Back to Cyprus: Experts identify smuggled Cypriot icons

When Cypriot authorities heard that the Charles Pankow Foundation had put six Cypriot icons up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York, they called in icons expert Maria C. Paphiti to look into the matter. It was concluded that five of the icons were illegally exported from the Turkish occupied areas of Cyprus, and one was stolen in 1936.

Upon notification of the discovery, the Pankow Foundation relinquished ownership of the icons to the Church of Cyprus which in turn agrees to pay a token maintenance fee to the Foundation.

Maria C. Paphiti discussed how the icons were identified at a ceremony to celebrate the recovery of the icons at The Consulate of Cyprus in New York on January 10, 2007. She shares her presentation here with SAFE.

Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I feel particularly blessed for having been given the opportunity by the Metropolis of Morphou to become involved in the process of recovering the six Cypriot icons for which we have gathered here today. I also consider a great honour the invitation to speak about the significance of the icons for the cultural heritage of Cyprus.

For this I am grateful to the Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou and to the lawyer of the Metropolis, Mr. George Hadjipieris, with whom we have been collaborating closely since last May. I would like to thank, Mr. Thomas Kline, the legal representative of the Metropolis in the United States who accompanied me on my visit to Sotheby’s last May, when I went to inspect the icons. Although not present among us, I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr. Athanasios Papageorgiou, who has provided us with invaluable information with regards to the whereabouts of the icons prior to their theft from the island.

Cyprus – background

Before I speak about each of the icons, I would like to briefly refer to the place where they were painted: the island of Cyprus. Located in the far Eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus was part of the Byzantine Empire from the latter’s foundation in the early fourth century. Due to its peripheral position, the arts produced on the island were not always of the highest quality, as were to be found in the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, or the imperially founded Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, both of which traditionally attracted the most talented artists.

However, during the time of the Crusades, starting from the 11 th century onwards, Cyprus assumed an increasingly important role in the Empire. This was the result of its strategic geographical position: lying at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, and being the closest outpost to the Holy Land. The intense military activity from Western Europe towards the Eastern Mediterranean led also to the moving of people and goods through the island. During that period, Cyprus was inhabited by a Catholic population from Europe, as well as Christians from the Levant, all of whom introduced to the island new customs, both in daily life and religious practices.

This situation reached its climax after the Fourth Crusade in 1204, during when the imperial capital, Constantinople, succumbed to Latin rule. The consequence of this event was the fact that, in addition to the Western Europeans, Cyprus also attracted people from various Orthodox locations. The displayed map of the Mediterranean Sea after the Fourth Crusade, clearly illustrates the prominent position of Cyprus, between the East and the West.

The island acquired a very cosmopolitan character, which was naturally reflected in the local artistic production of that period. Many Byzantine Churches and Chapels were built alongside a smaller number of Gothic Cathedrals. They were decorated with superb murals and the painting of icons was developed to an exceptional level. It was in this milieu that the recently recovered icons were produced.

The Metropolis of Morphou

The Church of Cyprus is one of the earliest autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches as it was established in 434 by the Third Ecumenical Council. The Cypriot Archbishopric has been working hard for the repatriation of stolen art treasures since their removal from the island, especially after the Turkish invasion of 1974. One of the biggest successes of the Archbishopric has been the recovery, in 1989, of the famous sixth century mosaics from Kanakaria. The return of the present icons is another momentous event in the modern history of the Church of Cyprus.

It should be emphasised, however, that these icons have been claimed, not vaguely by the Cypriot Church, but specifically by the Metropolis of Morphou. This is because four of the icons come from Churches that belong to the latter’s authority. Cyprus has six Metropolises and the highlighted area on the map displayed indicate the jurisdiction of Morphou. The roots of the Metropolis date back to 57 A.D., when the Bishopric of Soloi was founded by the Evangelist Mark. From the art historical perspective, Morphou is the most important Metropolis as it includes the majority of the island’s Byzantine monuments. It suffices to say that seven of the nine Cypriot churches that belong to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List are located in this area. Two of the most famous and immensely important churches for the history of Byzantine art are the churches of Asinou and Lagoudera; the first painted in 1105 and the second painted by Constantinopolitan artists in 1192.

