Folk art in Cyrpus, like in any country of the world, is an important part of its history and cultural tradition. Since ancient times, Cyprus has been renowned for its crafts. For instance, Homer, in his timeless epic “The Iliad”, describes a shining breastplate, sent by King Cinyras of Cyprus (the founder of the Cult of Aphrodite) as a gift to King Agamemnon. It is also common knowledge that the famous sword of Alexander the Great was forged in Cyprus, and then presented to him by one of the kings.
The richness and quality of Cypriot crafts, which have existed for many centuries, is illustrated by numerous unique objects — genuine works of art, which have either been discovered during archaeological excavations, or carefully preserved and passed down from generation to generation in villages. Today many of them — which demonstrate to us the great mastery of Cypriot artisan and create a rich picture of them and their subtle irony — are parts of collections in archaeological and regional museums.
We are going to acquaint you with the samples, secrets and most interesting works of traditional craft in Cyprus, as well as with modern types of ornamental art, which is becoming all the more popular and currently experiencing a “renaissance”. Today we shall stop to focus on several of the most popular and renowned examples, both on the island and beyond its borders.
Lacemaking and Embroidery
Cyprus is one of those countries where the art of embroidery and lacemaking has reached the very highest level. Amongst the various types of manual lacework, white-lace work, which was significantly exposed to foreign influence under the rule of the Venetians, was the most valued, and according to researchers, garnered the greatest interest.
As with embroidery, lace weaving or ‘tatting’ has a history spanning over many centuries. The same can be said for the famous lefkaritika, native to the village of Lefkara where traditional folk motifs have intertwined with adopted embroidery techniques, which since the middle of the 19th century have successfully continued to be exported abroad: the first village merchants headed to Egypt and Asia Minor, after which they “opened up” Europe, the USA and Australia to conduct their business.
Nowadays, Cypriots decorate their homes with embroidered objects: for instance, the rhombus pattern (actually a diamond) is highly widespread on the island, amongst other types…
The most commonly practised types of hand woven embroidery (such as tapestry work) are combinations of various geometric patterns stitched into the lower part and edges of towels, tablecloths and bedding. The “diamond” or rhombus pattern is characteristic of all these types. Another design which is also widespread in colour and fabric embroidery, features a series of geometric shapes positioned vertically along the upper row of the stitching, — these are called “men” and “girls”.
In addition, “pipilla”, similar to the Italian “reticello” (from the 15th to the first quarter of the 17th century), is the thinnest type of double needle lacework, native to Celani, Lapithos and Omodos. In the present day, it is used to manufacture light scarves and imitation jewellery, as well as to decorate napkins, women’s clothing, curtain edges and tablecloths; whereas in the past, it was also involved in the production of bedding, especially pillowcases. The most popular option was a floral motif initially threaded with silk, which was later substituted for cotton, as it was thinner.
As was mentioned earlier, the most exquisite of these works was always considered what was known as “white embroidery” (levko kentima), however, alongside this existed many other forms of marvellous embroidery, such as coloured stitching. The earliest samples of Cypriot coloured embroidery were usually stitched with red or blue threads, whereas later works were encountered with the inclusion of green, yellow and orange. Like in many countries, the most popular was and still remains the method of “cross” stitching (most often found on towels, tablecloths and along the lining of bedsheets) — originating from the mountainous villages of the Paphos region; and “back stitching” — as well as hemstitching on various “stepped-seam” samples. Sometimes only a half diamond was used in the pattern, in which case it was referred to as an “arch”.
Let us not forget about beaded embroidery. Until the end of the 19th century, Karpasia was especially renowned for this handcraft. It was usually encountered on works of cotton-sheet fabric (for instance, on bedsheets, tablecloths, napkins and women’s dresses. Bead embroidery was used to decorate the hems of dresses and sometimes the edges of undergarments. A sophisticated pattern was formed by intertwining a multitude of beaded threads, ranging in colour from green, red and black to a “Berlin glaze”.
Traditional Folk Costume and Weaving
Weaving is an ancient tradition in Cyprus and the names of some famous weavers, such as Akisas and Elikon, can even be found in historical sources dating back to 6 BC. It was strongly developed in the Byzantine era: precious Cypriot silk and woollen fabrics, which in ancient times were exported to Europe in large quantities, were renowned for their high quality. It reached its peak under the rulers of the Lusignan dynasty (1192-1489). Even Giovanni Boccaccio in his “The Decameron” gives mention to Cypriot fabrics: “slaves made the bed with two sheets made of the thinnest silk and a cover of snow-white Cypriot fabric.”
