A palimpsest that faith built: The Church of the Transfiguration in Sotera (Cyprus) and its Murals

by Maria Parani, University of Cyprus

The Cypriot countryside is dotted with small village churches, plain and unassuming on the outside and surprisingly rich and complex on the inside, with colourful mural decorations and wood-carved liturgical furnishings distinctive of the Greek-Orthodox rite. In their present state, many of them are the result of successive interventions, with multiple building phases and painting campaigns all the way down to the 19th century. To the modern visitor – be they a pilgrim, a tourist, or a scholar –  these churches open up windows into the lives and history of the communities that have worshipped there for centuries. As the island’s overlords changed from one historical period to the next and the political and cultural landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean underwent one dramatic transformation after another, these cultic spaces provided an anchor and a sense of continuity to the local communities, whose members, in a sense, inscribed their concerns, their hopes, and their beliefs into the very fabric of their places of worship. Indeed, the continued restoration, maintenance, and embellishment of these churches, often involving quite ambitious modifications and, by extension, a serious investment of material and human resources, demonstrate the great importance that these structures had for the people who worshipped there.

One such church is that of the Transfiguration at the village of Sotera, in southeastern Cyprus. Located 10 km to the south of the city of Famagusta, this inland, agricultural village is surrounded by fertile arable lands, yet with easy and quick access to the sea. Archaeology allows researchers to trace back human occupation in the area at least down to Roman times, if not earlier. Still, we lack the evidence that would allow us to reconstruct evolving settlement patterns during the period when Cyprus was a province of the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire (4th-7th, and then again, 10th-12th century AD). That a settlement was probably established and developing around the church of the Transfiguration by the Lusignan Period, i.e. at the time when Cyprus was an independent Crusader kingdom under the French Lusignan dynasty (1192-1489 AD), is more than likely. Nonetheless, it is only in the 16th century, when Cyprus had already become incorporated into Venice’s overseas possessions, that the name “Sotera” is first recorded in Venetian documents. The fact that Sotera appears in these documents as the head village of an administrative unit provides enough evidence that, by that time, the settlement was both substantial and prosperous. How far back the name of the settlement goes, we do not know. That it was associated with the dedication of the church we are talking about here seems self-evident.

Situated within the precinct of the old cemetery at the heart of the modern village, the church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour (feast day: August 6) is known among the locals as the “Χρυσοσώτηρος (Chrysosoteros)”, the Golden Saviour. We ignore how old this dedication is, or whether it is the original one. The name of the settlement, “Sotera”, from the Greek word “σωτήρ (soter)”, meaning “saviour”, certainly attests not only to this dedication being established by the 16th century at the latest, but also to the central position that the church had in shaping the identity and self-perception of the community it served, which apparently chose to name itself after its central place of worship.

As it stands today, the building is a single-aisle vaulted structure with a dome surmounting the central bay, a semi-circular apse to the east, an open portico to the south, and a tall belfry to the southeast. However, it is not the first cultic building at the site: the church of the Transfiguration, it turns out, was actually built on the remains of an earlier, three-aisled basilica, whose foundation may go back to the 5th century, i.e. at the time when Christianity was becoming established as the preeminent religion in Cyprus. We do not know when or why this basilica was destroyed, but its destruction could be associated with the upheavals of the 7th century AD, when the Arab expansion overturned the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean, of which the island had always been an integral part. The site, however, did not lie abandoned for long, intimating that collective memory and faith provided continuity through a time of what would have been traumatic disruption. A single-aisle church was constructed over the central aisle of the basilica. A date in the 8th century for its construction seems plausible. At some later stage, this rather humble church underwent major remodeling, with the construction in its interior of a series of pilasters joint by arches along its two long walls for the purpose of supporting vaulting and a central dome. Fragments of wall-paintings on one pilaster below the layer that can be confidently dated on stylistic grounds to the second half of the thirteenth century suggest that this transformation took place somewhat earlier, possibly during the twelfth century, when Cyprus was still a Byzantine province, or, at the latest, during the first decades of Frankish rule. By the second half of the thirteenth century, the church became the focus of renewed attention, which this time was expressed through the commissioning of a new and apparently extensive programme of painted decoration, the very same murals for which the church has justly become the focus of scholarly attention in recent years.

