Nicosia, Cyprus touts itself¯mournfully but with a dash of pride¯as the worlds last divided capital. The southern side, which is muscularly Orthodox when not pedantically secular, boasts dozens of lovingly tended churches and several active, impressive mosques. On a research trip this month to Cyprus, I was surprised to discover that crossing the south-north Nicosia boundary was far from the elaborate procedure my outdated guidebook warned it would be. Greek and Turkish shoppers leisurely strolled past the checkpoint, often without even flashing documents. The DMZ now features potted plants and murals of happy children on the walls.
Nicosias northern, Turkish side, however, proved strikingly different. This part of the city boasted only mosques. The art historical glory of Cyprus is its exquisitely frescoed churches, and I had long heard horror stories of frescoed northern churches now used as stables. I had been told, however, to take such politically charged reports with a grain of salt. But the rumors are true; the churches I hoped to visit in the north were in ruins, piles of historically charged rubble. After some fruitless wandering for ecclesial life, I visited a soaring Gothic Cathedral, now a mosque. Christ, Mary, and the saints were drowned in white paint, and the sole testimony to Christianity that endured was a lonely lamb carved into the boss where the groin vaults met in the portico.
This point was driven home when I continued my wandering on Nicosias more art historically fruitful southern side. After the requisite church and museum visits, I walked under some flying buttresses and entered another sprawling Gothic church that now serves as a mosque. It is a sight to ponder: the architectural glory of western Christendom, whitewashed within, capped by confident minarets without. An Algerian youth on the lookout for tourists approached me to practice his English. He enthusiastically told me of the exploits of Hannibal and how Cyprus was one of the first, and therefore aboriginally privileged, Islamic lands. I listened while looking up at the tell-tale groin vaults. I asked him about the history of the building. His immediate reply: Always a mosque. One did not need a Ph.D. in medieval architecture to question his answer.
I sincerely hope that my experience at the Gothic mosques in Nicosia is not a taste of what the future may hold for Christian architecture, but I was comforted both by the fact that a church becoming a mosque ensures the buildings survival, and by the knowledge that things could be worse. The whitewashed mosques of Nicosia bear an uncanny resemblance to the Protestant churches of Amsterdam. A most famous example is Amsterdams Oude Kerk which, in 1566 and 1578, was whitewashed by Protestant enthusiasts (with the exception of ceilings they couldnt reach). It might seem a low blow to suggest that a church nestled among prostitution booths has not fulfilled its call to be salt and light in the surrounding community. However, recent visitors to the Oude Kerk know better than to exempt it from responsibility. On a visit there in 2005, I witnessed risqué art exhibits in the sanctuary space¯a trend that, I learned from a more recent visitor, has escalated to include a near-pornographic video installation. The saturation, one might suggest, is complete. Odd how Protestant iconoclasm¯initially a sometime good-intentioned attempt to rid the church of idolatry¯has in retrospect paved the way for her to resemble the temples of Aphrodite where prostitutes once lined the sanctuary as well.
One would like to think that America, having largely missed the glories of church decoration in the first place, is exempt from such whitewashing. But my recent visit to a church in the Boston area proved otherwise. After the scandals that rocked that diocese, an Evangelical congregation was able to purchase an impressive Catholic church in a prime neighborhood. I visited the church one Sunday to see what they had done with the space. The barrel vault is now naked white, and soundboards hang from the ceiling to facilitate the acoustic rock-worship. The church has been completely reoriented, or to be etymologically exact, disoriented. The eastern end, where the apse and altar once were, has been refitted as an entrance, lined with flashy welcoming literature. This takes seeker-sensitivity to an entirely new level: In the holiest part of the sanctuary now stands the newcomer. In early Church history, catechumens were asked to leave during the Eucharist (the disciplina arcani ), and now, following the apotheosis of the seeker, they have almost replaced it. A look upwards reveals another accommodation made to those uncomfortable with the privileging of saints. While a strip of original artwork in the church mercifully survived, the communio sanctorum that had once filled the apse has been, following the Nicosia-Amsterdam school of church decoration, plastered over.
Saints, however, have a marvelous track record of rebound. In Ohrid for the last leg of my research trip, I entered the massive basilica of St. Sophia, perhaps the most important site of Slavic Christianity. The walls there too had also been covered, owing to the time when the church had served as a mosque under Ottoman rule. Perhaps it was only this whitewash that enabled them to survive. A thorough cleaning in 1949 uncovered acres of extremely rare eleventh-century frescos, a cloud of whitewashed witnesses, now revived.
All is not lost then for Nicosia mosques, Amsterdam churches, and New England worship centers, granting that the heroic, underappreciated profession of fresco restoration endures. In the meantime, however, a lesson of both Church and art history emerges: Whitewashing images of old saints is an effective way to prevent new ones.
Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com .