The manufacture of these materials continued to be later developed under Venеtian rule.
However, the invasion of the Turks and the reign of the Ottoman Empire (1570-1878) struck a powerful blow to a tradition of manufacturing luxury fabrics which had been successfully developing for many centuries. Instead of prospering, artisan-weavers, like many Cypriots, knew of only poverty and degradation. Under the weight of the circumstances, production was reduced to a level of industry where pieces were now only being woven in homes, predominantly by the hands of women.
It must be said that since ancient times, Cyprus has had an abundance of the raw materials necessary for ensuring the development of the weaving industry. With the appearance of silkworms in the Byzantine period, silk manufacture enriched the textile industry, which then began producing silk fabrics, along with linen, wool and cotton. The central part of the Messaoria valley, where an abundance of cotton had been sprouting, became the main centre for weaving cotton fabrics.
The Karpasia peninsula: although the fabrics manufactured there were, on the whole, similar to their Messaorian counterparts, the pieces had a brighter colouring which was wonderfully dominated by red. A varied “assortment” followed this colour scheme, composed of pieces such as: bedsheets, tablecloths and towels. Aside from the numerous multicoloured calicos, this region was well known for its superb silks, used for undergarments; and its blended fabrics composed of thick cotton with silk, which was used for manufacturing outer-garments, especially wedding dresses.
Along with thick and transparent silk, very thin silk with natural tones (unbleached) was produced in the coastal region of Kyrenia, especially in the villages of Lapithos and Karavas, where silk and cotton-sheet fabrics were an important source of income for village folk.
Byssus — the very thinnest cloth, used across the globe for embroidery, bedding and undergarments (in blended fabrics), was produced in the western valley of the Morphou region, where it grew.
Just like in rural settlements, weaving was also the main occupation for women in cities, especially in Nicosia, famed for its twill weave cotton and silk fabrics.
Although, as already mentioned, weaving in Cyprus was typically the work of a woman, in several areas of the Troodos mountain range and particularly in the villages of the Marthas region, men also practised this art: on large sewing benches they produced thick woollen bedcovers, as well as canvas sacks and saddle satchels for various agricultural purposes.
Printed patterns on fabrics
Printing on cotton-sheet cloth (pasmades) in Cyprus prospered in artisanal workshops in the 18th and 19th century. Nicosia was the centre of this art, practised by Greek and Turkish masters. Dark-red, yellow, green and pastel blue dominated these printed patterns. The dyes used were extracted from plants grown in Cyprus or which had been imported from the East. The design, as a rule, featured floral motifs (tulips, china pinks and roses), styled images of leaved branches and flowers in pots; and more rarely — birds and animals.
Textiles in Cyprus with a printed image were used in a variety of manners, such as for covering beds and sofas, or for manufacturing pillows and drapes. Aside from local use, printed Cypriot fabrics were also popular in the middle-eastern markets of Turkey and Syria.
National Folk Costume
The nuances in a nation's dress-style speak volumes about that nation’s people..
The national dress of Cyprus is an integral part of the island’s traditional culture; a type of national self-expression and world perception which by studying, one can uncover the historical, trade-economic and cultural links of Cyprus with neighbouring countries and far off lands. The Cypriot dress-style, alongside its exclusive local traits and symbolism, also demonstrates a borrowing and adaptation of dress-styles from different cultures.
Types of daily and festive dress varied depending on the region, with the general rule for women being that it always remained long and matched the white trousers covering their legs and ankles. Outer garments included a dress with a shirt on top, the fabrics of which were richly coloured combinations of cotton, either striped or checkered, which varied from region to region. As a rule, everyday dress was made of darker colours than those worn in special circumstances.
It must be noted that women’s rural dress from Karpathia was very rich and distinguished itself from other regions by its great peculiarity. Here, as in the majority of Cypriot regions, there were “sayas” — open dresses; while if in other settlements they donned these garments until the end of the 19th century inclusively, then in Karpathia (and in Pathos) villagers could be spotted in sayas even at the start of the 20th century. The festive dress was rather beautiful and the wedding dresses were richly gallooned with golden thread. Jewels of various types were an integral part of festive wear: “mimidi”, crosses with pendants, necklaces, “certannes and scalettes”, mainly made of gold.
