A Gothic masterpiece in the Levant. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Famagusta, North Cyprus

A Gothic masterpiece in the Levant. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Famagusta, North Cyprus

Journal of Cultural Heritage 6 (2005) 1–6 http://france.elsevier.com/direct/CULHER/ A Gothic masterpiece in the Levant. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Fam...

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Journal of Cultural Heritage 6 (2005) 1–6 http://france.elsevier.com/direct/CULHER/

A Gothic masterpiece in the Levant. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Famagusta, North Cyprus Michael Walsh (Assistant Professor) Department of Art History and Archaeology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Eastern Mediterranean University, Famagusta, Via Mersin 10, Turkey Received 25 March 2003; accepted 11 October 2004

Abstract This article presents a very brief historical overview, and contemporary description, of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Famagusta in Northern Cyprus. In the light of the changing political situation in that island it invites scholarship in a range of disciplines to the cathedral and to other historic landmarks within the old city walls. Scholars interested might include: art historians, architectural historians, civil engineers, archivists, historians, structural analysts, masonry conservators, surveyors, ecclesiastical historians, and a wider range of experts involved in the full study of other Gothic cathedrals elsewhere in mainland Europe. © 2005 Elsevier SAS. All rights reserved. Keywords: Cyprus; Gothic; Lusignan; Conservation; Annan; St. Nicholas; Famagusta; Cathedral; Medieval

1. Research aims Cyprus has been clinically and definitively divided since 1974. At this time UNESCO, and many of the universities and international bodies working on archaeological, architectural, and artistic sites in the north, left. In the absence of an immediate solution they stayed away, awaiting the all clear from the international community to return and resume their academic pursuits. This never came and instead the north of the island, since 1983 known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (but internationally unrecognized), has remained diplomatically adrift and economically embargoed by the international community (barring Turkey). A grim consequence of this is that the shared cultural heritage of the island has become neglected in the north, or used as a politically motivated pawn indiscriminately played, and often sacrificed, in a Machiavellian propaganda war between north and south. Lack of funding and expertise, plus international institutional pressure not to work in the north, has led to a ’benign neglect’ which is detrimental to the welfare of 9000 years of cultural heritage. Following the 24 April 2004 referendum,

E-mail address: [email protected] (M. Walsh). 1296-2074/$ - see front matter © 2005 Elsevier SAS. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.culher.2004.10.002

however, (when the north demonstrated a willingness to re-unite with the southern Greek section of the island under the UN sponsored Annan Plan, which in turn was rejected by the south) European Union funding is now returning to the north of the island and hopefully so too will the scholars through borders porous for the first time in 30 years. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to assist with attracting international scholarship back to Famagusta for the study of its ecclesiastical architecture and art. In time, an application will be made for assistance with conservation projects, which the World Monument Fund is already aware of, and interested in, following a conference presentation in Seattle in February 2004 [1]. Some of the projects that need to be undertaken are a matter of extreme urgency, while others can be deemed long-term goals. Moreover, with or without re-unification of the island, the future of its rich and turbulent past should be a matter for the international scholarly community to consider, not neglect. Though once behind a modern political fault line there is now open access to both scholarship and money for the first time in three decades, and this should be used to the full for the benefit of the island’s cultural welfare. There could be no finer starting point than St. Nicholas Cathedral, coronation place of the Crusader Kings of Jerusalem.


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2. Introduction: (Fig. 1) From the city walls, the cathedral of Famagusta is an unforgettable sight. It rises above the roofs of the town, traceried gables, and pinnacles etched in the sunlight, its flying buttresses silhouetted against the blue depths of the harbour, the whole floating as quietly as the ships anchored in the bay beyond ([2]: p. 1). When Pope Urban II called the Council of Clermont in 1095, and in so doing ordered the start of the Crusades to the Holy Land, it was neither obvious nor predictable what the consequences for Cyprus might be. Within a century the island had been gifted to the French and from here it embarked on a millennium, which subjected the population to the external socio-political influences of the Lusignans, Venetians, Genoans, Ottomans, and British. As a consequence there remains today a cultural and aesthetic eclecticism, which manifests itself in the rich juxtaposition of styles and influences apparent in the buildings, which stand as the legacies of these ideological rivalries and power struggles. Lawrence Durrell succinctly described this phenomenon. Different invasions weathered and eroded it [Cyprus], piling monument upon monument. The contentions of monarchs and empires have stained it with blood, have wearied, and refreshed its landscape repeatedly with mosques, cathedrals, and fortresses. In the ebb and flow of histories and cultures it has time and time again been a flashpoint where Aryan and Semite, Christian and Mosiem (sic), met in a death embrace ([3]: p. 76). The Cathedral of St. Nicholas, (like the other mosques, castles, monasteries, churches, and palaces), has not only

