An enigmatic epigraph about the Virgin Mary holds the experts in suspense

An enigmatic epigraph about the Virgin Mary holds the experts in suspense


In the village of Kiti, near the Cypriot city of Larnaca and surrounded by secular trees, stands the Church of Angeloktisti, a Byzantine temple that treasures a splendid mosaic of the sixth century, whose enigmatic epigraph provokes debates among scholars.

Built by the angels, according to legend, and considered one of the best witnesses of the sacred art of that period, Angeloktisti is a point of reference for academics, since it expresses the religious, theological, cultural and aesthetic ideas of its time.

Built between the 11th and 12th centuries, this orthodox church was built on the ruins of a paleo-christian basilica of the fifth century that was restored a century later.

From the original basilica dates the decoration of the apse, with a magnificent mosaic -from the last quarter of the 6th century- representing the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in her left hand and flanked by the archangels Miguel and Gabriel.

Precisely the epigraph of this mosaic is what keeps the community of experts in suspense, because against all the canons of the time, it has inscribed the words "Ayía María" (Santa María), instead of "Theotokos" (the one that gave birth to God), as it would correspond according to tradition.

"The mosaic, one of the few that have been preserved in Cyprus, is considered to be one of the most important and splendid works of its kind from the early Christian world", explains to Efe the Byzantinist Andreas Fulias, who carried out a historical investigation on the church and its sacred pieces.

The work of an unknown author – he says – "is the oldest representation of Panayia (the most common epithet to refer to the Virgin in Eastern Christendom) with the Child that is preserved in Cyprus.

"In the pre-Inoculatory period the name of Panayia for Santa Maria was common, but atypical for the period and geographical location of Cyprus as part of the Byzantine Empire," he says.

The Council of Ephesus of 431 decided that the term to refer to the Virgin must be "Theotokos" and not "Christotókos" (Mother of Christ), as defended by the then Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius.

"This decision of the Council had consequences also for the cult and the iconography of the 'Panayía'", says the expert.

For this reason, the appeal "Santa Maria" is basically found in Monophysite works (the theological doctrine according to which Jesus is present only in the divine nature, but not in the human nature) coming from the provinces of the Middle East, where Eastern Christendom had weakened because of the Monophysite crisis.

For Fuliás, the substantial question therefore is whether the mosaic of Angeloktistis, apart from the iconographic elements common with other works of the Monophysite East, has perhaps also a theological character of this doctrine when using a qualifier rejected by the Council.

Therefore, according to the Byzantinist, the possibility of the existence of Monophysite groups in Cyprus, "something also witnessed by historical sources" can not be excluded.

Cyprus, from the beginning of the Christian era in the first century, was an important bridge between the Holy Land and Rome on the one hand, and Constantinople on the other.

During the beginnings of Christianity the evangelist Saint Mark was in Cyprus, as well as the apostles Paul and Bernabé, who brought this religion to the island just 50 years after Christ.

Later it became a province of the Byzantine Empire, between 330 and 1191, a period that left Cyprus with a rich artistic and architectural heritage.

The Byzantine tradition continued on the island, despite the French (1191-1489), Venetian (1489-1571) and Ottoman (1571-1832) invasions, as well as British colonialism (1878-1958).

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