September 15, 2010

The Veneration of the Holy Cross in Cyprus

Cyprus is a significant landing post between the Holy Land and Europe when travelling via the Mediterranean. For this reason strong tradition relates that St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine I, stopped in Cyprus following her discovery of the Holy Cross on Golgotha on her return to Constantinople in 327 AD. It is said she anchored off in the southern shores of Cyprus, between Larnaka and Limassol, where even to the present day the place is named 'Vasiliko' (Basil - after the plant that grew over the spot where St. Helen discovered the Cross on Golgotha). Subsequently, the reverence and veneration of the Holy Cross was transmitted throughout Cyprus, with the most important places of veneration being the villages of Lefkara, Tochni, Anogyra and Kouka, all boasting important churches and monasteries; especially the village of Omodos, where the Monastery of the Holy Cross has preserved a piece of rope with which the soldiers bound Christ.

However, the fame of the Cross also spread to other parts of Cyprus, where important monasteries have been preserved: the Monastery of the Holy Cross of Agiasmati in Platanistasa; the Monastery of the Holy Cross Minthis in Tsada of the district of Paphos; and the Church of the Holy Cross in Pelendri.

The itinerary begins with Stavrovouni Monastery, situated at a height of 700 metres on the summit of a mountain that is at the easternmost point of the Troodos range. The monastery is inaccessible to women; however it can be admired from the area below the monastery, together with the superb view. This monastery was built, according to tradition, by a donation of St. Helen. According to the 15th century Cypriot chronicler Leontios Makhairas and the tradition he received from St. Kyriakos (Oct. 18), when St. Helen arrived in Cyprus the Cross disappeared mysteriously but was miraculously discovered when a light was shining on the summit of Olympos, as Stavrovouni [the mountain of the Cross] was then known, where there was a pagan temple. After the miracle and after a few failed attempts to remove it, St. Helen built the church and dedicated to it part of the holy relic. There are references from several sources which report that the Holy Cross used to stand unsupported in the air. Nowadays the part of the Cross is kept in a large silver Cross and it gives off a fragrance. Other relics left at the monastery by St. Helen include the Cross of the Good Thief, a nail and according to some, a part of the rope that Jesus was tied with on the Cross. Read more here and here.

Subsequently, one may visit the Church of the Holy Cross in Pano Lefkara to venerate the 13th century Cross that holds a small piece of the True Cross. Read more here, here and here.

The Church of the Holy Cross (or Sts. Constantine and Helen's) in Tochni is more recent, perhaps replacing an older one, but is the only church in Cyprus constructed over a bridge. According to Makhairas, both the original bridge and church were built by St. Helen. The Chronicle of Amadi records that Alix of Ibelin had a small speech impediment which was cured by a miracle performed by the Holy Cross of Tochni which had been rediscovered in 1340. See a video here and read more here.

Following a course to the west, one may visit the Church of the Holy Cross in Pelendri, whose magnificent wall paintings date to the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Read more here and here.

The cruciform Church of the Holy Cross in Kouka dates to the 12th century in which beautiful wall paintings have been preserved. The church was once surrounded by monastery buildings, but all that now remains is a building to the west that formerly contained an olive press. The church, according to St. Kyriakos, is associated with the legend of the Holy Cross and on the north side is a small square chamber probably built to contain the original relic of the church, which was a quantity of sawdust from the Cross when it was chipped into pieces on the order of St Helen. See video here and read more here.

Not far from Kouka to the west is the famous Monastery of the Holy Cross in Omodos, where a small piece of the rope that the soldiers used to bind Christ is kept. This rope is described as red coloured and "stained by the blood of Christ". It is said a monastery already existed here prior to the arrival of St. Helen, so this rope was given as a gift. Also preserved in this church is the skull of St. Philip the Apostle.

According to tradition, one night the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages Pano (Upper) and Kato (Lower) Koupetra, which do not exist today, observed a fire in some bushes at the area where the monastery stands today. When it dawned they went to the spot where the fire was seen but there was no sign. This phenomenon repeated for several nights. So they started to dig the earth, discovering a small cave in which they found the Cross. In order to thank the Lord, they constructed a chapel over the cave and kept their precious treasure there, which became a sacred place of adoration for them. With the passage of time the chapel expanded and was converted into a monastery with many monks and a vast fortune - not only in Cyprus but also abroad - maintaining a grange (monastery dependency) in Constantinople and real estate in Russia. Read more here and see video here.

The pilgrim can also visit Anogyra to visit the Monastery of the Holy Cross to the south of the village. Today's church is built over the remains of an early Christian basilica. At the end of the 15th century, the present church was built over the foundations of older churches, and is a barrel-vaulted church with a single nave and dome, decorated with exceptional wall paintings in the Paleologan style. Read more here.

In Paphos one should visit the 12th century Monastery of the Holy Cross Minthis a little way from the village of Tsada. Minthis Hills Golf Course is a golf course on the land owned by the monastery. Many players claim to have seen the ghost of a monk in the disused monastery when teeing off on the seventh, though it's generally assumed that this ghost story simply makes a jolly good excuse for a diabolical drive.

Thus from east to west this itinerary will lead the pilgrim to some of the various churches and monasteries in Cyprus linked with the veneration of the Holy Cross.

For more information on the Holy Cross brought by St. Helen to Cyprus, read here and here.