In the city, women wore multi-coloured silk skirts and richly decorated short jackets. The silk blouse had a laced lining on the cuffs and around the collar, which were visible in the deep neckline of the jacket and from under the edge of the sleeves. In cities, women’s dress was sometimes complemented by a fez, which was worn instead of a head shawl with a printed image (this remained the case for a long time in rural areas).
Vraka — creased, dark blue trousers, identical to those worn on the Greek islands and in the coastal regions of the eastern Mediterranean — were a distinguishing trait of the male dress. The creases on them were fixed in specific places with the aid of a belt (vrakozoni)
Vraka were worn in accompaniment with a gilet made of striped cotton or fastened wool and velvet (for groomsmen and weddings). Men would often tie a scarf to their heads: these were often dark toned for adults and light in colour for very young people. The multicoloured scarf of the groom was laced along the edges.
The men’s garment was complemented by Napoleon boots (podines, tsagaropodines) sewn from goat’s skin. The thick heels were strengthened with metal nails to protect from snakes.
Metal and Jewellery Work
Let’s start from afar. The art of jewellery making is said to trace back to the Bayblonian kingdom. Excavations conducted by archaeologists at the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (which existed from the beginning till the end of 4 BC), produced many magnificent examples of jewellery art, dating roughly back to 2700 BC. This art later dispersed and reached the Aegean civilisation in 2400 BC, from there going on to cover the entire world.
Cyprus is traditionally the “island of copper”. In fact, the etymology of the word «Κύπρος» is still unknown. In the present day, some firmly link its origin to the latin «cuprum» — copper. However, contemporary researchers are sure of the opposite: the latin meaning of copper originated from the very name of Cyprus itself. Therefore, in Latin, there existed the concept of “metal from Cyprus” aes Cyprium), while the element we know as Cuprum later emerged as a derivative. A number of scientists, having dug further on into the centuries, observe the origin of the name which gave rise to the Sumerian terms: zebra — copper or kubar — bronze. Whether this was the case or not “science isn’t aware, since, as they say, is not in the know”.
Nowadays we know for certain that the name of the island is encountered in Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”. Thus in ancient times, copper was an important island commodity due to its potential to be exported, which began in Anatoly around 2300 BC — this was the beginning of the Bronze Age on the island (right until the end of 1 BC). The early bronze period was marked by low use of metals, with the earliest jewellery discoveries relating to this time consisting only of copper earrings. Traces of the first silver usage and the appearance of silver decorations (predominantly earrings) were noted a 100 years after bronze, while gold did not begin to be used for another 100 years after the appearance of silver.
In the modern period, when a more widespread use of gold and silver was occurring and copper had begun to be exported, Cyprus’ trade was developing with Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
In the late Bronze Age, Cyprus was prospering as a state. During this period, there was a large influx of precious metals, as well as semi-precious and precious stones.
The technology used for processing and working with these metals in manufacturing jewellery (for instance, filigree, granulation, niello, and enamel) reached a high level of mastery and sophistication — to the extent that specialists today have still not ceased admiring works of ancient handicraft.
In the era of Antiquity and the modern ages, bronze was used for manufacturing various household objects.
As copper acquires great flexibility after repeated exposure to heat and immersion in cold water, it has been used since ancient times as the base metal for manufacturing dishes and various utensils.
The gold and silver business has been in practise for a long time. Cyprus witnessed a wide development in the use of precious metals for manufacturing decorations, beginning in the Mycenaean period (2 BC). It would be wise not to forget that coin minting was also happening on the island at this time (see more). For instance, in 6 BC the Cypriots began to mint their own coins: this confirms that coins of a Cypriot origin were present in ancient treasure troves discovered in Egypt and the Middle East. King Evelthon of Salamis (560-25 BCE), having achieved political economic independence, started to mint his own coins at the end of the 6th century BC. Another King, Evagoras I (411-373 BC), became the first to mint money from gold: Heracles was pictured on them, in addition to inscriptions in Greek and the Cypriot dialect. Cypriot coins of the highest quality mint are equal in worth to their ancient Greek counterparts.
