Cypriot Churches of the 14th to 16th centuries

Scholars interested in the architectural history of post-Roman Cyprus have been enjoying the immense (and sometimes overwhelming) outpouring of scholarship in their field over the last 20 years. Much of this work has been both high quality in terms of argument, but also (and perhaps as importantly) high production quality with careful illustrations, vivid photographs, and sharp publication standards. It was particularly fun then to have an opportunity to read Thomas Kaffenberger’s recent contribution to this growing body of scholarship. As you’ll likely guess, this was for a review, and below is a draft:

Thomas Kaffenberger’s Tradition and Identity: The Architecture of Greek Churches in Cyprus (14th to 16th century) is a significant contribution to the architectural history of Cyprus. The book consists of two, impressively produced volumes: the first comprises analysis and the second, larger volume, a catalogue of 261 standing and 65 lost Greek churches from the 14th-16th century. The goal of the book was twofold. First, Kaffenberger sought to complicate the designation of the so-called Greek churches from the Late Medieval Cyprus from their historic designation as “francobyzantine.” Instead he sought to locate these buildings within a broader context of identity and exchange between the island’s various communities, religious traditions, and political investments. His second goal was to expand the scope of analysis to include the significant corpus of rural churches into conversation with better known urban churches especially in Famagusta. In general, the author is more successful with the first goal than the second, but this should not detract from the book as a highly significant contribution to the rapidly expanding body of work on Medieval Cypriot architecture.

The book, which is an updated and revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation (pdf copy here), follows a family patter. The opening chapter unpack the historiography associated with these buildings with particular critical attention on history of the concept of “francobyzantine” architecture on Cyprus. Long associated with the Greek or “indigenous” community on Cyprus who maintained a distinct religious identity in the aftermath of the Second Crusade, Georgios Soteriou introduced the concept to Cypriot architecture in the 1930s. The term assumed the existence of two discrete styles — the Byzantine and the Frankish — with their respective political, cultural, and religious baggage as a precondition for the emergence of a new hybrid style. This invariably led to judgements that the hybrid style was inherently less refined and sophisticated than the pure versions of Crusader or Byzantine architecture. When combined with the 19th century commentators tendency to privilege Frankish Gothic styles on the island, the perceived inferiority of the francobyzantine style reproduced the island’s colonial status both in the Frankish period and in 19th and 20th century.

Kaffenberger distances his analysis from these conventional paradigms which allows him to understand the Greek architecture of Late Medieval Cyprus on its own terms rather than as a hybrid of established style or local imitation. Chapters two, three, four and five trace development of Greek architecture on Cyprus from its Early Christian origins to the 16th century, while avoiding the conventional practice of attributing features to one or another tradition. The result is an intensive and exceptionally well-illustrated analysis of the architecture of Greek churches in Cyprus that architectural historians will find useful and familiar in style and vocabulary. The author focuses heavily on the most elaborate and partly preserved buildings in Famagusta with the 14th-century cathedral of St. George of the Greeks taking particular pride of place. The Greek community in Famagusta constructed this church in the middle years of the 14th century perhaps in response to the return of the Greek bishop to Famagusta after a century of exile on the Karpas Peninsula or to the recovery from the bubonic plague that wracked the Mediterranean in the same decades. Rather than standing as a awkward or tepid version of 13th-century Gothic style typical of the Latin cathedrals of St. Sophia in Nicosia or St. Nicholas in Famagusta, Kaffenberger emphasizes the shared stylistic commitments between it and the contemporary church of Saints Peter and Paul in the same city as well as a number of churches in smaller communities across the island. He continues this approach for churches in the 15th and 16th century and successfully demonstrates that Greek Cypriot church builders and patrons deliberately and presumably strategically combined traditional design elements and Renaissance period innovation in their buildings. The level of technical detail in these chapters is daunting for a non-specialist, but impressive.

Chapter six and seven provide a synthetic analysis which seeks to illuminate the forest from the trees. For his masterful grasp of stylistic matters in chapters two through five, Kaffenberger’s command over the conceptual framework necessary to discuss the complex matters of ethnic, political, and religious identity, tradition, and reception and cultural production feels less secure. The absence of textual sources for the centuries under consideration clearly contributes to Kaffenberger’s tentative conclusions. As a result, his arguments for the genealogy of Medieval Greek church architecture on Cyprus stop short of offering the new ways to understand the broader influence of Frankish and Venetian rule on the Greek communities on Cyprus. Even in cases where it would seem obvious that the patrons and builders of Greek churches sought to evoke ties to the Early Christian or Byzantine past, the authors remains hesitant to recognize these as deliberate efforts ground their authority in a period before the Crusader conquest, for example. That said, Kaffenberger’s sensitive study of architectural relationship between St. George of the Greeks in Famagusta and the adjoining and earlier church of St. Epifanios weaves together insightful analysis of architecture with arguments for the role of building as a site for the veneration of relics whether of Epifanios or some other unknown saint.

In the end, the enduring value of this book will not come from its final two chapters, but from the stylistic analysis and the extensive catalogue that makes up the second volume. The catalogue runs to over 500 pages and includes geographic coordinates, descriptions, chronological information, bibliography, discussion, in some cases, plans, and, often stunning, color photographs of each church and any distinctive features. The quality of the catalogue and the amount of research invested in its production at times significantly exceeds its relevance to Kaffenberger’s arguments despite his efforts to bring rural churches into the larger conversation. That said, the presence of the catalogue will invariably entice other scholars to take these buildings more seriously and to think more seriously about how architecture reflected and shaped identity in late Medieval Cyprus.

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