A Background on Saint Neophytos Monastery of Lower Paphos in Cyprus
The Orthodox Christian heritage and iconography of Cyprus make for a fascinating lens through which to explore the island.
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Known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, Cyprus is a treasure trove of historic sites. Near Larnaka, for example, one can time travel from the ruins of the Neolithic settlement Kalavassos-Tenta, practically across the street to the remains of a 13th-century castle where Richard the Lionhearted wed Princess Berengaria of Navarre, and, down the road, find a 4th-century monastery founded by Emperor Constantine’s mother. Amid the wealth of archaeological relics, the island nation’s Orthodox Christian iconography calls to visitors of all faiths. The religious artwork found in ancient caves, tiny roadside shrines, painted churches and majestic cliff-top monastic communities offers a colorful and inspiring road map through the history of Cyprus and its central Orthodox Christian faith.
My experience at the Saint Neophytos Monastery
My husband Tom and I began our exploration of Cyprus at the far end of a deep valley, where we slowly made our way up into the steep hills in the country’s south, past the villages of Mesogi and Tremithousa. The soft peach pastel of the sandstone escarpment that loomed ahead was in vivid contrast to the bold green of pines and poplars reaching toward the brilliant topaz sky. Crossing a narrow footbridge, we heard the sound of rushing water from the mountain stream below and the wind rustling the branches of nearby olive trees. We reached the cliff face and climbed the stone-carved stairs to the top, where we paused to catch our breath and return the gaze of a winged and haloed angel, who looked down upon us from above an ancient door frame.
We crossed the threshold into the first of four tiny chambers that Saint Neophytos is said to have hewn from the rock here with his bare hands. When he arrived at this remote patch of wilderness in 1159, Neophytos was 25 years old, and he had finally found what he had been seeking for seven years: peace and quiet. Faced with the prospect of a traditional arranged marriage at 18, the future saint had fled his poor village of Kato Dhrys near Lefkara in the hills of southern Cyprus to a monastery, where he had hoped to lead a cloistered life as an ascetic. The abbot who welcomed him did not grant his wish to live as a hermit but did entrust the monastery’s vineyards to Neophytos’ care while also teaching him to read and write.
When his request to live a life of solitude was still denied seven years later, Neophytos asked the abbot for permission to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he hoped to find an ascetic that would take him under his wing. However, six months of wandering in the Holy Land did not present the spiritual teacher Neophytos sought. He returned to the monastery, where yet again his plea to live as a hermit was denied. No doubt frustrated, Neophytos headed for the port in Paphos and a ship to take him to Asia Minor, where another major monastery was located. Alas, the young saint was arrested as a fugitive and then robbed by his guards. Though released after just one night in jail, he had now become penniless and probably all the more intent on withdrawing from his fellow man. It was then that he made his way up into these lofty bluffs.
As I came to understand the very human story of this figure revered in his homeland of Cyprus, I admired his ideals and conviction in the throes of seemingly relentless adversity. I too am often ready to head for the hills, even when faced with far less opposition from my fellows and the Universe. We explored the humble cells that Neophytos carved from a small natural cave on the mountainside, recognizing the uneven walls and sloping ceilings as a testimony to his tenacity. I felt large and clumsy in the cubbyhole where Neophytos had spent a year chiseling out a utilitarian bed, a desk, a niche where he kept books, and his own sarcophagus. He forged a rock-cut alter in an adjoining space that constituted his prayer room. In 1183, he added a third chamber, a chapel. The stark angles and rough, bumpy surfaces of the engleistra, or “hermitage,” were poignant in their simplicity, and made an eloquent statement about the saint’s austere lifestyle, and the era in which he lived and died.
Also radiating devotion, but in a manner as rich and vivid as the architecture was plain, were the multi-colored frescoes adorning the tiny rooms. The imagery covered practically every surface save the floor; a parade of mystical scenes swirled around us like a galaxy of piety. I could imagine Neophytos dreamily contemplating the biblical vignettes conjured by the paintings and being transported to a place of tranquility.
Originally created in the year the chapel was built, many of the murals were re-painted in the early 16th century. The frescoes were in remarkable condition for their age though pockmarked and patched in places, faded and chipped in others. The murals bore the effects of enduring centuries past while also emanating an age-old luminosity. From the dim light streaming through two small windows cut into the cave’s wall, I admired the ancient artistry and felt like I was in a timeless, twilight world.
According to Reverend Monk Dometios, an iconographer in the Church of St. Barnabas, that is exactly the intended effect. “One enters a different world in which the single moment meets eternity,” he said. “These hagiographers are excellent artists. The way in which they paint reveals their heart and their morals. The expression of their brush strokes is not separated from their lifestyle. These hagiographers do not function mechanically but they live, work and create with the first Creator. While remaining faithful to prototypes, they move freely for they live within the grace beyond time and knowledge, they experience the ‘unknown knowledge’ that enables the unheard to be heard. The images and garments they portray shine with the same grace as their souls. You sense the heavenly beauty and the spiritual peace through their works.”
“Hagiography is the telling of evangelical history through works of art,” he continued. “The paintings on the walls of a church tell the stories from the gospels; they are the “books” the illiterate can read in order to comprehend the teachings. Apart from the evangelical depictions, scenes from the Old Testament were later added to fill in the gaps, as well as images of martyrs and other saints who are, to the pious, exemplars of living the truth of Christianity. Unlike secular art, hagiography does not attempt to realistically portray the human body or the world because it has a didactic goal, to present to the pious the truth about salvation and eternal life.”
Tom and I began to get a glimmer of the significance of icons to the citizenry of Cyprus the next day, when we made our first foray into Paphos from our accommodations on its outskirts. Paphos is actually two towns, comprised of distinct upper and lower settlements, the result of Arab raids during the Byzantine era, which forced residents to flee the coast for a more defensive position on the inland hills. We spent the morning roaming the extensive grounds of Kato or “Lower” Paphos, an immense archaeological park on the harbor that encompasses ruins from 2,000 years of history.
Under the intense sun typical of the summer months in the environs of the Middle East, we paced ourselves with a languid approach to viewing the multiple attractions of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. With no shade to shelter us from the withering heat, we moved slowly across the dusty expanse from the remnants of one Roman villa to the next, each more remarkable than the one before. We lingered at the 2,000-square foot House of Dionysos as much because of the relative coolness afforded by its covering as for its magnificent mosaics.
Drenched with perspiration, we pushed ourselves to climb a hill at the far side of the site. We were rewarded with a refreshing and salty sea breeze and inspiring views—in one direction, a romantic lighthouse stood sentinel above the azure Mediterranean, and in the other, the elegant semi-circle of a Roman Odeon was carved into the landscape. It’s said that somewhere here in Paphos, perhaps not far from where we stood, the Roman governor of the city was converted to Christianity in 45 A.D. by the Apostle Paul.
In the coming days, I would encounter the living legacy of numerous other saints revered in the Orthodox Christian faith. I would witness the pride that most Cypriots take in a heritage that includes churches and monasteries that they believe were founded by apostles and gospel writers. I would come to see how the images of these figures offer people tangible access to hope, healing and inspiration they can touch.
Publisher and editor of www.BestCulturalDestinations.com (BCD), which profiles people engaged in creating & preserving culture, and celebrates our unique differences and shared human condition. BCD defines “Best Cultural Destinations” as those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection.