The secret inside
Last March I was visiting a number of heritage sites in Cyprus as a guest of Prof. Marinos Ioannides, UNESCO chair for digital cultural heritage at the University of Technology in Cyprus. Prof Marinos suggested I visit an area in the central part of Cyprus, in the Troodos mountain range. The area contains, some of the most important surviving monuments in the history of Byzantine art. These painted churches which have survived to this day are brilliant examples of various trends of Byzantine and post-Byzantine monumental art, from the 11th to the 19th century. Ten of these churches have so far been granted World Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO.
One of the church he highly recommended that I visit was the church of Panagia Phorbiotissa, better known as Panagia of Asinou, situated in the northern foothills of the Troodos mountains, a short distance from Mount Olympus.
Panagia Forbiotissa used to be the katholicon (monastery church) of the Monastery of Forbion, as its name implies. According to the dedicatory inscription above its south entrance, which is dated to 1105/6. The monastery was founded in 1099 and it functioned until the end of the 18th century, when it was abandoned.
The church consists of two parts: the vaulted single-aisled nave and the narthex, which is a later addition belonging to the second half of the 12th century. The narthex with its two semi-circular apses belongs to a type directly influenced by Constantinople. Already from the 12th century a steep-pitched timber roof, covered with flat tiles, sheltered the church. Today no traces of the rest of the monastic buildings survive.
The interior of Panagia Forbiotissa is entirely covered with wall-paintings, which vary in date. The earliest group is dated to 1105/6 and it expresses the (then) latest style of the Comnenian period. These frescoes reflect the art of Constantinople, which is thought to be the artist’s birthplace, and they are one of the most important groups of Byzantine art of this period. The strong influence of the Empire’s capital can be explained by the fact that the prevailing geopolitical conditions of the time led Alexios Comnenos I (1081–1118) to render Cyprus his most important military base of the North-eastern Mediterranean.
Many of the original wall-paintings, dating to 1105/6 AD, are preserved in the apse of the Holy Bema and the west wall of the church.
This church is a case study on how digital technology can be used to preserve and interpret cultural heritage sites. Various EU funded projects have ensured that the building and surrounding area were accurately documented using terrestrial laser scanning and photogrammetric procedures both inside and outside. Using 3D visualization of multi-source data has bridged the gap between reality and the virtual, it has enabled virtual 3D measurements and augmented for a better understanding of the heritage site.
Whilst digital tools offer unique ways for preservation and interpretation, for a cultural heritage site to be truly enjoyed and appreciated, interpretation should not be limited to digitizing the building and its artifacts. Understanding the story behind the site, the narrative of the people behind the building, the political powers that shaped the fate of the site and the human aspect behind each and every heritage site is of utmost importance. Cultural heritage sites are much more than historical landmark sites, they reflect the identity of the community who built and lived in them.
We are living in exciting times where technology can be used to help us learn from the past, understand our present identity and leave a better legacy for the future.
The visit was part of a Short Term Scientific Mission to Cyprus as part of the COST action — TD1406 — Innovation in Intelligent Management of Heritage Buildings (i2MHB)