borne witness to seven centuries of this struggle, but stands as an icon, worn yet majestic, of the rich and transient dynastic rivalries, which in turn molded the identity, and therefore the appearance, of modern Cyprus. Moreover, St. Nicholas Cathedral stands as a microcosm of the aesthetic priorities that shaped the great ecclesiastical architectural feats further a field, notably in northern France and the Rhineland. Referred to as ’The Daughter of Notre Dame of Reims’ ([4]: p. 52), it now seems out of context in a Muslim (verging on secular) society, epitomizing a wealth and power, which Famagusta has not experienced for 600 years [5]. As a barometer of civic pride, refined aesthetics, and northern European engineering prowess, the cathedral represents only a fragmented hint, a shattered remnant, of this brief cultural zenith and period of extreme economic prosperity. Standing as a direct contemporary of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the grandiose experiments of Beauvais, Giotto’s Campanile in Florence, the Popes Palace in Avignon, Wells Cathedral, Dante’s Inferno and the Black Death, it reminds us, however, of the intended permanence of the Medieval church in Lusignan Cyprus.

3. A brief cultural context: Famagusta The French crusader Guy de Lusignan acquired Cyprus on his return from defeat at Hattin at the hands of Saladin’s army in the Third Crusade of 1192. With him, came the Lusignan dynasty, and therefore the wide ranging influences of Medieval France, a country already half a century into the Early Gothic Period which had boasted architectural triumphs like the choir of St. Denis, the façade of Amiens Cathedral, the construction of Notre Dame in Rouen and the Royal Portal at Chartres Cathedral. Socially and economically, the fortunes of Famagusta were inversely proportionate to those of the crusaders and their holy mission, and so, St. Nicholas Cathedral came to represent the zenith of this wealthy, yet un-triumphant society, as it was appointed the coronation place for the Lusignan dynasty as Kings of Jerusalem (and later of Armenia), after they had been crowned in Nicosia as Kings of Cyprus [6]. Syria, no longer a viable option for merchants trading with the Orient, gave way to Cyprus, and specifically Famagusta in place of Acre, to represent the eastern most outpost of Latin Christendom in the Mediterranean and a hub of commerce ([7]: p. 136). The Greek author Leontios Makhairas therefore could write: And because the Saracens held Jerusalem, and because of the enmity, between them and of many troubles, the kings assigned this honour to Famagusta, and the seals and the mint, that when the Kings of Jerusalem were to be crowned, they went to Famagusta ([8]: p. 81).

Fig. 1. The West Facade of St. Nicholas Cathedral (Lala Mustapha Pasha Mosque), Famagusta. Photograph by M.J.K. Walsh.

The Genoese records of Famagusta published by Cavalieri Desimoni ([9]: p. 222) suggest that construction of the cathedral got under way on 3rd August in the year 1300. Also, concealed in the will of a certain Isabella of Antioch is the

