Saint Neophytos Monastery is located near Tala village in a forest meadow surrounded by green hills. A dome basilica, built at the beginning of the 16th century, is located in the center of the monastery’s courtyard among other structures. One particularly interesting structure is a temple carved out of a cave by St. Neophytos.
Neophytos was born in 1134, in a small mountain village called Lefkara. As a young man he secretly left his parents’ home in order to dedicate himself to God. He left for St. Chrysostome monastery, where his devotion to study earned him the position of assistant sacristan. Neophytos’ desire to continue his spiritual quest brought him to Jerusalem where the monk wanted to find a mentor and a respite from the hustle and bustle of the world. His search didn’t yield any results and Neophytos had to return to Cyprus. Finally, he found a cave in the mountain region of Paphos, in which he carved out a bench that he used for work and sleep. He used the eastern wall of the cave to chisel out a grave in which he was later buried.
During his life in the cave, Neophytos worked on founding a monastery. He built an altar and a nave, connecting them to his abode. Later the space acquired a refectory. The new monastery was sanctified in the name of the True Cross. The monk also encrusted a piece of the original True Cross in the wooden cross of the monastery (this part has since been lost and only the wooden cross itself has survived).
Word of the new monastery and its founder slowly spread through the region and it began to attract new students. Bishop Vasily Kinnamos conferred holy orders on Neophytos and convinced him to accept novices. Theodore Ancevdis had decorated St. Neophytos’ cell and the inner sanctuary with frescos. The refectory and the nave were decorated 30 years later by other artists (hence the stylistic differences).
One of the frescoes shows St. Neohytos sitting at the feet of Christ. The frescoes on the ceiling shows St. Neophytos wearing angel attire surrounded by Archangel Michael and Archangel Gabriel who are escorting the Saint to the Final Judgment.
In his book “The Ritual Ordinance” St. Neophytos asked to be buried in the coffin, which he had built for himself and which he kept in the wall opening in his cell. He asked to cover the wall of his grave with frescoes, so as to make it indistinguishable. His wish was executed in full measure and his grave was gradually forgotten by everyone. Years later, when writing his memoir in 1735, monk and traveler Vasily Grigorovich-Barksy lamented the fact that the burial site of St. Neophytos had still not been found. But 21 years later the recluse’s grave and his remains were finally found and moved to the main church in the retreat, where they are kept to this day.
St. Neophytos had learned to read and write when he was 18 years old and is considered the most prolific byzantine writers of the 12th century. Some of his works have been published in Venice under Archbishop Kiprian. The manuscript of “Ritual Ordinance,” which includes author’s remarks is kept in the library of Edinburgh University.
St. Neophytos Monastery has witnessed many ups and downs over its long history. In the first half of the 17th century the monastery became stauropegic – an important moment in its development, which rendered it independent and sovereign.
The main cave church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was erected to the east of the cave cell in the 16th century. Today the church is a basilica with a narthex, columns, semicircular arches and a six-meter dome. The marble floor inside the church features a double-headed eagle – a symbol of the Byzantine Empire.
Some of the ancient frescoes on the altar and the overhead walls have been preserved to this day. At the end of the apsis, inside the Sanctuary there is a traditional depiction of Virgin Hodegetria, Eucharistic Liturgy and frontal images of the Church Fathers. The semicircular tower to the left of the apsis contains the relics of St. Stephen.
St. Stephen lived during the period of Christianity’s emergence and became one of the Seven Deacons. The Israelites hated the young men. After one of his sermons they captured him and accused him of blaspheming God and Prophet Moses. St. Stephen was stoned to death.
The intrados of the first arch of the southern colonnade has retained another old fresco. This fresco depicts St. Alexey, who after leaving his parents and wife, spent 17 years collecting alms at the church of Virgin Mary in Edessa. Then one day he decided to sail towards Apostle Paul’s motherland. His ship had wandered from its course and docked near the coast of Rome. Alexey perceived it to be divine providence and returned to his ancestral home, although no one recognized him there after so many years of absence. The truth about Alexey was revealed on the day that he died: his face glowed and his hand held a scroll detailing his life.
The overhead walls in the southern nave feature scenes from the Virgin Mary cycle. The overhead walls in the northern nave are covered with Akathist scenes dating back to the 16th century. The carved three-tier iconostasis is as wide as the nave of the church and almost entirely covers the altar. On both sides of the Royal doors are the images of the Virgin Mary and Christ the Savior (16th century), as well as the icon of St. Neophytos painted by John Cornaro and the icon of John the Baptist. The holiday panel features 26 scenes from the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. In the center of the top panel of the iconostasis is the Deesis fresco that portrays the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist praying for the forgiveness of human sins.
Visitors of the church will also notice the silver reliquary containing the skull of the Cypriot saint and an intricately carved sarcophagus containing the relics of St. Neophytos.
The museum, which is located in the eastern part of the monastery, houses a collection of religious books and holy vessels, St. Neophytos’ manuscripts, reliquaries, candleholders, rare icons from the 12th century and other artifacts.
The white-stone silhouette of the monastery stands in beautiful contrast with the surrounding green hills. A large fresco of the Last Supper painted by contemporary Russian artists hangs in the refectory. The guest room is decorated with a mosaic depicting the same images as the ones on the walls of St. Neophytos’ cell.