Panagia tou Araka Monastery
The Monastery of the Virgin Mary of Araka
The church stands in the center of the Troodos mountain range, between the villages of Lagoudera and Saranti. Panagia tou Araka is one of the ten Byzantine churches of the Troodos mountains that have been granted the world cultural heritage status by UNESCO.
Like other churches in the region, the church of Panagia tou Araka used to be a monastery church of a monastery complex which was erected in the second half of the 12th century, at a time which monastic life was flourishing in Cyprus. The monastic life survived until the 19th century and has been abandoned ever since.
The church is well-known for its unique frescoes that are nowadays considered to be among the most impressive examples of Komnenian style art. They date back to the 12th century, and most of them are painted by Theodoros Apsevdis.
Traditions & Origins
According to a tradition, in the Byzantine era, a nobleman of the region named Leon Afthentis saw a hawk flying in circles while he was hunting and thought that there would be prey in the area. While he was hunting, he found the icon of Panagia (Virgin Mary), where the monastery was later built. According to an inscription above the northern entrance of the temple, the church was decorated at the expense of the Nobleman.
The origin of the name “Araka” (which translates to “Pea”) is unclear. It’s most commonly attributed back to the discovery of the icon of Panagia in the area in which peas were cultivated centuries ago.
According to an alternative tradition preserved by Barksy, a Russian monk who visited the monastery in 1735, is that the name Arakas comes from “ιέρακας” or “γεράκι” which translates to hawk.
The Architecture of the Church
The Monastery is a single-aisled vaulted building with three niches in each of the side walls and a dome rising over the center. The dome is additionally fortified with a smaller roof, to protect it from the elements.
The church has a shed roof, a characteristic of many churches of Troodos mountain.
The Frescoes of the Church
The paintings of the church are substantial examples of Comnenian style art, dating in the middle Byzantine period in Cyprus (1992 A.D.). The frescoes are comparable to those prevailing throughout Greece, the Balkans, and Russia. The church was painted mainly by Theodoros Apsevdis. The apse of the bema is of a different style, and therefore it is believed that another artist probably painted it.
The frescoes depict the Pantocrator, the ultimate symbol of the Day of Judgement, the Angels in medallions, the Prophets, the Annunciation of the Virgin, the Evangelists, and many others. Also, a few frescoes in the church date from the 14th and 15th centuries when the church was extended. They show among others the Hymn-writers Cosmas and John of Damascus.
A rare illustration is the portraits of the seven Cypriot saints who embellish the semi- wall of the arch. The Virgin in the above the northern entrance and some other depictions belong to the 14th century. The last decoration of the church took place in the 17th century on the northern outer wall as well as a wood-carved icon dating back to 1673.
The frescoes remain intact, which gives them a unique status amongst Byzantine art. The frescoes are in line with the trends of the time in Constantinople and around the Byzantine empire. Considering that Constantinople (the capital of Byzantium) has almost none surviving pieces of art, makes these frescoes even more valuable.