion of the Apostles Scene
Beneath the inscription and occupying the central apse section, roughly at eye-level, is one of the unusual representational highlights of this church, the scene called “The Communion of the Apostles”. The scene itself, which is sometimes described as a “liturgical version of “The Last Supper”, is fairly common and appears in the apse areas of several painted churches in Cyprus. However, the treatment and structure of the scene here in this church is remarkable.
The Galataria-Ay Nikolaos version of the Communion of the Apostles scene has some distinct features that make it stand apart from all other painted examples in Cyprus:
- All twelve Apostles are depicted twice. On the left side, all twelve stand in line to receive the bread, and on the right side all twelve stand to get the wine.
- Judas is shown twice: In both groups of twelve, Judas, wearing a red cloak, is at the back of the line turning in the opposite direction from Christ and walking away. Judas walking away is a constant theme often repeated in other versions of this scene in painted churches in Cyprus. However, this may be without precident, meaning here we have the only example on the island of Judas appearing twice in the Communion scene, once on either side.
- On the left side (“The Giving of the Bread”), two of the Apostles are shown focusing their gaze on Judas as he walks away. However, on the right side, all the Apostles seem oblivious to Judas and his departure, instead directing their attention to Christ giving the wine.
- Christ is shown twice, that is facing each group of twelve Apostles, and in each case, two Archangels are shown behind him holding “rhipidla”, which are circular objects with elongated handles believed to be “fans for driving away flies that might land on the sacred Elements.” (Stylianou and Stylianou, 1997: 501)
The Closest Parallel
The only other church in Cyprus to show the Communion scene with more than six Apostles grouped together on both the left and right sides is the church of the Metamorphosis tou Soterios (“Transfiguration of the Saviour”) at Palaeokhorio Village. The paintings in both the Galataria and Paleokhorio churches share approximately the same date, the second decade of the 16th Century.
Here Andreas and Judith Stylianou, the husband and wife experts in Byzantine art in Cyprus, take us through the details of the Paliokhorio Communion scene (Stylianou and Stylianou, 1997: 269):
“The Communion of Apostles, in the central zone of the apse, is one of the finest compositions in this church. Christ is depicted twice standing on either side behind a draped table, attended by angels dressed as deacons and holding rhipidia. Christ, with His clipped beard and moustache, has lost his strong Byzantine character. He administers the bread to all the Twelve on the left, headed by Peter. Judas, who comes last, ejects the morsel of bread from his mouth into his hands, as he turns and walks away. His head is depicted in profile. On the right, Christ administers the wine out of a handless jug to eleven of the Apostles, headed by young John; Judas is now missing. The Apostles are more compactly depicted on this side. This is one of the two surviving examples in which we meet all the disciples depicted twice in Cyprus; the second example is the church of St Nicholas near Galataria. The usual arrangement is six on either side. Outside the island, we meet the Twelve depicted in both sections of the subject in the church of St Nicholas Orphanos in Thessaloniki, with a fine series of paintings in the Palaeologue style of the second decade of the fourteenth-century. While the draperies of the Apostles also hark back to fourteenth-century paintings of the so-called Macedonian school, the facial characteristics take on the sixteenth-century elements, the delicate diffused light of the faces superimposed with linear bunches of highlights on the outer side, bringing out the emotion engendered by the scene. The unfunctional architectural background, on the other hand, is a Western infiltration as interpreted by the Cypriote painters…”
Side-by-Side Comparisons of “The Communion of Apostles” Scenes in Galataria and Palaikhori Churches
The “Communion of Apostles” Scene from Other Painted Churches in Cyprus
In other depictions of this scene in painted churches across Cyprus, the twelve Apostles are not grouped together on both sides, but are arranged in two groups, six on the right, “the Giving of the Wine”, and six on the left, the Giving of the Bread”. Christ is usually shown twice, facing and serving each group of six Apostles. Most scenes show one or two Archangels either standing next to Christ or in some way overseeing the proceedings.