The Icons

I would now like to present each of the icons.

(1) The first one is the 13 th century icon of Saints Andronikos and Athanasia that comes from the small chapel of Saint Andronikos in the village of Kalopanayiotis. The chapel has a steep-pitched roof with flat tiles that is typical of the Byzantine churches of the Troodos Mountains. The present structure dates to the 16 th century, but it is possible that an earlier building previously existed in that location.

The icon of Saints Andronikos and Athanasia was first published in 1935 by George Soteriou, in Greek, in his book “The Byzantine Monuments of Cyprus”. Two years later, the icon was included in the publication of David Talbot-Rice “The Icons of Cyprus”. Talbot-Rice, who disagreed with Soteriou in terms of the icon’s dating – and I will discuss this matter shortly – provided a vital piece of information regarding the icon’s whereabouts: he said that the icon was stolen in 1936 and he suggested that it was no longer on the island. The precision and confidence with which this English scholar spoke is, in fact, quite remarkable, even a little bit suspicious! Perhaps it should not be so surprising, however, since Cyprus at the time was a British colony. A sticker of a British transport company on the reverse of the panel testifies to the icon’s trafficking via London.

Regarding the icon’s dating: there is no doubt that the icon dates to the 13 th century. It is executed in a manner that is typical of Cypriot painting at that time. The main features of this style are the boldly rendered facial features, often emphasised with red highlights, the pastel colouring of the garments and the relief, gesso background. Comparable examples are the icons of Prophet Elijah, which is exhibited in the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia, and two icons from the Holy Metropolis of Paphos: the first showing the Glykophilousa Mother of God and the second Saint George the Cappadocian.

The icon of Saints Andronikos and Athanasia is a large panel, and its reverse is decorated. In its present condition, the composition is damaged, but originally it displayed a cross, flanked by the initials of Jesus Christ in Greek majuscule and surrounded by foliate motifs. Such large and heavy icons, in their original settings were not meant to be hung on the wall. The two wooden battens on the back of the icon have been recently added in order to accommodate the display of the icon in a modern venue The fastening of the battens with nails has actually caused serious damages to the old panel. At the time that they were painted, icons of such size devoted to the Saints, were placed on a special stand and were venerated by the faithful. The decorated back indicates that the panel was also seen from both sides; this happened when the icon was carried on procession during its festival day. This is a custom that survives today in the Orthodox liturgy.

The icon of Saints Andronikos and Athanasia is an extremely important icon, because it is the only one of its subject of that period, it is superbly painted and luckily its obverse is still in an exceptional condition.

(2) The icons of Saint Peter and Paul come from another Church of the Metropolis of Morphou that is also located on the Troodos Mountains: that of the Panagia Phorviotissa, at Asinou, close to the village of Nikitari. The church is a rectangular, vaulted building with an apse, which was built according to an inscription in the years 1105-06. At the end of the twelfth century, a narthex with a drumless dome was added to the north and south ends. The whole structure is covered, like the chapel of Saint Andronikos with a steep-pitched rood with flat tiles. The displayed image shows a mural in which the donor, Nicephoros Magistros, presents a model of the church to Christ, via the supplication of the Mother of God.

It has not been difficult to identify that these two icons came from the Church of Asinou. Saint Peter was included in the publication of George Soteriou mentioned previously. According to Soteriou, the icon belonged to the church of Asinou. Stylistic reasons easily reveal that the icon of Saint Paul was also painted by the same artist. In addition, the Byzantinist Dr. Athanasios Papageorgiou who was the Director of Antiquities until 1991 has testified that the two icons were taken for conservation purposes from Asinou to the Bishop’s palace in the northern town of Kerynia, where there was a conservation studio. It was from here that the icons were stolen after the Turkish invasion of 1974.

