Ancient Cypriot Art

by Dr Aristodemos Anastassiades

As specified by the Greek term itself, it is a transitional period, characterised mainly by the appearance of copper, although there are very few bronze objects dating from this period. The best known settlements of this period are found in Erimi, Souskiou of Pafos, Kalavassos, Lapithos, Lemba and elsewhere. Architectural evidence shows the persistence of circular houses also built of stone. As far as pottery is concerned, vases appear for the first time bearing exquisite geometrical or vegetal decorations in red colour drawn with care and imagination on the white polished surface of the pots. There are other vessels with the entire surface coated in red colour.

Apart from vases, however, there are other objects found during this period that are of outstanding beauty and novelty, such as: the characteristic cruciform figurines representing human forms, made mainly of steatite and placed as funeral gifts during burials, to accompany the dead to the next world. These bear the clear intention of the artist to render faithfully the facial characteristics, whereas, on the contrary, the body is rendered strictly schematically. Besides figurines, artists of this period are led by their imagination to create women's necklaces made of shells (dentalia) as well as steatite pendants in the shape of cruciform figurines.

The Chalcolithic period is succeeded by the Bronze Age, which due to the length of the period covered (1250 years) has been divided by scientists into three distinct periods: Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age. The main feature of the Early Bronze Age (2300-1850 B.C.) is the mining of the rich copper deposits and the processing of this new material which brought about a revolution in the lifestyle of pre-historic Cypriots. Copper is now exported to neighbouring countries and Cyprus becomes a centre of trade. Apparently, when copper was intended to be exported to other countries, it was shaped in the form of an ingot.

Whilst for the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods excavations have brought to light settlements and information about daily life, little is known about settlements dating from the Early Bronze Age, as excavation research was limited mainly to cemeteries.

Early Bronze Age ceramic art is characterised by vases with red polished surfaces. Moreover, there are vessels found in Vounous on the northern coast of Cyprus, with relief or incised decorations. The pot's surface is polished with a white coating and bears an incised decoration in red paint. Some juglets are shaped like gourds and they resemble the contemporary dried gourds decorated with incised drawings by folk artists in Cyprus today. A unique category of objects are the terracotta models depicting either several objects or scenes of everyday life, such as a model of a circular open-air sanctuary from Vounous which is surrounded by a wall. The cult of anthropomorphic divinities takes place inside the walled courtyard. Another terracotta model depicts a table of offerings with a wine-jug and two cups. This model represents real objects, which would have been used during religious rituals, something similar to the Altar in our churches. The so-called plank-shaped figurines are of particular interest. They are made of clay, have a rectangular body and an elongated head. The details are emphasised by etched lines. These figurines are found in tombs, accompanying the dead on their journey to the underworld.

The Middle Bronze Age (1850-1600 B.C.) constitutes a continuation and an evolution of the previous period, not only as far as civilisation is concerned but also in the relations with neighbouring countries. Contrary to the Early Bronze Age, this period presents more architectural samples. Houses are now composed of rectangular rooms and are no longer circular as in the past. Their walls are made of stone at the bottom and of mud-bricks and wood at the top. During this period, it is the eastern area of Cyprus that acquires greater importance than before, being also a more densely populated area. This is certainly due to the development of trade with the Syro - Palaestinian coast. However, trade links have also been found with the Aegean islands and with Crete. Cretan ships conducting trade with the Syro-Palaestinian coast, stop at the ports of Cyprus, where they obtain copper supplies which they barter with Minoan terracotta products and other goods. At the same time, Cypriot ships cross the Mediterranean carrying copper to the surrounding countries and bringing back luxury items, such as gold, faience and alabaster. In the art of pottery, the red polished ware of the previous period is gradually replaced by white painted vases. The rhyta of this era are fully covered in decorations.

A rhyton (ρυτόν) is a ritual vase which, apart from the filling spout it also has a second opening, in other words a small opening at the
bottom. So, water flowed through the vase and poured onto the earth: this ritual-religious act was dedicated to the goddess of fertility, and by extension it was a prayer to the earth for fruitfulness.

The Late Bronze Age (1600-1050 B.C.) is not only the most important of the three Bronze periods, but also one of the most valuable periods in the entire history of Cyprus. During this time, Cyprus develops close contacts with the Aegean, whilst the Mycenaean settlement that followed around 1230 B.C. resulted in the gradual hellenisation of the island. Trade relations with the neighbouring area continue and at the same time copper trade flourishes. In oriental texts from Asia Minor and Egypt, Cyprus appears with the name of Alasia. It is a period of prosperity and wealth for the island. And this results in the establishment of important urban centres, such as Enkomi, Kition, Palaepafos, the city at Larnaca Salt Lake and others. Enkomi was a large financial and cultural centre in Eastern Cyprus. It had an amazing architecture and town-planning system for those times, with parallel streets cutting across the city and reaching a ring-road around the city. The houses in Enkomi were neatly built with rooms around a courtyard. Excavations also brought to light three sanctuaries. On the southern coast of Cyprus, under the contemporary city of Larnaca lie the ruins of ancient Kition, a city that owes its prosperity to the copper trade. As proven by archaeological research, extracted copper was transported to Kition from the mines, was processed at special workshops and was exported in the form of ingots from the city harbour.