As for the left side group, the Giving of the Bread, in most examples, Ay Petros (St Peter) is at the head and is first to receive the bread from Christ, while Judas is placed at the back of the line. However, in one of the earliest dated examples, the church at Asinou, Judas is placed in the back of the the right side group, the Giving of the Wine. Furthermore, Judas is usually facing in the opposite direction from the Christ and is shown walking away from the other Apostles. Some versions of this scene show Christ himself (and/or certain Apostles in the group) glaring disapprovingly at Judas as he departs. In a few cases, Judas is depicted in such detail that he can be seen removing something from his mouth with his hand as he walks away.
Varient Approaches to the “Communion” Scene
In the apse of the “Main Church” at Ay Neophytos monastery, the painted Communion scene (dated to the first half of the 16th Century) shows the figure at the back of the left group, the traditional position of Judas in several other Communion scenes, with a defaced head. It is unclear whether the damage was done deliberately with the face rubbed away with specific intent. This might be Judas or it might not be. However, one notes that none of the other Apostle figures standing in line show any damage. Stylianou and Stylianou simply comment: “Judas is not represented.” It is worth noting that the posture of the lower body, specifically the legs, are turned towards Christ and is NOT walking away.
Take the Money and Run
In another early 16th century example, this time from the Church of the Holy Cross at Ay Irini (a hamlet not far from Lagoudera village in the Troodos), we see a fascinating variation on the Communion scene. Stylianou and Stylianou (1997: 152-55) walk us through the unusual details:
“In the central zone of the apse the officiating prelates Gregory, Chrysostom, Basil and a fourth one whose name is obliterated, all depicted half length. Below them is painted the Communion of the Apostles, and exchanged position with the prelates. The Communion presents us with interesting iconographic and stylistic elements. Starting from the left, we see Judas, his head in profile with thick lips and rough features, evoking an expression sugg3esting the coming betrayal. In his left hand he holds a white money-bag, again an influence from the Western representations of the Last Supper (the Communion of the Apostles is not represented in the West), where Judas is often shown grasping a money-bag. The next three Apostles face the Communion erect. The fifth one is St Andrew, who is raised above the others and turns his head to look at the departing Judas. St Peter who leads this group is mostly damaged, and Christ is completely destroyed. The right-hand group are led by St Paul. They show no hands excepting St Matthew –last but one—who shows his left forearm and hand, badly drawn; here we witness a realistic touch without precedent: St Matthew’s sandal has come off. We note that only those in the foreground show their feet. In contrast to their bodies, their heads are executed with great care. Their faces are painted in light ochre tinted with pink, and show soft and gentle features enhanced by delicate white highlights in an almost icon technique, radiating their emotion at the great moment of taking their Communion from the hands of their Master…”
A Non-Byzantine Example
For comparitive purposes, it might be of interest to see how the non-Byzantine Christian artists approached this “Communion of Apostles” scene. As is evident in this example from Tuscany, Italy, the scene is completely reimagined with an entirely different structure:
The Three Youths in the Furnace Scene:
The story behind this scene, which some sources call “The Three Holy Children in the Fiery Furnace”, comes to us from the Old Testament, specifically from the Book of Daniel. The three boys involved were named Ananias, Misail and Azarias, all of them companions of the Prophet Daniel and members of the tribe of Judah. During the reign of King Jechonias, they were all taken prisoner “along with other Jews” by the Babylonians, and then led away as captives to live as servants in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, who stripped them of their Hebrew names and gave them new Babylonian names to give honour to pagan deities. Some sources would date these evevents to the year 599 B.C. These same sources continue the story as follows:
“As told in Chapter Three in the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar constructs a golden cult image of himself which he orders the populace to worship. Ananias, Misail, and Azarias defy the king’s order, refusing to worship anyone but God alone. Nebuchadnezzar, in a fit of rage, orders that the three children be thrown in a furnace. Inside the furnace, Azarias prays for the forgiveness of his sins and those of his people, asking God to demonstrate his power to the Babylonians. They are delivered from the fire by an angel who makes the flames feel like a cool breeze over dew. Seen in the furnace walking with a fourth individual unscathed and praising God, the three children emerge. Nebuchadnezzar then orders the people to worship their God instead of the idol.”
“Before this event, Daniel interpreted a mysterious dream Nebuchadnezzar had of a statue composed of precious metals which was ground to dust by a rock hewn from a mountain without human craftsmanship. This vision is said to prefigure of Christ’s incarnation, the Son of God who is begotten and not made, destroying death through His Resurrection.
The Church also teaches that it was Christ taking the form of an angel who saved the youths from their torment. In icons of this miracle, the angel sports a halo bearing a cross, indicating that He is Christ.”
This scene does not occur often in Cyprus. Across the island, we can find painted examples of this scene in only four churches (listed in approximate chronological order):
- Kouklia – “Palaea Enkleistra” dated to mid-15th century (1442)
- Kalopanayiotis – Ay Ioannis Lampadistis dated to mid-15th century (1453)
- Galataria – Ay Nikolaos dated to early 16th century (1510-1520)
- Palaikhori– Metamorphosis tou Sotirios (“Transfiguration of the Saviour”) dated to early 16th century ( 1510-1520)
None of the scenes listed above from Cypriot painted churches shows the cross motif in the halo of the Angel.
The Sacrifice of Isaac Scene
This scene depicts an event that would, chronologically speaking, be the oldest amongst all the scenes displayed on the walls inside this church. Although in English the scene is consistently referrred to as “The Sacrifice of Isaac”, the Byzantine Greek name for the scene is perhaps more logical, “The Sacrifice of Abraham” (Thysia tou Avraam).
The story behind the scene comes to us, once again, from the Old Testament, specifically from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22:
“Sarah had a baby boy named Isaac. God wanted to know if Abraham would obey him. God told him to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain.
Abraham loved his son very much. He did not want to sacrifice Isaac. But Abraham wanted to obey God.
God told Abraham to go to a mountain. He took Isaac and two men with him. Abraham and Isaac rode on a donkey. They traveled for three days.
The two men stayed with the donkey. Abraham and Isaac walked up the mountain. Abraham took a knife. Isaac took some wood.
Isaac asked where the lamb was for the sacrifice. Abraham told him not to worry.
Abraham built an altar. He put wood on it.
Abraham tied Isaac and put him on the altar. He held the knife over Isaac. Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son. But an angel spoke to Abraham. He told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham had obeyed God. God loved Abraham.
Abraham looked around. He saw a ram in the bushes. God had given the ram for the sacrifice. Abraham sacrificed the ram on the altar.
God was happy Abraham had obeyed him. God said he would bless Abraham’s family.
Abraham and Isaac went home. Abraham had obeyed God. He was willing to let his son die.”
There are several examples of this “Sacrifice” scene to be found in the painted churches of Cyprus. Although certain details might vary, there seems to be a few main elements common to and depicted on all examples:
- The scene happens on a mountain or mountainous landscape.
- The young Isaac is shown with hands bound.
- The bearded Abraham, often with white hair, holds a dagger in his hand in a position ready to strike and excute his son.
- A ram is shown in the scene.
- In upper zone, often upper left, an Angel is shown calling down to Abraham from heaven.
In many cases (but not all) its “sequel” scene, the “Philoxenia tou Avraam” (called in English either “The Hospitality of Abraham” or “The Entertainment of the Angels”), occurs nearby, often on an opposite-facing wall, but sometimes just next to or underneath it. According to Byzantine tradition, the Sacrifice scene “is usually placed somewhere near the niche of the prothesis (preparatory compartment on left side of holy area) in the bema (sanctuary), as the symbolical interpretation of the Sacrifice of Christ.” Nevertheless, examples exist where individual painters have flouted this tradition and placed the Sacrifice scene in “unsusal” or “out of context” positions within the church interior. This can be seen at Kalopanayiotis-Ay Lampadistis, Geroskypou-Ay Parasevi and Kellia-Ay Antionios.
Stylianou and Stylianou (1997) identify at least 16 separate churches with the Sacrifice scene appearing amongst their wall paintings. However, undoubtedly there are/were more. In reality, the true overall number may never be known, but we can postulate there would have been a greater number given that many painted churches in Cyprus suffered damage to their paintings due to a variety of factors: through time and exposure to elements; or original painted scenes were covered over by additional layers of painting in later centuries; or entire wall surfaces bearing painted scenes of Christian saints were whitewashed by Muslims in the post-Byzantine era.
Painted Churches in Cyprus displaying the Sacrifice of Isaac scene (with dates for painting):
(Note: Churches marked with * belong to the series recognized by UNESCO as “World Heritage” Monuments.)
