The Narthex at the South Basilica at Polis on Cyprus

After a two week hiatus to work on the preliminary report from our work in the man camps, I’ve been able to return to my preliminary report on our work at the South Basilica at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus. I’ve managed to pull together much of the work that we’ve done over the past few study seasons into a single document and have begun to shuffle the various parts into some kind of rational order. In the process of doing this, I always discover little issues that require additional research or documentation. This week I had to think more carefully about the narthex and apse of the South Basilica. So today, I’ll amuse you with a brief discussion considering the arrangement of the narthex. Next week, I’ll muse on the apse.

Figure 1 wrc3

We have assigned the narthex to the second phase of the building on the basis of its relationship to the south portico. Material from beneath the south portico is contemporary with material associated with what we believe to be a foundation cut along the west wall of the narthex. This material is all 7th century and seems to date to about a half-century or so later than the first phase of the building. The challenge, then, is that we have to imagine the first phase of the basilica at Polis without a narthex. 

Churches without narthexes are rare on Cyprus. There are, however, two from the nearby site of Peyia. The Baptistery Basilica at Peyia lacks a narthex, but the irregular west wall of the church hints that the epikopeion complex to the west made it impossible to construct a narthex in the narrow space. A similar concession to space probably accounts for the rather irregular shape of the narthex at the Chrysopolitissa basilica in Paphos. For the Baptistery Church at Peyia, the location of the baptistery to the south of this building hints that this building may not have been a typical church and was arranged to serve the needs of the baptismal rite rather than the standard liturgy.

 

MaguireDissertation2012Small pdf

(From R. Maguire, Late Antique Basilicas on Cyprus. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of East Anglia 2012).

To the east of this church stood the Central Basilica at Peyia. This church has generally been dated to the 6th century and perhaps the reign of Justinian owing to its centrally placed ambo and use of Proconnesian marble. In place of a traditional narthex, this church had a small, but elaborate atrium. The location of the earlier Baptistery Basilica to the west may have made it difficult to build both an atrium and a narthex for this church. The decision, then, was to include an open atrium rather than traditional enclosed narthex spanning the western side of the building.

MaguireDissertation2012Small pdf

(From Maguire 2012)

DSC 0213View of the Baptistery and Central Basilica from the West

The decision to forego a traditional narthex in the relatively elaborate Central Basilica may suggest that the narthex was not an absolute requirement for liturgical practices on Cyprus.

Other examples of churches on Cyprus without narthexes are relatively rare. On the Karpas the two churches at Aphendrika (the Asomatos and Panayia) may have lacked narthexes in their earliest phase as perhaps did the church at Bedestan in Nicosia, but short of systematic excavation this will remain an open question. The earliest phase of the basilica at Maroni-Petrera appears to have lacked a narthex, but the early (5th c?) date of this building and its generally irregular shape makes it difficult to associate with other churches on the island in general. 

The absence of a narthex in the first phase of the South Basilica appears to be a genuine anomaly on Cyprus. The presence of a major road some 10 m to the west of the basilica’s west wall might have left an informal open space near its western entrances making the formal, covered space of a narthex unnecessary. It is interesting that the addition of the narthex coincided with the addition of the south portico which opened onto what may have been a walled courtyard to the south of the building. A tiny fragment of wall that leans against the eastern most wall of the south portico dates the east wall of the courtyard to after the construction of the south portico. 

So, perhaps the first phase of the church simply relied upon open space or a roughly enclosed courtyard to the west of the church that some time later was replaced with a formal narthex. The courtyard, as a result, was shifted to the south of the church and complemented with the south portico. It is tempting to see the atrium or open courtyard as serving an important function. If our reconstruction is correct, the south atrium would have opened onto a major east-west road through the neighborhood. The newly constructed narthex would have provided access to this courtyard or atrium through the southwest room which linked the narthex to the south portico. Paradoxically, then, the need for an open space around the basilica may have been more important than the somewhat more formal and covered narthex. 

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