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passage: Item laborerio dicte ecclesie Sancti Nicolai bissantios quinque, but whether or not she was buried in the church, is as yet unascertained ([9]: p. 222). Others left the same instructions in their wills in the same year, implying that there was a cathedral, or at least one-in-the-making, to be interred within. In 1311 Bishop Baldwin Lambert, asked his archbishop, Gerard of Langres, for money and very possibly for an architect and some French craftsmen, in order to get the now almost stagnant work on the cathedral, and other Famagusta churches, revitalized ([9]: p. 223). In 1299 that same archbishop had departed from Cyprus, possibly to his home in Sens, in the Champagne region of France, and so it seems plausible that it was from here that the architect and craftsmen would have been sent (though Folda has suggested that Greek craftsmen were called upon to paint Latin altarpieces in the churches under construction at this time too) [10]. The cathedral, in whatever state of completion, was consecrated in 1326. In 1373 the Genoese invaded and this did nothing to assist with the construction of the ecclesiastical buildings which seemed now to grind almost entirely to a halt [11]. Following their departure in 1464, however, James the Bastard could be crowned, married, then buried in St. Nicholas Cathedral, all within a decade. His queen, Caterina Cornaro, of Venetian descent, continued to rule as Queen of Cyprus for a further 15 years after his death, but finally abdicated in 1489, yielding the government of the island to Agostino Barbarigo, Doge of Venice [12]. St. Mark’s flag was unfurled and the Venetian fleet saluted with gunfire from the near-by bay. The cathedral, only recently completed, must have been a magnificent spectacle, while the town, previously one of the wealthiest in the Genoese Republic, and one, which a German writer believed had riches surpassing that of Constantinople and Venice, was well into its terminal decline. This deterioration was catalyzed in 1546 and then again in 1568 when Famagusta suffered earthquakes and storms, which damaged many buildings. But in 1570 the Ottoman invasion which took Nicosia, then Famagusta, in hideous and bloody sieges, marked the end of the natural life of the edifice as a place of Christian worship. Moderately, charitable terms for surrender were offered to the Venetians following a 13 month siege, then instantly revoked as Mustafa Pasha flayed alive the defender of the city, Marco Baragadino, by the west portal of the now badly damaged cathedral, having promised him safe passage to Crete. Baragadino was dragged to the square where he was ritually tortured to the sound of beating drums, after which his body was stuffed with straw and suspended from a galley arm on a ship, which paraded his corpse along coastlines that may harbour would-be malcontents against Ottoman suzerainty. By comparison the cathedral fared better, but did not emerge unscathed. Inside it was denuded of all decoration and Christian referencing in keeping with Islamic attitudes on graven images and heathen idols in the house of God. Sculptures were removed, destroyed or disfigured, while stained glass was replaced with clear glass, where replaced at


all. Relics, such as the Water Pitcher from the Marriage of Cana in Galilee, disappeared into history, and the Royal tombs of James II (1473) and James III (1474) were both destroyed. Witness, Paolo Paruta, described the process, which seemed to be driven more by the destruction of symbols of a dishonourable and defeated regime, rather than on theological differences. He [Lala Mustapha] destroyed the altars and the images of the saints, and committed other bestial and cruel acts for which he was much blamed even by his own people. Even the dead were disturbed in a process, which Paruta also described as thus: It was mere madness which stirred him [Lala Mustapha] to rage even against the dead. He entered the Episcopal Church of Saint Nicholas, caused the graves to be opened and the bones scattered ([13]: p. 143). From 1571 Christians were not permitted entrance to Famagusta and so for the next 300 years the architecture, like the city in general, embarked on the dormant though destructive process of neglect and decay. In 1878 a pioneering Scottish photographer, John Thomson, could describe Famagusta as ’a place of ruins, a city of the dead, in which the traveler is surprised to encounter a living tenant’ ([14]: p. 49). Fortunately, however, there was never any real attempt to erase completely the traces of the defeated civilizations and their belief systems from the landscape, and so the post-1571 history of the island effectively guaranteed the ’cocooning’ of Nestorian, Armernian, Orthodox, and Latin architecture through isolation, and protected it against all subsequent stylistic alteration or adaptation. What remains today therefore is an intact, though severely damaged, key to 14th century Famagusta and its society.

4. Exterior The west facade of St. Nicholas is by far the most dominant and impressive in scale and detailing, expressing what Thubron described as ’a lucid and perfect dialect’ ([15]: p. 206). Constructed from a fine limestone, the building exudes a yellow/orange hue and as such presents chromatic warmth, in contrast to the harder gray of its northern contemporaries, though the use of this type of stone has also led to serious erosion. The façade is dominated by the remnants of two identical gabled bell towers, rising from the second story and flanking the centrally situated rose window. Each tower is four sided, containing mullioned windows in which the tracery has almost completely disappeared on all but the east side of the southern tower. Both towers are pocked with cannon ball marks and are in an advanced state of neglect, parts of the masonry tracery being found on the ground on the south side of the building. The north tower has been extended into a minaret, though this too has changed in character through-