The importance of copper for the economy of Cyprus is also reflected in the objects discovered, such as the bronze statuette of a bearded god found on the site of a sanctuary in Enkomi. The god is armed with a shield and a spear. The important element is the base on which this figure is standing which has the shape of an ingot. This led researchers to qualify this god as the god who protects the copper mines, which constituted the basis of Cyprus' economy.

Cypriot pottery of this period consists of wine-jars with a ring-shaped base, as well as cups with dark geometric decoration onto a white surface.
It is around the 13th century B.C. that developments in the Aegean also had an influence on Cyprus. The large centres of the Peloponnese, such as Mycenae and Pylos started to decline and their inhabitants were in search of new lands. Some of them, the Mycenaeans or the Achaeans, as they are called, settled in Cypriot cities bringing with them elements of their religion as well as their pottery, as revealed by a bronze statuette of a male deity from Enkomi dating from around the 12th century B.C.; the god is upright wearing a conical horned helmet.

According to scripts, the statuette has been identified with "Apollo Alasiotis" (Apollo of Alasia, the god of Cyprus) or "Apollo Keraeates" (the Horned Apollo). The god was worshipped in Arcadia in the Peloponnese and is said to have been introduced to Cyprus by the Achaean settlers. His beautiful facial features and the entire stature of the figure are reminiscent of later works of Greek sculpture.

The arrival of the Achaeans, however, also introduced Mycenaean pottery on the island, specimens of which have been found in several areas. One such vase, is known as the "Zeus crater" (a "crater" (κρατήρ) is a special vase used for mixing water with wine). The interesting principal scene depicts two men on a chariot. In front of thehorses stands another man wearing a tunic and holding an object that resembles scales. This scene has been identified with a scene from Homer's "Iliad", where Zeus weighs the fate of the warriors before the battle of Troy. Another vase also depicts a chariot. The art of this period is certainly not limited to pottery. Golden jewels, such as for example those from Ayios Iacovos (necklace with beads in the form of pomegranates and earrings) and golden earrings from Palaepafos have been found in many tombs. The outer surface of the conical rhyton of faience from Kition is divided in three horizontal registers decorated as follows: The upper zone depicts galloping animals, the middle zone represents a hunting scene with a bull and the lower zone is decorated with vertical spirals. It is worth noting the use of blue, yellow and red paint to render the decoration. This period also has to show a number of outstanding objects made of precious metals, such as silver and gold. One such specimen is the famous sceptre from Kourion made of gold-leaf applied on a wooden or ivory shaft. At the top there is a globular head on which two falcons are sitting. The globular head and the falcons are decorated in cloisonne technique with inlaid white and green enamel within small compartments.
This last Bronze period is also characterised by a type of terracotta figurines depicting bird-like female divinities. The figures have a bird's head with a large nose and enormous ears and represent the fertility Mother Goddess, primeval deity in Cyprus, naked nursing an infant.Around the middle of the 11th century B.C., the Bronze Age comes to an end, as a result either of a natural phenomenon or of a hostile invasion. The years around 1000 B.C. constitute a transitional period, with obvious traces of the Mycenaean civilisation on the one hand, but also those of the indigenous Cypriot element on the other hand. Cyprus has close ties with the countries of the Orient, and with the world of the Aegean and metropolitan Greece.

Around the 9th century B.C. the Phoenicians, a seafaring people, make their appearance: they begin their expansion towards the Mediterranean with Cyprus as their first stop. Here they establish a commercial colony in Kition where the temple of their highest goddess, Astarte is to be found. It is during this period that the first city-states (capital cities of the ancient Greek kingdoms) appear, such as Salamis, Kition, Kourion, Lapithos, Soloi, Pafos. The period from the 11th century B.C. until the end of the 8th century B.C. is known as the Iron Age, from the new metal that makes its appearance now and is used in making arms and tools. Scientists have also named it the Geometric Period, due to the type of decoration on the vases whose surface is covered in geometric shapes. Apart from these shapes, these vases also depict human forms, animals and plants.

