Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Annemarie Weyl Carr, Andréas Nicolaïdès (ed.), Asinou across Time: Studies in the Architecture and Murals of the Panagia Phorbiotissa, Cyprus. Dumbarton Oaks studies, 43. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012. Pp. xii, 431. ISBN 9780884023494. $75.00.

Reviewed by James G. Schryver, University of Minnesota, Morris (schryver@morris.umn.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

As the preface by Alice-Mary Talbot notes, this book marks another step in publishing the work carried out by Dumbarton Oaks on the monuments of Cyprus in the 1960s and 1970s. For those readers wishing to know more, progress reports for this more general work are clearly referenced in the current volume and can be found in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers volumes 18, 20-6, and 30 and in the (Annual) Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus volumes from the 1960s.

Asinou, the church, was built around 1100 CE in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains, currently a pleasant hour's drive or so from Nicosia. This location is not only extremely picturesque, but provided a protective (or at least cushioning) isolation at the same time as the church reveals strong connections with both the local and the wider world. In fact, it is exactly this combination of local and regional networks, as well as how this situation changed over time that emerges as a theme across this volume. As a whole, Asinou across Time reveals a building whose overall history may have been relatively unaffected by certain larger events occurring around it, but whose patrons and artists were nevertheless aware of trends within the island's shores as well as beyond them. Dedicated to the Panagia Phorbiotissa, or the Mother of God of the Spurges (the Panagia ton Phorbion), the church came to serve a rich array of functions over its life including those related to its associations with healing. At some time after its initial founding, but before 1115, the church became the katholikon of a monastery whose long history through the nineteenth century is pieced together in chapter 1. The earliest photos of the church from the twentieth century show that it alone remained standing, though in a state of disrepair. Throughout the twentieth century, numerous interventions, including the work carried out by Dumbarton Oaks (1965-7) that serves as the basis for this publication, helped to conserve and preserve both the building and its decoration. In 1985 all of these efforts came to fruition when, together with nine other churches in the Troodos range, the Panagia Phorbiotissa was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on Cyprus. Today, the church is, in the words of Annemarie Weyl Carr, "among the most regularly cited monuments of Middle Byzantine art" (8).

Although the church is famous to many for its original fresco program (1105/6) by the so-called Asinou Master, Asinou across Time focuses on the history and decorative campaigns of the later phases of painting (twelfth to sixteenth centuries). In addition to an up-to-date analysis that confirms and solidifies many of David Winfield's published conclusions 1, the book introduces a new level of technical analysis into the world of Byzantine painting (chapter 7) and represents a number of other firsts: the first attempt at a comprehensive history for the church and monastery (chapter 1), the first illustrated inventory of its paleographic forms (appendix), and the first monograph on one of the island's major diachronic churches. As such, Asinou across Time is both a foundational work for this particular church, and sets a high bar for future monographs on Cypriot monuments.

One of the most laudable aspects of this book is the authors' and editors' straightforwardness concerning what they were and were not able to accomplish in their work. This is especially evident in the chapters written by Annemarie Weyl Carr, where she is very careful to describe the things that we now know about the later decorative programs of the Panagia Phorbiotissa, the things that still remain a challenge, and the things that we may never know for sure. These clear admissions are not only important for helping to make this work the starting point for future studies of Asinou, but are also necessary in a field where the (sometimes many) different readings of monuments and works of art on Cyprus make it difficult for newcomers to study them. Though many of the chapters were originally written in the early 2000s, the authors are forthright about both this fact and their subsequent additions of relevant bibliographies. In addition to the generally high quality of the illustrations, this book has also been very well copy-edited and as such serves as a model for future interdisciplinary studies of this kind. With the exception of the more technical analysis of chapter 7 the various authors speak with one voice, and the editors are to be congratulated for both this smooth presentation and the consistently correct cross-referencing both within and between chapters. This is especially useful where the authors disagree or seek to disentangle existing scholarship, such as in the case of the dedicatory inscription (17-19 and 53-54), or to build off one another's arguments (93 referring to 54-57 and 19, for instance). Although the chapter on technical analysis may seem daunting to many readers, it is written in an accessible style and will prove rewarding to those who persevere, as its conclusions were fundamental for many interpretations in other chapters. Moreover, some results, like those of the raking light examinations, are extremely interesting on their own. At a time when scholars are constantly urged to be more interdisciplinary and to model this for their students, this chapter provides a wonderful example of scientific applications to a humanities-based topic.

Chapter 1, by Gilles Grivaud, provides an impressively thorough historical sketch of the church and monastery, especially considering the paucity of evidence available. The themes that emerge from this sketch reveal the ways in which the complex was rooted in the local context. It was from the surrounding area that worshippers would have come, and it is in the same local region that most of Asinou's known assets were located. This local focus also shielded the church and monastery from the winds of change in some aspects, as Grivaud notes that the transitions from Lusignan to Venetian rule and later to Ottoman rule did not really leave imprints. And yet, one of the fascinating things about Asinou, and something that this book is very careful to point out, is the ways in which it also displays the influences of a wider eastern Mediterranean world. Some of these impacts, such as the imagery traceable to Latin devotion, echo regional or Cypriot phenomena. Others, however, point to contacts with the world beyond the island's coastlines, such as the headdress worn in the donor portrait of Anastasia Saramalina, which is described as having been "quite prevalent in the Mediterranean East in the second half of the thirteenth century" (119).

