(click on any of the images to see a larger version)
The convent of St Raphael in the village of Xylotymbou was the inspiring setting for the Quiet Morning reflections at Synod 2014, led by Canon Robert Jones seen here beside the 14th century Church of St Marina within the convent complex.
Xylotymbou, believed to be the site of a very old settlement, is renown for its mediaeval churches, and many younger ones too. In particular, the majestic late 20th century church of St Raphael stands prominently beside the more discretely enclosed convent courtyards.
The name Xylotymbou is steeped in the history of regional logging and forests, although little evidence of this remains. Today, the village lies within the Larnaca District of South-East Cyprus, surrounded by open farmland and the boundary of the British Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia.
To refresh your Synod 2014 memories, or visit the church and convent of St Raphael for the first time, now enjoy a short virtual tour – a fascinating mix of ecclesiastical architecture, decorative arts, and iconographic images. Among them are those painted on plates displayed in the convent meeting room where Canon Robert led our reflections.
The convent community was founded some twenty-five years ago within the walls of two inter-connected courtyards. The 14th century church of St Marina lies in the middle of the courtyard which visitors access first.
Despite the fragmentation of the frescoes and their need for restoration, many of the images are still clear enough to view, especially the muted colours associated with earlier styles of painting.
In bizarre contrast, wax effigies of human body parts hang on one wall. The nun attending the adjacent shop where these items are on sale, explained: people who seek healing for themselves or others may buy an effigy to hang inside the church and so seek a prayerful cure for, say, an injured limb, face, head, or other affliction.
Adjacent to the shop, a second chapel provides the setting for a fresco narrative depicting the martyrdom of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene – although this is not obvious as much of the chapel is dark. Permission was offered (not sought!) to unlatch a side door and so briefly illuminate the impressive fresco with daylight.
Two key elements were explained: St Raphael is never found on his own in iconographic art; the Saint Nicholas who was martyred with him is not the same saint whom we worship.
Among the representations of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene together, one clearly exposed icon hangs on an exterior wall of the chapel. Despite being shaded under a canopy, weather conditions have unfortunately damaged some of the delicate paint. Nevertheless it is a striking piece of art.
From this vantage point, it is just a short walk to the adjacent courtyard. The central focus is the small chapel dedicated to St Filoumenos, a Cypriot saint. The morning light happened to be just right to reflect the peaceful ambience inside. The exterior provides a comparative perspective of the vast modern church of St Raphael located outside the convent boundary.
Beside one entrance to the Church of St Raphael, a plaque is mounted on the wall. Translated this tells us that the foundation stone of the Church of St Raphael, Xylotymbou was laid on the 20th November 1993 by His Excellency the President of the Republic of Cyprus, Mr Glafcos Clerides, together with their Eminences, the Bishop of Kitium, Chrisostomos; the Bishop of Mitilinis, Iacovos; and the Bishop of Limassol, Chrysanthos.
Completed less than twenty years ago, this magnificent modern church certainly evokes a “wow” reaction. Not just the sense of walking into a magnificent building which stirs spiritual strength and refreshment, but also the extent and scope of the interior’s decorative arts.
Even the technical complexities involved to ensure the safety of those who painted the frescoes challenge the imagination. The skill and achievements of the artists involved need no imagination. They are there for all to behold.
If this short tour has been your introduction to the church and convent of St Raphael in Xylotymbou and should the opportunity arise to visit in person, then do so. For many of us who did visit during Synod 2014, a chance to return will surely enrich that first encounter.