Unsurprisingly, local crafts made of silver, for example, had much in common with their Greek and Balkan equivalents, due to Byzantine tradition, which united them; in the same regard, it was also possible to observe strong Oriental influences.
Various works of silver, along with some items and decorations manufactured from gold, have survived to the present day and now reside in museums, private collections, church vestries and ancient temple archives. This testifies to the silver business being one of the most flourishing branches of applied arts in Cyprus from the 17th to 19th century.
Regardless of the fact that villages had their own artisans who manufactured tableware and simple trinkets from silver; the best workshops were all the same located in the island’s cities, many of which could be found especially in Nicosia. A whole street of jewellers existed here, the majority of whom had their own workshops. The works of the cities’ gold and silver artisans were either sold in the workshops themselves or at village fairs across the island. Expensive gold jewellery used to be an indication of status amongst the well-to-do city folk. It was usually found in the form of bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, crosses and brooches. Most pieces of a more available price had been made from a poor yield of gold or even from gilded silver alloys. Men also wore jewellery, such as silver rings with stones or watches with chains. Amongst Greek and Turkish officials, the engraving of their initials on rings was very popular, or in the case of Turkish customers, passages from the Qur’an.
Ceramics and pottery
Ceramics manufacture is an old craft which has been one of the most largely represented branches of Cypriot art since prehistoric times (6 BC) (see more). Items crafted from clay by Cypriot artisans, including “pitariya” (gigantic clay jugs, which have long been used for storing and transporting wine, vinegar, oil and water), only gained popularity in Europe in 1934.
In the presents day, some forms of pottery (pots and red clay jugs) and their methods of manufacture are still used.
Pottery was predominantly produced in the villages of Kornos (Larnaca district) and Fini (Limassol district), where it was practised exclusively by women. In Kornos, milk jugs and cooking pots (Tavas) were most often made. The main type of pottery in Fini was vessels of a large size used for storing wine. Whereas Varosha, a region of Famagusta, was famous for its production of water-storing vessels. These ceramics were also exported to nearby countries. It was mainly created by men who had studied the craft and passed it down from generation to generation: their work was often decorated with bold anthropomorphic images, as well as with figures of animals and snakes.
Lapithos ceramics was of a separate persuasion. Here the late medieval tradition of manufacturing emblazoned pouring vessels was practised right until the Turkish invasion in 1974. Contemporary potters use “Lapithos traditions”: this involves polishing, a green glaze when manufacturing and decorating cups, plates, and vases, as well as vessels for water and household use across the entire island.
Mosaics are deemed as one of Cyrpus’ most globally acknowledged sartorial statements. The earliest known mosaics, found in the Middle East in ancient Mesopotamia, date back to the second half of the 2nd century BC. They were crafted from ceramic cone sticks in the form of zig-zags, before being coloured with a red, black or white pigment. Other mosaics of that period were encountered on Egyptian and Persian monuments. The period of 2600-200 BC is regarded as the time when the technique of incrustation (opus sectile) emerged — this in particular became a precursor to the famous technique of “Florentian mosaics”. In the 8th century BC, mosaics images were also created from unprocessed shell (for instance, palace floors made by this method were discovered in Anatoly), which the pretentious Romans had named “opus barbicum”. However, according to researchers, it was the ancient Greeks in particular, who, at the dawn of the 5th century, became the first to use mosaics as a decorative art. Some well known examples are native to the states of Olinf, Sicion, Eritrea and the capital of Ancient Macedonia, Pella (everything up to 4 BC).
The artisans of this time, despite their limited access to resources, produced magnificent mosaic works. These artists were under the significant influence of trends from Classical and Hellenistic art: a strict design and colour palette — on one hand, and the painstaking execution of their work — on the other.
Workshops were in high abundance and craftsmen were strictly organised into various unions, through which they received and completed orders for crafting the floors of public buildings as well as the private homes of the elite.
The first mosaics to be discovered in Cyprus were geometric ornaments fashioned from sea shells of a black, grey, pink, white or brown colour. In addition to stones found on the island, imported marble was also used in mosaics, and at a later stage, for the portrayal of rare bright shades — smalt (remains of ancient smalt workshops were discovered in Paphos.