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out the years, with some stepped supports, hastily added to prevent collapse, recently removed. On the north tower the top of the gable has gone completely and this is consistent with every existing photograph and sketch of the cathedral, suggesting that it may have been destroyed in the bombardment of 1571. A wooden walkway exists in the interior of the southern tower though it is uncertain whether or not it is original, while the bells that would have been housed there have long since vanished. It is believed that the cathedral, unlike its European counterparts, never had a pitched roof ([16]: p. 22). At the centre of the west façade is the rose window in rayonnant style used widely from the end of the 13th to the middle of the 14th Century in Europe. This elegant window is divided into nine radiating compartments, though 19th century photographs suggest that these were entirely filled, post1571, and have only recently been evacuated. Three doorways pierce the western façade and each is gabled and capped with what look like three bases, presumably for statues that have now gone. Perhaps a guideline can be ascertained from Reims Cathedral where the three statues in the same situation are: Christ in Judgement, the Virgin, and St. John. In other cases the figures traditionally include the patron saint of the cathedral accompanied by two angels. There is no clue as to who exactly presided over the main entrance to St. Nicholas Cathedral, though perhaps they were the bishops of the cathedral and/or the Kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem. So too we can only conjecture what seventh figure, if any, stood atop the central mullion, or trumeau, where only the elaborate pedestal and canopy remain. At the base of the gables are carvings of human or living creatures, but it is hard to know what or who they were as the heads have been vandalized. Jeffery suggested that these remains hint at the influence of the great churches of Southern Italy, in particular at Taranto and Catania ([17]: p. 119). There are two other main entrances to the building, on the north and south sides. These are in various states of disrepair and showing damage signs from the 16th Century earthquakes and the Ottoman batteries of the same century. The south door occupies the entire space between two buttresses, and boasts a large gable decorated with foliar motifs, which sometime between 1883 and 1896 was destroyed and then blocked up. Later a crude window was cut into the blocked door and pieces of discarded masonry from the process are lying not far away. The plaque (Fig. 2) bearing the construction inscription can be seen on two sides of the west-facing buttress of the south doorway between the third and fourth bays. It is very difficult to read as a gutter, now gone, has let water erode lower sections, but so far as is ascertainable the text is: Lan.de.M.e. .troi.cens .et. XI d’Christ. a. IIII. jors. daoust. fu despendue, lamonee, ordene e. por. lelabour. d. liglise. d. Fam ag’.e. comesa. Lelabour. levesq’.

Fig. 2. The construction plaque on the south wall. Photograph by M.J.K. Walsh.

Bauduin. le. dit. an. le pre mier. jor. d’. septembre. do u. quel. labour. VI. votes. d’. deus. heles. estoient. faites. e. X. votes. des. heles. ave. VIII. vots. d’. liglise. e stoit. a. faire. la. nave. d’. Translation: In the year of Christ 1311 on the 4th August the money provided for the building of the church of Famagusta was paid down and Bishop Baldwin began the work in the same year on the 1st day of September, of which work six vaults and the two aisles had been completed and 10 vaults of the aisles and eight vaults of the nave remained to be built ([9]: p. 227). Camille Enlart suggested that a comparison with St. Urbaine at Troyes, which was a direct chronological and stylistic contemporary in Champagne, might also be a key to a greater understanding, as neither cathedral has a transept nor an ambulatory but both have a nave of seven bays ending in a polygonal apses flanked by aisles ending in apsidal chapels of the same shape. Another intriguing suggestion is that, on the north side, there is a well which Sydney Vacher (who sketched the building for the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1883) believed concealed an entrance to the, hitherto undiscovered, crypt. This has not yet been proven. The interior entrances to the chapels have been bricked up and access now is through a barred window with the use of a ladder and flashlight. In the 1880s, however, some further painted inscriptions were seen to exist in the western most

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Fig. 3. Erosion and decay on south buttresses of the cathedral. Photograph by M.J.K. Walsh.