The two icons, according to Soteriou, could have been made for display on the iconostasis, which is the screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave in the Orthodox Churches. However, the church of Asinou is so small, that it would not allow the display of many icons on its iconostasis. The icons, therefore, were more likely displayed on the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul on the 29 th June.

(3) The next icon is that of the Mother of God, which also comes , according to the statement of Dr. Papageorgiou from the Church of Asinou and was stolen under the same circumstances. The Mother of God and Child are represented in the traditional pose of the ‘Hodegetria’ (literally meaning the one who indicates the way), in which the Virgin supports Christ and gestures towards him with her left hand. While her head is inclined towards the Child, her gaze is directed away from Him. Christ is seated on his Mother’s forearm; his right hand is raised in benediction and he holds a double-sealed closed scroll in his left hand. The Virgin wears the traditional chitonwith the maphorion above, the latter having an ornamented gold hem and being decorated on the forehead and shoulders with foliate motifs sprouting from the sides of rhomboid emblems. Christ is dressed in the chiton and himation . The haloes and background are made of relief gesso: the background is decorated with recurring chequered designs, whereas the nimbuses are adorned with floral motifs and have some of their details highlighted with blue and red paint (now largely faded). Christ’s tripartite halo is extended onto the raised border, which is lined with a band of beige lozenges on a deep blue/green ground with a red outer edge. To the right there are traces of a defined rectangular area which would have contained half of the Virgin’s name (the surface is abraded), while the other half would have been shown opposite in the same manner, here the paint surface and its gesso support is damaged

This style of icons, like that of Saints Andronikos and Athanasia, is typical of the Cypriot production. The subject of the Mother of God and Child is of course much more popular and there are a considerable number of icons with this iconography of broadly the same period. An example is a second icon from the Church of Asinou, dated to the last quarter of the 13 th century, which also has a relief gesso background. The Byzantine Museum of Pedoulas has an icon of the same period that also displays the traditional emphasised facial features with the red highlights, whereas the Church of Saints Barnabas and Ilarion in Peristerona, has an icon, also of the 13 th century, that has a decorated raised frame which is very similar to that of the Hodegetria. The latter Mother of God, which is executed in a more stylised manner, can be dated to the end of the 13 th century or around the year 1300, and it actually shows the maturity of the technique.

The reverse of the icon bears many labels that reveal, at least, part of its history since it left from Cyprus and prior to its acquisition by the PANKOW Foundation. Three of the stickers attest that the icon was exhibited in the Kasteel Wijenburg and in Ulvenhout. Both locations are in the Netherlands. The icon must have been there until 1980, as it is proved by one of these labels.

Two more icons have been recovered by the Metropolis of Morphou. One shows the Mother of God “Glykophilousa”, a type in which the Christ Child touches his face on that of his Mother. I have not seen this icon when I visited Sotheby’s last May; I only had the opportunity to study the panel from a photograph. The icon must have originally been painted in the 13 th century, as it bears the traditional gesso halo of that time. However, some other features, like the strong white highlights on the face, suggest that the icon must have been overpainted at a later time, probably in the 16 th century.

The last icon portrays Archangel Gabriel. The strong contrast of the shades on the face and the geometrical rendition of the garments’ folds, are characteristics typically attested on icons of the 16 th century. Similar features appear for example on icons produced on the island of Crete at the same time. What is typical of Cyprus, however, is the abolition of the gold background. At a time when Cyprus was in decline and probably a few years before its fall to the Ottoman rule, the resources were probably limited. There are a number of icons of that period which substituted the gold background with this terracotta paint. Similar examples are the icons of Lampadistis and the Mother of God, the first from the Metropolis of Morphou and the second from the Metropolis of Paphos.


It is a cause for celebration that the icons have returned home; their repatriation marks an important moment in the history of Cyprus, both Ecclesiastical and political. We look forward to locating and recovering more of the hundreds of Cypriot icons that have been looted and are still hidden in various private collections worldwide.

Thank you