Old and New Perspectives on Church Building in Cyprus

I was pretty excited to read  Marietta Horster, Doria Nicolaou, Sabine Rogge’s edited volume, Church Building in Cyprus (4th – 7th century): A Mirror of Intercultural Contacts in the Eastern Mediterranean (Waxmann 2018). I’ve been working on Early Christian Cyprus for about 10 years now and have been struck by the lack of book-length “standard work” on the topic despite the massive number of Early Christian monuments on the island. This book does not really fill that gap entirely — it is an edited volume rather than a monograph or survey — but it goes a long way to present the dynamic range of recent research on churches and church building on Cyprus.

I won’t go into a detailed review, in part because I’m still digesting the book, and in part because it’s hard enough to review a monograph much less a series of articles, but the book deserves a spot on the bookshelf of any serious scholar of Cyprus or Eastern Mediterranean. 

Here are my observations:

1. Remember Liturgy! Years ago, when I was toiling away on my dissertation, I became fascinated by the complex interplay of architecture and liturgy in Greece. It was never easy or tidy to map liturgy onto architecture owing as much to the vagaries of regional liturgical practice over time as the persistence of certain architectural forms outside of the context of ritual. In other words, architecture and liturgy were deeply intertwined, but it was always very messy, as a result, there has been a bit of ambivalence toward the place of liturgy in understanding Early Christian architecture. Several of the articles in this book return to those problems which are made all the more complicated by the place of Cyprus between major liturgical traditions in Cilicia, Syria, and the Aegean basin and makes an effort to wring meaning from how traditions of architecture and liturgy intersect.

2. Churches, Saints, and Contexts. One of the biggest disappointments in my own work over the last 20 years is that I’ve never managed to do a very good job locating churches in their landscapes. In other words, my churches – whether in the Corinthia or on Cyprus – tend to float a bit in their urban or rural landscapes. As someone who has spent most of his career wandering around the countryside and thinking about how the wider geographical context works, this is hardly excusable.

Several articles in this book locate churches within the sacred and secular landscapes of Cyprus. They reflect on change in the Cypriot countryside, church politics, the role of saints in the religious life of the island, and the location of churches to create a richer ecclesiastical and social landscape. This is challenging, fraught, and important work. The last three decades of archaeological work on Cyprus has illuminated the Late Roman, Early Byzantine, and Early Christian period in significant ways. We know more about village life, the countryside, and the transformations of Late Roman urbanism at the end of antiquity than ever before. Mapping churches onto this dynamic landscape makes how we understand architecture and the Late Antiquity richer.

The folding in of landscapes shaped by saints lives and other texts goes even further in presenting Cyprus as a relatively distinct Christian landscape in the 4th to 7th centuries in which ecclesiastical authorities (through their surrogates the Bishop Saint) south to project a particular kind of power over the island. 

4. Arches, Vaults, and Domes. One of the most interesting aspects of Cypriot churches in the range of masses, forms, and techniques used to create the spaces of within and around churches. At the south basilica, our building both used a series of arches running along the south and west side of the building that parallels a courtyard to the south and a road to the west. These arches were built at the same time as the transformation of the church from being wood roofed to vaulted and practically announce the newly vaulted interior.

The evidence for such interior vaults, domes, half-domes, wooden roofs, and various arches are difficult to discern especially for buildings that preserve so little of their walls and roofs and that underwent so many transformations. The contributors generally assessed these architectural developments in a technical way or in the context of Cypriot architecture rather than as evidence for the influence of one or another neighboring region or imperial center. It was refreshing to see the traditional preoccupation with a linear progression of Early Christian architecture give way. The myriad of influences and styles present on Cyprus makes the island an ideal place for this kind of critique. 

5. Stratigraphy and Dates. If there was an area that I’d love to understand better, it is how changes in ceramic chronologies, the introduction of more rigorous stratigraphic practices, and the architecture is slowly transforming how we understand the history of Early Christian building on the island. This book is long on architectural detail, which is welcome, but at times a bit short on the nitty-gritty of how archaeologists establish the dates for buildings, how they work out architectural sequences, and how the buildings relate architecturally to their built environments.

If you’re into the archaeology of churches in the Eastern Mediterranean, this book is definitely worth a read. The contributors mark a pretty clear trajectory for the field which embraces both the traditions of Early Christian architectural history and moves tentatively forward toward incorporating new perspectives while discarded more tired and unproductive approaches. 

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