Murals then began to appear: initially a series of complex, multi-figured scenes depicted from ancient mythology; compositions with early symbols of Christianity later appeared. Nowadays in Cyprus, one can see these magnificent pieces (in Paphos, Kourion, Salamis and so on).
The art of mosaics had its hey-day in the Byzantine age: works were becoming more refined and luxurious (they were characterised by how delicately the work had been completed, a small module of elements and golden backgrounds. After the spread of Christianity (4 BC) and its establishment as the official religion of the state, large temples began to be erected across the empire, which were widely decorated by mosaics: from arches and walls to floors. From Ravenna to Constantinople and Salonniki to Cyprus (the temples of Panagitis-Kanakarias, Panaya Angeloktist, Panagi-tis-Kiros and so on), Byzantine emperors were inviting mozaic artists from all corners of the globe. Today their works are of great importance to the history of art on a global scale.
The fall of the Byzantine empire in the 13th century led to a simultaneous fall in the use of mosaics in art. Some artisans left for Italy in search of work, where even on a small scale, decorating churches with mosaic murals continued for another several centuries.
Consequently, for 300 years the art of mosaics dropped into oblivion. Various attempts were made in Europe to revive the art, but none produced any significant results; until the grand return of mosaics occurred in the first third of the 20th century in the churches, cultural monuments and architecture of Paris. At the same time, a centre for mosaics research opened in Ravenna, where great artists studied and crafted their works.
In the Greek civilisation, the rebirth of Byzantine mosaics occurred thanks to the efforts of the Athenian and famous writer-artist, Fotis Kontolgu (1895-1965), mainly after 1950: he created several workshops, in which workers tried to research and create works of art, using mosaics techniques.
This art was also reborn in Cyprus. Mosaic artists nowadays work in the island’s cities and villages, creating contemporary and traditional works of art and teaching their craft to those who desire (see more).
Glass: Emblazonment and Fusing
Glass manufacture in Cyprus first began in 7-6th century BC, and over the course of many centuries, the methods used in its production and in fashioning decorative items for household interiors have undergone significant improvements.
Since the start of the 20th century, glass emblazonment has been very common, having become the key element in the decor of the hallway in a traditional home. The artists were both men and women, while the content of their image could vary, be it with religious, national or heroic motives (for instance, Konstantin Paleolog, Alexander the Great and other national heroes, battle scenes from the 1821 Greek revolution), as well as with images of people (local “guys” and family photographs); mythical animals and birds. People would often request that artisans reproduce famous statements and epigrams, written in calligraphy. The image was produced by oil paints on the reverse side of the glass: this was done in a rather wanton manner and was exempt from any rules. In an atmosphere of anonymity amongst national artists, authors’ (authorised) art nevertheless appeared — for example, the paintings of the famous Cypriot artist, Michael Kashalos from the village of Asha in Messaoria. In a word, it was he who began his career as an artist by emblazoning the living rooms in Messaoria, initially not leaving his signature, unlike his other craftsmen colleagues who worked in the region.
Fusing, a method of heating a mass of glass in a furnace, has been the main method of manufacturing small glass items for approximately 2000 years. At a time when technology and methods of glass processing were witnessing a new heyday in the Renaissance era, fusing was by and large forgotten.
It only started to acquire popularity at the start of the 20th century (particularly in 1960s USA). Contemporary glass fusing is a wide-spread hobby which has gained renown amongst professionals in the world of decorative handicraft.
The art of encaustic painting or hot wax painting (the term originates from the Greek ἐγκαυστική — “to burn or scorch” — is a technique of embossing images created with melted paints, which are then fused together with a wax adhesive.
Wax paints (more accurately, wax tempering) were used by the ancient Egyptians for painting coffins, however, the exact period when they appeared is unknown (which was in fact confirmed by Pliny the Elder). The material and technology were designed in order to ensure that the painted decorative layer lasted for a long time. Later, in Ancient Greece, wax paintings became widespread: in their works, the famous artisans Parrasi, Polignotus and Zeuxis managed to achieve a level of realism and animation never witnessed before, bewitching their contemporaries. The technique used by the Greeks was named “Encaustic Painting” and involved scorching a picture placed on a marble board with wax paints. The result was a realistic, finely-coloured image. The most famous works of encaustic painting were arguably the so-called Fayum mummy paintings, made in Egypt from 1-3 BC by Greek artists, with the use of the very thinnest gold-leaf.