Salamis was one of the most glorious and richest cities of Cyprus towards the end of the Geometric period. The development of trade and ship-building favoured by the abundance of timber on the island, led to a flourishing economy which in turn led to cultural progress. The "royal tombs" excavated on the Salamis plain reflect an image of prosperity. The main architectural feature of these tombs is their sloping passage, or dromos, leading to the built rectangular chamber. These tomb passages, or dromoi, were lined with large amphoras filled with oil, wine or honey. This is also where the team of horses that pulled the chariot on which the dead perso's body was laid was sacrificed. In one of the richest tombs of Salamis, excavations brought to light a throne made of wood covered with ivory plaques. Some traces of thin gold-leaf decoration have survived. The same tomb also contained a bed decorated with ivory plaques as well as a huge bronze cauldron supported on an iron tripod. Around its rim there are adapted forms of mythical
monsters: eight griffins and four sirens.

One of the most famous specimens of pottery during this period is an amphora from the Famagusta region. Apart from rich geometric decoration, this vase also depicts on the one side female figures dancing, whilst on the other side a religious ritual honouring a dead person.

The Geometric period is followed by the Archaic period covering the 7th and 6th century until the beginning of the 5th century B.C.

The Assyrian rule which began from the previous period continues during this period. The names of ten city-kingdoms of Cyprus appear on an Assyrian inscription. Commercial and cultural links with the Orient are in progress. In the ceramics the so-called "freefield style" evolves. The painter renders freely compositions including humans, animals, birds or fish on the surface of the vase without feeling bound by the intricategeometrical designs of the previous period. The artist makes sure that the pictorial representation is perfectly adapted on to the shape of the vase to be decorated. The use of black and red colour helps create an interesting result. A jug depicts a bull sniffing a lotus flower. The background bears no decoration at all.

Around the middle of the 6th century B.C., Pharaoh Amasis, King of Egypt, took control of Cyprus, breaking up Assyrian rule. As a result of the events that followed, Egyptian art partially influenced Cypriot art mainly in the domain of sculpture; this is evidenced by a group of limestone statues, in which the Egyptian style is obvious in the rendering of the face and the characteristic head-dress.

Here it is worth mentioning an important group of sculptures suddenly brought to light in January 1997 in the course of restoration work carried out at the archaeological site of the tombs of Tamassos. These are six limestone sculptures preserved in excellent condition and dating from around the middle of the 6th century B.C. .
They depict two sphinx with strong Egyptian influence and four lions. The sculptures were once part of the decoration of a tomb in the area.

The terracotta figurines of the Archaic period represent either deities, or figures of worshippers and constitute offerings at sanctuaries, such as the ram-headed Phoenician god Baal-Hamman seated on a throne. This figurine was found in the god's sanctuary in Meniko. Details are rendered using colours. The cult of Aphrodite, in conjunction with the Phoenician goddess Astarte, had tremendous response in Cyprus during the Archaic period. A terracotta figurine depicts Aphrodite-Astarte, standing up and holding a round object - perhaps a drum or a globe. The goddess is wearing a long dress and is adorned in jewels. Similar figurines were found in several sanctuaries on the island.

It is also during this period that Greek influence on Cypriot sculpture and pottery becomes evident. This is observed mainly in the large urban centres where Greek sanctuaries are found. One such example is Kourion, where Apollo Hylates, or the god of the woodland, was worshipped from the 8th century B.C. . At the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates a large number of terracotta figurines were found representing riders and models of horse chariots. The temples of Aphrodite flourish in Pafos, Kition and Salamis; Salamis is the place of the famous sanctuary of Zeus.

The Classical Period that follows the Archaic, spans the 5th and 4th century B.C. and on the political front it is dominated by the struggles of the Cypriots for liberation from Persian rule, alongside Greece which was involved in the same conflict. It is, therefore, during this period that we see the appearance of Evagoras I, King of Salamis, one of the most prominent personalities in the history of Cyprus. Evagoras I was openly pro-Hellenic, aspiring to introduce Greek ideals on the island but also to unite all Cypriot kingdoms against the Persians. He was the first to import the Greek alphabet, and in the royal court of Salamis Greek letters flourished and many Greek men of letters and arts were invited.
Excavations have brought to light a number of specimens of the artistic production of this period, such as a beautiful head of a goddess dating from the 4th century B.C. made of genuine pentelic marble; it was found in the Roman gymnasium and is believed to be the work of a Greek sculptor probably belonging to the Praxiteles school. It depicts a young kore, with her wavy hair tied up on the top of her head. The solemn and at the same time refined expression on her face is characteristic of the classical Greek style. Her figure was identified with Aphrodite, although certain researchers identify it with Hygeia, daughter of the god of medicine, Asclepios.

It is worth also mentioning the monuments of the city, such as the Gymnasium and the theatre which is one of the most imposing monuments in Cyprus.

Another beautiful specimen of classical art in Cyprus is the statue of Apollo or Zeus, found in Voni. The small openings in the god's hair show that another material, bronze or another metal, was used for decorative purposes.

( Source : Aspect of Cyprus)

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