Fig. 4. Interior of St. Nicholas Cathedral (Lala Mustapha Pasha Mosque), Famagusta. Photograph by M.J.K. Walsh.

chapel on the south side, though whitewashed over and difficult to read. Attempts suggested the following:

with the Virgin and St. John) but of this there is no trace today. It is perhaps encouraging to think that under this plaster, paintings and frescoes will yet experience a moderately stable conservation environment, assuming they were not too badly damaged before they were covered. Certainly, the original idea of the stained glass, pouring light, and colour through the clerestory (there is no triforium) and rose window, recreating celestial Jerusalem adorned with jewels, belongs only to the domain of imagination. In any Gothic cathedral the creation of interior light is crucial not only for illumination but also to demonstrate a hitherto unknown engineering prowess that permitted the support of colossal weights, apparently on glass. So too light was central in theological terms following the dictum of St. John who said ’I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life’. Now modestly coloured lozenges of glass take the place of the medieval glazier’s endeavours, while in some cases it has been easier to brick up the windows altogether. The floor is covered in carpets today, but certainly there are medieval tombs in the north aisle, like that of an early Bishop, holding a pastoral staff, who died in 1365. Around this image is inscribed:

ARRIFICUS. FILIUS. QUODAM .D. RICARDI. QUI. AD. H ANNA. DNI MCCCLXXXIIII. DIE. PACE. AMEN In the same chapel the ceiling vaulting comes together into a shield surrounded with a wreath of roses: the arms of Jerusalem. All chapels are in an advanced state of disrepair, and on the south side an enormous stone cannon ball lying between them, reminds us of their process of destruction over 400 years ago. At the chevet, the natural erosion process is at its worst (Fig. 3). It is perhaps here at the east of the cathedral that one can see the real, and absolute, ravages of time, more destructive even than the power struggles witnessed in the 16th century.

5. Interior: (Fig. 4) The interior of St. Nicholas Cathedral is in a much better state of preservation than the exterior, principally as it has been a functioning mosque for over 400 years. The structural emphasis is on the vertical, drawing the worshippers eyes heavenward on entering the building, to the ceiling which divides into quadripartite vaults, then into a fan which descends to meet five tall, double light windows in the apse. Though the fine lines and vertical thrust of the interior are both elegant and imposing, it is very difficult to conclude anything specific of the now hidden or removed decoration. In the south there were some frescoes which could still faintly be seen at the end of the 19th century (Christ on the Cross

HIC JACET REVERENDISIMVS PATER DNS LEONEGARIVS DE NABINALIS FAM’GVSTANVS ET ANTERAD’S ECLESIARV EPS Q OBIIT VLTIA DIE MES SETEBR ANNO DNI MCCCLXV Q REQUESCAT IN PA. There is another tomb cover outside the church, bearing the inscription DAME REMODIDI, with two coats of arms, and others lie broken and scattered in workmen’s sheds, principally in the Sacristy. A study of the St. Nicholas tombs has


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never been undertaken, nor indeed has a record even been made of their appearance [18]. This would almost certainly prove as illuminating as the work undertaken at the end of the 19th century by Major Tankerville Chamberlayne in Lacrymae Nicossienses for the tombs of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Nicosia [19].

arly support for the north of the island, there may be grounds for optimism that Barskii was in fact wrong. A return of funding and long overdue and wide-ranging scholarship may therefore make possible a return for St. Nicholas Cathedral to prominence in eastern Mediterranean studies and afford its rightful position as a vital, though virtually forgotten, masterpiece in the Levant.

6. Conclusion In Famagusta the stones of the great churches embody engineering and aesthetic enlightenment, affording us a glimpse at the co-existence and contradictions of a wealthy and influential society over half a millennium ago. Read correctly they display an almost palpable tension between unquestioning religious faith and the pragmatic logic and analytical reason required to construct such structures. The dichotomy between Christian humility and the fanaticism of religious war are suggested too, exacerbated by the apparent contradiction between the serene humility of devotion and the flamboyance of the architecture and art used for this purpose. The church as an institution, epitomized by St. Nicholas Cathedral, was instrumental in the affairs of state, and pivotal therefore, in the creation of the socio-politico-artistic nexus between the oriental and occidental, which, throughout the second millennium, was to determine Cyprus’ fate. When the traveling Russian monk Basil Grigorovich Barskii saw Famagusta in 1727 he made an entry in his journal: In it [Famagusta] there are old buildings and beautiful churches going back to ancient times, some of which are now empty, and others have been converted into Turkish mosques. Who having seen the beauty...will not weep about it, or who having seen the skill and the art with which [they have] been constructed will not be amazed by it? He concluded however by suggesting a bleak future for the cathedral and the surrounding ruins by saying: And there is no hope or power, which can restore them or take care of them, and they will forever remain forsaken, deserted, and abandoned ([20]: p. 18). With the reunification of Cyprus now a long-term possibility, and/or with greater international economic and schol-

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