“Cyprus is perhaps most widely known today as a holiday island – a seemingly endless source of beautiful beaches, good food, wine and in essence a friendly reception. Some are perhaps aware that parallel to this appearance of paradise there exists a fraught political situation arising from a divided nation, with the physical entity of the island unnaturally and seemingly unyieldingly partitioned. While this state of affairs, as long as it lasts, will always provide a shadowed presence in the light, it is this very flaw that has in compensation stimulated (in practical, economic terms) that very tourist industry that has made Cyprus so widely loved and appreciated.
One suspects, though, that even less well known to the Cyprus fans is that rich vein of art of all ages that makes the island so exceptional. Writing during the time of British occupation of the island, in Historic Cyprus (1936), Rupert Gunnis commented: “This Cinderella of Empire has a rich and more varied history and more of interest and beauty than many of the larger and better known Dependencies of our Empire”. Within a relatively small area around Paphos one can find a range of historic masterpieces. At Palaiopaphos/Kouklia, the oldest and most important shrine to Aphrodite, there exists the first millenium B.C. Idol of the goddess, taking the form simply of a huge abstract icon that one cannot avoid seeing as closest in kinship to a Barbara Hepworth of nearly 3,000 years later.
At Nea Paphos, near the harbour, one can see a magnificent series of mosaics of the Roman era, only recently (since the 1960s) re-emerged to view through excavations. These constitute an integration of high art and decoration, and the subjects range from the serious – Orpheus and the Beasts or the Judgement of Cassiopeia to the less formal – two figurines rather the worse for wear, labelled in Greek The First Wine-drinkers (a topic not without relevance still today). All types, though, embody a depth of craftmanship and creativity, each singe tessera originally playing a unique artistic role in the transmission of a variety of glowing colours.
From the middle ages Cyprus has witnessed in the fields of wall-paintings and icons a succession of often high quality works of art in the service of religion. This succession was irrespective of national political control (Byzantine, Latin, Ottoman) and reflected how, as in Poland or Ireland later, the Church in Cyprus became the only institution that could effectively maintain and represent the spirit of the nation. At the monastery of St. Neophytus, near Paphos, two chambers carved out of the mountainside contain a series of 12th century painted narratives and grouped figures, covering and enveloping the whole area of walls, ceilings, doorways, the stark religious images suggestive in form and colour of core truths and mysteries, in spite of subsequent damage and restoration.
The icons of Cyprus too share this hieratic quality, as is only to be expected granted their virtual function. Here again, as in the wall paintings, we get a range of colours, programmed to act as symbolic messages relating to the subject, and with often an added glowing translucency that is both sensuous and deictic, set in gold, tempting the eye of the worshipper or beholder to become immersed in the bewitching mysteries of religion.
While obviously in type and imagery the religious art of Cyprus shares in a common tradition of Orthodoxy, it is nonetheless distinctive, of its own nature, thus paralleling the status of the Church in Cyprus as autocephalous, that is, autonomous within a wider oikoumene.
Since the nineteenth century Cyprus has had built public buildings (schools, museums, post offices) and public monuments that sit easily within the artistic ideologies of the rest of the world. Since the Second World War, however, certain figures have emerged who not only hold their own in a wider context but also individually excel. A painter such as Christopher Savva (1924-1968), while he undoubtedly drew on his training and experiences in London and Paris, returned to his homeland to produce an art that was also emphatically of Cyprus. More recently, Stass Paraskos, while learning from the time he spent practising and teaching painting in England, has returned to Cyprus to continue producing work that is distinctive, personal and original – all qualities he seeks to instil in students at the Cyprus College of Art in Paphos which he founded and still runs.
The work of Andreas Charalambides is certainly of the present, yet it is also timeless and resonant of the past. The title figure in Orpheus reflected in a broken mirror is drawn from antiquity; his lyre and the pipes, as well as a lyre, a bust, an amphora in other paintings are all clear markers of the classical past. Yet Three Muses, while they may sound antique, are emphatically of today. Occasionally one of his figures features a mask – is this a symbol of a layering of identity, one age attempting to conceal the living presence of another beneath?
A suggestiveness, a sense of mystery pervades Andreas’ work, many paintings insistently maintain their detachment, much as the icons and mural paintings of medieval Cyprus remain relentlessly seeking to impose a sense of awe. Similarly the presence of shadows, the darker tones, apart from a universal psychic relevance or a reference to that present day political threat mentioned before, these passages of the dark evoke the enclosed, tenebrous majesty of that original physical environment where one should truly view Byzantine church art in its genuine context, while the glowing colours, fretted in gold, of the icon may be the distant inspiration for the golds and translucencies of certain Charalambides paintings.
Others, though, are bright, cheerful, of today, possibly symbolising that light and celebration that are also characteristic of Cyprus. One remembers the happy scenes of the mosaics at Paphos or the frequent brilliance of the beach near Pissouri where Aphrodite in legend came ashore. Unlike many stories of old where several places lay claim to be an original site – at least seven have asserted they were the birthplace of Homer, in one’s school days one was taught to recite: “Smyrna, Rhodos, Colophon, Salamis, Chios, Argos, Athinae” – this spot seems undisputed, and it can serve as archetype for the uniqueness of Cyprus’ artistic riches, which continue into the present day and include the work of Andreas Charalambides.”
Fine Art Department
University of Leeds