This art flourished most in the Age of Antiquity, when several still-life paintings, portraits and icons were created with wax. According to legend, the Apostle Luke used this technique in particular when creating holy images. Later, in the Medieval Age, the technique of encaustic painting was forgotten and almost lost entirely. Tempered and oil paintings took its place, as they were more convenient for work; for a long time, the technology of working with wax was doomed to oblivion.
Yet there was a type of encaustic painting, known as wax tempera (here the wax didn’t melt, but dissolved into essential oils, thus obtaining a wax emulsion) which could be distinguished by the brightness and rich colour of the paints used. This technique, dating back over 3,000 years, was applied in the painting of early Christian icons. Encaustic painting of religious images is now taught at the icon-painting school of the Limassol diocese, in the class of Christos Georgiou, a student of the well-known monk and icon painter Kalinnik. These particular icons never develop cracks, nor do they react to fluctuations in temperature or changes in humidity levels. They are distinguished by their strong durability, able to exist for millennia without losing the brightness of their paints.
Contemporary encaustic icon paintings are considered as an asset to Cypriot art. The painting of common images using this technique can be learnt at THE PLACE — an art culture space in Paphos. The technique involves melting pieces of readily prepared wax pieces, mixed with paint, on a heated metal palette. The majority of artists, who apply the encaustic technique into their works, use pre-coloured wax blocks. The colour of these wax paints doesn’t deteriorate over time, and is not only applied with a common paint-brush, but also a heated metal stick. The wax images which exist today are both new findings and the contributions of contemporary masters attempting to revive this bygone technique. The only thing considered dangerous to such paintings is mechanical damage.
Silk is acknowledged as a symbol of wealth and luxury across the world, yet not in Cyprus…
The tradition of sericulture was conceived in the Neolithic period (5,000-3000 BC) in China. For many long centuries, nobody beyond the limits of the Cho dynasty managed to master the technology of silk production.
One of the legends tells of Persian Christian monks who appeared before the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the year 552, having promised to bring him the egg of a silk worm, and so they did: in hollow bamboo staffs they presented him with the precious cargo they had been carrying. In that very moment, Emperor Justinian gave the order to breed silkworms. Silk was then permitted to be produced only in special state-owned workshops.
Cyprus proved to have the ideal climate for growing mulberries, and by the middle of the 17th century, the island had already become famous in Europe for its silk weaving.
It is well known that over many centuries, travellers who visited Cyprus never ceased to be amazed by the high-costing fabric of the clothing worn by all the islanders — from well-to-do inhabitants to common townsmen and village folk. Silk bedsheets were a mandatory element in the dowry of any bride. Curiously, silk worms were bred most often due to poverty, when families didn’t have enough money to purchase clothes.
Over time, in the 13th-14th century, Nicosia became the centre for silk production. A grave period for the Cypriots, who had been under Venetian rule (1489-1571), transformed into years of prosperity in silk production, for after all, their new rulers, won over by the island’s textiles, undoubtedly demanded that even more be produced. The Ottoman Empire, having sidelined Venice on the island, did not squander their chance to profit from this business, despite high taxes being imposed on silk production. The English, having taken the place of the Turks when they arrived on the island in 1878, were well versed in expensive fabrics, and so both pragmatically and determinedly began modernising the island’s silk mills. Under the English, a factory was built in Geroskipou (Paphos district) and specialists from Italy were invited to control production and quality. It just so happened that the Second World War “contributed” to the increase in demand for the production of silk fabrics, with the military industry becoming its main consumer during these years: the parachutes of the allied troops were sewn from silk. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1950s, the breeding of mulberry silkworms on the island had practically stopped: synthetic fabrics were going into circulation all the more readily, while the fight for independence had already begun on the island itself, therefore nothing really mattered anymore, so to speak …. Silk production finally ended as a result of Turkish occupation in 1974, — indeed, in the occupied Northern territories in particular, the three main regions for silk production and weaving remained: Kitrea, Lapithos and Karavas.
Nowadays only an insignificant number of Cypriot inhabitants continue the ancient traditions of silk manufacture. One can only hear of a mulberry silkworm in craft shops and other types of art centres and souvenir shops, having seen either imitation jewellery and accessories which use cocoons, or panel images with floral motifs in velvet made also from those cocoons.