- Galataria – Ay Nikolaos (1510-1520)
- Geroskypou – Ay Paraskevi (late 15th century)
- Nikitari-Panayia Phorbiotissa of Asinou* (1332/3)
- Kalopanayiotis-Ay Ioannis Lampadistis*: in Church of Ay Heracleidios (first half of 13th century); in Latin Chapel (ca 1500)
- Pedoulas-Arkhangelos Mikhail* (1470s)
- Louvaras – Ay Mamas* (1495)
- Kourdali- Koimisi tou Theotokou/Dormition of the Mother of God (early 16th century)
- Galata-Ay Sozemenos* (1513)
- Galata – Arkhangelos* (1514)
- Kilani – Ay Mavri (late 15th century)
- Palaeomylos – Timios Stavros/Holy Cross a.k.a. “Ay Paraskevi” (16th century)
- Kaminaria – Panayia (early 16th century)
- Ay Irini – Timios Stavros/Holy Cross (early 16th century)
- Askas-Ay Khristina, locally a.k.a. “Ay Paraskevi” ( 1518)
- Kellia – Ay Antonios: Sacrifice scene is depicted twice in two superimposed paintings (early 11th century and “early 12th century style” respectively)
- Tersaphanou – Ay Yeorgios (1740s)
Depictions of the Sacrifice scene from non-Byzantine art outside Cyprus
Some of these non-Cypriot artistic representations come from the Catholic artists and convey a slightly different perspective on the scene. One thing noteworthy is that most Catholic versions of the scene show the Angel actually putting a hand on Abraham’s arm to stop his movement with the knife, but the Byzantine tradition shows the Angel in heaven calling down to Abraham to stop.
The Philoxenia tou Avraam Scene
The literal translation of this scene’s name is “The Hospitality of Abraham”, but it is often referred to as “The Entertainment of the Angels.” Here we’ll simply refer to it as the Philoxenia (“Hospitality”) scene.
Most versions in Cypriot painted churches depict three Archangels seated at a round or semi-circular table, with place-sets for three, round loafs of bread (sometimes marked with the sign of the cross) and food in plates on the table with wine in carafes. In many examples, the scene includes both Abraham and his wife Sarah attending the Angels, but some versions just show Abraham or just show the Angles at the table with Abraham and Sarah absent entirely (Kilani-Ay Mavri).
Although the subject matter is of Old Testament origin, which equates chronologically with the Bronze Age, many versions show wine in two carafes made from translucent glass, which would have already been invented during the lives of the Byzantine painters, but would certainly not have been part of the Bronze Age material culture. (Bronze Age glass was an opaque paste sometimes called “faience”.) Of course, nobody expects the Byzantine wall painters, most of whom where themselves monks indoctrinated by Orthodox religious teachings, to have been cognizant of the archaeological fact that translucent glass first appears during the Hellenistic period. Instead, it’s best to view this through the lens of an art historian, that this is just another example of how these Byzantine painters took measures to make their paintings of Biblical stories appear relevant to the widely illiterate viewing audience by inserting contemporary material culture into their painted scenes. Along these same lines, we observe that Roman soldiers in scenes like “The Betrayal” or “The Carrying of the Cross” or “The Crucifixion” are dressed not in clothing or uniforms consistent with Roman times, but rather they are suited up in the manner and fashion of soldiers at the time of painting, which allowed viewers who could not read the Bible themselves to better relate to the scenes. We see this also in the depiction of architecture within Byzantine wall paintings, where buildings are fitted with anachronistic Venetian or even Ottoman period features. In fact, one can cite an example of a Crucifixion scene where the architectural skyline in the background, supposedly representing Jerusalem during Roman times, includes Islamic minaret towers.
Looking at specific details of the Philoxenia scenes in the churches listed above, we can see certain elements occur in some versions, but not others.
- Some painters decided to show a cross inside one or all of the halos of the seated Angels. Other painters do not show this, instead reserving the cross-in-halo for Christ only.
- All versions show round bread loafs on the table, often bearing the cross motif.
- In some versions a (roasted) ram’s head is shown being served on a plate as the main course for the Angels’ “entertainment”. This perhaps connects with the ram that suddenly appeared for Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son Isaac. (See “Sacrifice of Isaac” scene above)
- In at least one version, the food served to the Angels appears to include fish.