During the fifteenth or, more likely, sixteenth century, our church, now at the heart of what, as we have seen, must have been a thriving settlement, once again underwent extensive renovation. The dome was rebuilt, while the four pilasters supporting it and the arches connecting them were strengthened with added masonry, which covered the thirteenth-century paintings in these areas and, thus, contributed to their preservation. Fragments of murals on the casing of the two western pilasters supporting the dome suggest that the church must have also received a new layer of painted decoration. The last phase of major intervention to the fabric of the church apparently took place around the middle of the 19th century, during which Cyprus was under Ottoman rule (1571-1878 AD). It is at this time that the open south portico and belfry were added. Perhaps as part of the same restoration effort, segments of the sanctuary of the church acquired a new layer of painted decoration.

But who were the people who invested so much in this church, time and again? We do not know, as they left no epigraphic record behind. For the medieval period, we may assume that, in their majority, the local inhabitants must have been Greek Orthodox. Still, the possibility that Latin and Syrian populations had also settled in the area, after fleeing to Cyprus as a result of the Mamluk advance in the second half of the 13th century, remains open. To learn more about the people, whose needs our church served, about their fears and their aspirations, we need to turn to its wall-paintings.

Given that it is the layer of the late 13th century that is the better preserved, we will focus on that. The sadly fragmentary murals comprise both narrative compositions and individual biblical figures and saints. Among the narrative scenes, one recognizes episodes from the life of Christ. Remnants of a Last Judgement, the second oldest occurrence of this composition in Cyprus, survive on the west vault. Especially the composition of the sanctoral cycle and the Greek language of the inscriptions reveal that here we have a church that was destined primarily, though not necessarily exclusively, to serve the needs of an Orthodox, Greek-speaking rural community. We readily recognize the principal thematic axis around which the iconographic programme is organised: the unfolding of the divine plan for the salvation of humankind, made possible through Christ’s Incarnation and His defeat of death through His own sacrifice on the cross. Intimately related to this desire for redemption, is the theme of the intercession of the saints, who mediate to God in response to the prayers of the faithful and provide guidance and protection in this life and the next.

Sotera, church of the Transfiguration, nave, north wall. Anonymous male supplicant (1260-1280 AD)
[photo: M. Parani / © Department of Antiquities, Cyprus – Bishopric of Salamis-Constantia]

The current social and religious environment, as well as the challenges that the local rural community had to face in their daily lives must have informed the articulation of the iconographic programme, especially the choice of saints represented on the walls. Thus, we see St Epiphanios, the most famous representative of the Church of Cyprus, who, for the inhabitants of Sotera, living in his diocese of Salamis-Constantia and not far from the centre of his cult, must have felt as “one of their own”; St Mamas, protector of shepherds and their flocks; the doctor St Hermolaos; and the miracle-working local St Athanasios Pentaschoinites. The desire for protection from natural and spiritual dangers becomes even more apparent when we consider the prominent position awarded to military saints the programme. Indeed, the most magnificent composition in the church, of which only tantalizing fragments survive today, would have been the monumental representation of two equestrian saints, probably St George and St Theodore. And, it is in front of St George’s white horse that we finally encounter one of the people, whose will or memory provided an impetus for the creation of the murals.

Immortalised in pigment in perpetual supplication, this is an anonymous man of indeterminate age, fair and beardless as a Latin, praying standing and with his hands raised open in front of him like a Greek-Orthodox, and dressed in garments worn at that time by Greeks, Franks, Syrians, and Armenians alike. Given the lack of an identifying inscription, we do not know what the role of this man in the decoration of the church was. We are likewise ignorant of his ethnic and creedal affiliation. Whatever the case, his diminutive – yet centrally placed – figure intimates that Sotera at that time had attracted a new class of patrons with ambitions and connections that went beyond the boundaries of a small rural community, who nonetheless wished to materialise their aspirations, the spiritual as well as the social, through sponsoring the redecoration of their local church.

We can find the developments we have been laying out in broad strokes at the church of the Transfiguration at Sotera repeated throughout the Cypriot countryside in the medieval and early modern era. Still, each Cypriot village church has its own individual story to tell, and it is a story well-worth pursuing as we seek to understand not only the monuments, but also, and most important of all, the people who built them and used them.

This post draws on the preliminary results of an interdisciplinary research project, titled “The church of the Transfiguration at Sotera in context: history – architecture – murals”, which is taking place under the auspices of the University of Cyprus and the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, and with the generous funding of the Anastasios G. Leventis Foundation (2014-2016).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s