The next two chapters set the stage for the later analysis of the mural paintings. Chapter 2, by Athanasios Papageorgiou, analyzes the architectural layout of the church and places this layout in its local and regional context. Like the volume as a whole, this chapter takes a sober approach to what we can know and what we can only speculate or assume. Chapter 3, by Nancy Patterson Ševčenko turns to the metrical inscriptions examining the question of whether they are typical or an aberration. Important for our reading of the church is her conclusion that the "church decoration is more like an inscribed object offered privately to God than a work that addresses a large community" (90).

The analysis of the wall paintings begins in part 1 of chapter 4 by Andréas Nicolaïdès. Because only fragments of the 1332/3 decorative campaign program of the narthex survive, this chapter, divided into two parts, focuses on the mural icon of St. George, found on the wall of the southern apse. The second part of chapter 4, by David Winfield, examines the technique and conservation of the icon, beginning with a descriptive analysis of the painting. This discussion provides some interesting insights for those not completely immersed in Byzantine painting techniques including a very interesting technical discussion of the buildup of flesh tones and other modeling. As Nicolaïdès acknowledges, the dating of the icon is both clouded and controversial. Both authors here place it in the last decades of the twelfth century, with Winfield drawing parallels with the paintings of St. Neophytus and Lagoudera.

Chapter 5, by Sophia Kalopissi-Verti, is the first of two longer chapters that focus on the late thirteenth- and fourteenth-century mural programs of the narthex and the naos. The various layers of relationships visible in the history of Asinou are present here as well, for example, in the apse of the narthex where one sees the "strong bonds with the Syrian mainland and the interaction of Orthodox and Latin traditions in the multicultural milieu of Cyprus" (130). At the same time, many of the individual punishments of the Last Judgement seem calibrated to local historical and social conditions and Kalopissi-Verti argues for the didactic aim of these agriculturally focused tortures.

The local also appears in the identities of some of the saints depicted as well as in the donor portraits where the monks seem to be wearing their work clothes. In a similar fashion, the author argues that the style of the frescoes dated to the 1332/3 program reflect a provincial version of the Palaiologan artistic evolution. The subsequent stylistic comparison with other Cypriot churches is particularly well-documented. Still, this chapter also provides an important reminder of the range of reactions and opinions possible regarding the Latin presence on the island and in the valley. For example, how might we reconcile the donor portrait of the Latin lady with the images of the Orthodox bishops who pledged to Rome in the fiery stream?

Chapter 6, by Annemarie Weyl Carr, moves on to discuss the late thirteenth- and fourteenth-century murals that decorate the bema and the naos. Images such as the Sacrifice of Isaac seem to indicate influences from the mainland rather than from Byzantium; however it is important to note, as Weyl Carr does, that these contacts reached beyond the borders of the contemporary Crusader states and are intimately intertwined with the particular thirteenth-century contexts present on Cyprus and seen to overlap at Asinou.

Regarding the fourteenth-century paintings in the naos, the author proposes a date in the 1340s for the program in the central bay. A portion of these frescoes covers new masonry, while another section covers an earlier twelfth-century decorative program. This phasing poses some interesting questions regarding the relationship of the later program to the earlier, which are also explored. Connections with the mainland (this time the Syro-Palestinian mainland) seem to inform the unique characteristics of the program decorating the transverse arches. Meanwhile, Byzantine influences, together with those from the Syro-Egyptian mainland, seem behind the focus on Mary. Still, as is so clear throughout this book, the local, agricultural context was never far away, and seems represented in the depiction of the anti-crop infestation saints Eustathios, Memnon, and Tryphon in the sanctorial cycle.

Chapter 7, by Ioanna Kakoulli, Michael Schilling, and Joy Mazurek, provides a technical examination of the relevant paintings (including pigments and binding media) treated elsewhere in the book, beginning with a very helpful introduction to the subject of technical analysis in Byzantine wall painting as a whole. Nevertheless, many readers may find it more helpful to begin with the final section "Conclusion and Further Research" (344) and then turn to the discussion of the methodologies employed and the results achieved. The chapter is followed by five appendices that provide details of sample location and the various analyses undertaken. The significance of this portion of the book is large, as Kakoulli's study is "the first such analysis of a frescoed Cypriot church to be published" (363).

As a whole, Asinou across Time provides a perfect parallel for the monument it examines. Both are multi-layered, beautifully decorated with high-quality images, and collaborative, well-funded works whose complex wholes comprise equally interesting individual parts.


1.   David Winfield, The Church of the Panagia Phorviotissa at Asinou. Nicosia: Antiquities department of the Republic of Cyprus, 1969; also found as Winfield, Asinou: A Guide. Nicosia, 1969. Windfield's conclusions were adopted in C. Hadjichristodoulou and D. Myrianthefs, The Church of Our Lady of Asinou. Nicosia, 2002.

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