- As noted already above, some versions show Abraham and his wife Sarah attending the seated Angels, while other versions do not.
Painted Churches in Cyprus displaying the Philoxenia tou Avraam scene (with dates for painting):
(Note: Churches marked with * belong to the series recognized by UNESCO as “World Heritage” Monuments.)
- Askas – Ay Ioannis Prodromos (1560)
- Galata – Arkhangelos* (painted by Symion Axentis in 1514)
- Galata – Ay Sozemenos* (painted by Symion Axentis in 1514)
- Galataria – Ay Nikolaos (1510-20)
- Kalopanayiotis – Ay Ioannis Lampatistis* “Latin Chapel” (ca 1500)
- Kakopetria – Panayia Theotokos (1520)
- Kilani – Ay Mavri (late 15th century)
- Koudrdali – Koimisis tou Theodotou (early 16th century)
- Louvaras – Ay Mammas* (1495)
- Paliokhorio – Metamorphosis tou Soterios* (1510-1520)
- Tala – Ay Neophytos “Enkleistra” (1503)
In this painting, we see several elements, some standard, observed in versions from other churches of this period. The three Angels are seated at a round table being attended by both Sarah and Abraham. One of the Angels, seated in the centre place (Arkangelos Mikhail?) has a cross in his halo, the other two do not. This is not standard. However, like many, but not all, versions, the wine is displayed at the front of the table in two separate carafes apparently made from translucent glass. Abraham is serving a platter containing roasted ram’s head. The elongated vegetables may be radisches. There are three round loafs of bread, one for each Angel and each loaf bears the cross motif. There is only one large knife placed at the back of the table in front of the central Angel’s elbow: does this represent the dagger of Abraham?
Besides the Galataria example, within the group of Philoxenia scenes that occur in painted churches in Cyprus, a few superb examples stand out from the rest of the pack:
“In the lunette above the apse, we have a fine pictorial representation of Abraham’s Hospitality, otherwise the Entertainment of the Angels, the typological Old Testament Trinity. The iconography is basically Byzantine, but the framing and drawing are Italian, especially of the two supplementary scenes on either side of the central part. On the left, Abraham receives the three strangers kneeling at their feet, but he raises his body to address them with his right hand, a departure from the usual proskynesis posture of the Byzantines. The three-dimensional landscape with its running river, spanned by a Florentine bridge, and the atmospheric sky, make the picture comparable to the best contemporary Italian masterpieces. In the supplementary scene on the right, Abraham washes the feet of the strangers, in an equally well rendered landscape of soft hills and delicate trees. The Entertainment of the Angels is in the centre, shows the three strangers seated at a round table with rich vituals, including wine, in Byzantine manner. The scene is framed by an arched portico carried on marble pillars. Sarah and Abraham approach in attendance from either side.” (Stylianou and Stylianou, 1997: 318)
This is one of three surviving early 16th century scenes that were repainted after earlier paintings from 1196 fell off the wall owing to dampness problems on this side of the “Enkleistra” hermitage-cave. That this later painting replaced an earlier version of the same scene is probable, but cannot be confirmed. In this version, all three Angels are depicted with crosses in their halos, and Abraham and Sarah are both included in the background serving their heavenly guests. The circular bread loafs bear the symbol of the cross. There are indications of food with reddish hues in the three plates on the table, and to the extent one can perceive it might be fish. The vegetables appear to be radishes. Here the painter chose not to put wine carafes on the table, but they appear in the front of the painting in small compartments built into the lower part of the table with a goblet. One striking feature, not often seen in other versions of this scene, is the large knife or dagger placed prominently in centre-front position on the table. Is this supposed to represent the dagger Abraham had in his hand when he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac?
“In the fine composition of the Hospitality of Abraham, otherwise the Entertainment of the Angels, on the north wall in the bema, we again meet the Italianate architectural background, with balustrade extensive verandahs in the upper storey, and the vaulted-type of roof we have met in some of the paintings in Agiasmati. The young heifer feeding from its mother gives a rustic touch to the composition and is based on the Old Testament account. It is a common detail of varying forms in the portable icons of the period, in most of the countries of the Byzantine world and beyond where its influence was felt, as far as Russia.” (Stylianou and Stylianou, 1997: 269)