Interestingly, as is the case with many things on the island, silk worm breeding is linked with several superstitions and rituals, the most widespread of which were the following: during Easter services villagers would try to hide а handkerchief filled with the leaves of a mulberry tree under a church shrine, so that silkworms could feed on these sanctified leaves. When manufacturing silk, artisans would always look for the sight of the first swallows flying in the sky: having seen the birds, they would make a wish — to produce as much silk as the swallow weighed.
Wood carving and burning
In ancient times, Cyprus was covered with pine forests, and many naval powers would build their ships from the forests’ timber. The Cypriots themselves used wood for building fishing boats, manufacturing agricultural equipment and household instruments, as well as for heating. The art of wood carving spread across the island a little later: masters would create statues of deities and figures of people and animals; furniture and elements of a room’s decor were carved from wood.
In the middle of the 19th century, Lapithos became an important centre for wood carving on the island, its masters were reputed for their work, their magnificent flair for beauty and the skill used in their carvings.
The unique combination of a carver’s work and the emblazonment of chests, sideboards, china cabinets and shelves, by and large developed and prospered in Akanfu (near to the middle fo the 19th century). The carvers who resided here were considered the best in all the villages. The decorative motifs they used were of Greek and Byzantine origin, for instance, gorgons (actually mermaids) and angels. Amongst the other popular and traditional motifs, it is worth mentioning: cypresses, flowers in pots, birds and lions, palaces or cathedrals, two-headed eagles and grape vines. The works themselves were further dyed in a red, yellow, light blue or green colour.
Cypriot wood carving is traditionally split into two styles: spiritual and mundane. The spiritual style prospered from the start of the 16th century, when high, carved wooden iconostases began to be installed in many Cypriot churches. A sample of this carving design can be viewed in the iconostasis of Larnaca’s Church of Lazarus, built in the Barocco style, which houses 120 icons (1773-1782).
The mundane style of wood carving, in turn, is also split into two subtypes: urban and folklore. The urban style includes all types of over-sized furniture used by city folk: wardrobes, tables and armchairs. The main characteristics of the folklore (or village) carving style were its natural appearance, the absence of any strict proportions and the simplicity of its decor. For instance: chests, beds, tables, shelves, cupboards, and mirror frames.
In the present day, the village of Mutullas in the Maraphas valley is reputed across the whole of Cyprus for the work of its artisans. Today, thinly carved wood is produce for both household use and for artistic purposes. In fact, traditional chests used for storing linen, the base element of traditional furnishings, are still produced here today in several of the island’s workshops. The main decorative motifs on the facades are the same as they were centuries ago: geometric patterns, rosettas, flowers, birds, animals and also stylised images of famous buildings.
Another famous craft, which combines the works of carpenters, carvers and even masters of vine weaving, is the manufacture of traditional chairs.
Artisans of chair manufacture were called “Tsaeras”, with the construction of urban chairs with weaved seats differing from their rural “siblings”. Thus, in cities, chair artisans produced hand-made chairs of two types. One type in which all its details were sweepingly curved; and a second — with rectangular elements. The types of timber used consisted of: cypress wood, oak, sycamore, mulberry and so on.
The chair’s seat was created with a rope binding either made of natural thread or woven from straw. The chairs were decorated with small, low relief patterns (sometimes geometric). Masters would sometimes have to literally comb through an entire forest to find a tree with the wood suitable for their chairs: they would chop it down and leave it to dry out for several months, and only then would they set to work on it.
Pyrography or pyrograving (from the Greek: “drawing with fire”) is the art of decorating wood or other materials (leather, corks, felt or paper) by burning an image onto it. In the past it was considered a rare technique, though it did spread through a number of ancient African cultures, America and so on. In the 20th century, images began to be marked with a special appliance — a pyrograph.
The preliminary marking of a drawing was achieved with a burning hot needle or a magnifying glass, the lens of which concentrated the sun’s bright light.
Contemporary artists are able to acquire and use a large spectrum of tones and shades in their work: varying the type of outlet and the heating temperature of the pyrograph; “stamps” of smouldering iron are also applied (pyrotyping).
In Cyprus, in addition to being a very popular and widely used type of ornamental art, this technique is used in graphic arts. After the pattern has been etched, the wooden objects are often coloured. Masters consider the most suitable wood to be of a light-leaved species: sycamore, linden, beech and birch. Pine or oak are also sometimes used.
Vine Weaving: baskets, mats and the like
Basket weaving dates far back into ancient times. One can say that the fashioning of various items by weaving is one of the oldest and most widespread trades throughout all nations across the world, one which has continued to exist without any significant changes.
Today the island’s natural resources provide basket makers, just as they did long ago, with an abundance of the raw materials necessary for this craft: reeds and cane which grow on riverbanks and in flat-land areas; thin, flexible terpene brushes and pepper trees, wild olives and snowbell; the leaves of date palms and so on.
Like their predecessors, contemporary artisans require only a few tools in order to weave the widest variety of items, suitable for multiple uses. For instance, in the villages of Messaoria, basket weavers made large baskets which were coated inside and outside with clay and covered with lime, — thus they looked like clay pots, in which flour was kept. Large mats were woven from reeds and then placed on wooden beams supporting the ceiling. Artisans would fashion fishing nets (skarkes) out of the branches of wild olive trees. Large baskets were mainly used for transporting grapes. Twin baskets (sirizes), transporting salt extracted from salt lakes, were placed on the backs of donkeys. Workers would carry their lunch, consisting of olives and cheese, in small lidded baskets, known as “korololios”.
This popular vegetable from the gourd family grows in Cyprus, existing in various shapes and sizes. For many years, dried pumpkins with their pulp removed have been decorated and used on the island for practical purposes. The most widespread application has been for water bottles (vessels) amongst other things. Pumpkins are traditionally used in everyday life as wine pitchers, candles and containers for storing salt and olives. In many villages, people still decorate pumpkins with geometric patterns or floral motifs, in addition to carving animal images onto them with a knife or fiery hot poker.
One can find examples of this folk art in many souvenir shops.
Shadow theatres are the most popular form of visual art in the countries of Asia (dating back more than 1700 years). They are considered to have originated in India, despite the well-known fact that China and muslim countries also had their own original shadow theatres.
It also appeared one day in Greece and Cyprus: as is widely known, the origin of “Karagiozis” (from the Greek Καραγκιόζης, and from the Turkish Karagöz, — “black eye”) relates to the period of Ottoman rule over these lands.
In the 19th century Ottoman Empire, this popular type of folk theatre embodied a multinational theocratic society. The main character, the ardent Karagiozis, became a reflection of the ideas existing in society: this character possessed the traits of a jolly person, around whom various events and adventures took place. The uniqueness of this theatre type was determined by its features: the use of standardised symbols and scripts, a specific style and language dialogue, as well as improvisations.
The art of “shadow puppetry” was most widespread on the island at the turn of the 20th century, its representatives were artists from Greece, who regularly came to Cyprus for tours.
Since then, several of them have remained on the island, with the most significant of them being: Herasimos Kefalonitis (in 1900), Andreas Suliotis (in 1922) and Nikos Tsituris (in 1920). They would put on performances and taught the Cypriot people to make dolls, as well as the art and techniques used in shadow theatre. Harilaos Petropulos (from 1900 to 1911), Nikos Smirinos (1923), Antonis Agiomavritis (1928), Antonis Zinelis (1935) and Evgenios Spataris (at the start of the 1980s) were some other masters of this art form, who continued to live in Greece, while touring Cyprus.
However, the island’s indigenous people had the opportunity to converse with Greek artists when they voluntarily participated in the Greeks’ national battle for freedom; in the war of 1879, during the Balkan War (1912-13) and in both world wars. Amongst some of the Greek-Cypriots who fought, there was: Afinodoros Georgiadis, who lived in Greece from 1912-1918, Yorkos Lautaris Hadjiosif (a war volunteer in 1918), Costas Mavrotalassitis (1918) Christos Pais (1940) and so on.
And so, that’s all for now. Today, we have not only learnt a little about the types of trade, crafts and traditions practised by Cypriot folk….. We have slightly opened the door to the soul of the island’s people.
In the future, true adventures await us, as well as the chance to get more closely acquainted with the traditions and secrets of Cypriot craftsmen. Maybe, by travelling with us, you’ll want to try mastering one of them for yourself!
Until next time!