The Nativity, The Presentation in the Temple, The Baptism and the Transfiguration
The murals on the southern half of the central part of the arch of the nave consist of four scenes depicting significant moments of the early life of Christ. They portray the Nativity and Presentation in the Temple (above) and the Baptism and Transfiguration (below). These scenes were developed and painted within a grid, typical of the Late Byzantine forms of Gospel cycle paintings in Cyprus and elsewhere.
These frescoes date back to the late thirteenth early fourteenth century, when the interior masonry of the naos and bema area faced structural issues and a reinforcement seemed inevitable.
Attention must be paid to the presence of these four scenes, which are exemplary of Middle Byzantine imagery in Cyprus, in the fourteenth-century fresco repertoire of Asinou. Namely, it is unusual how a Middle Byzantine canon was encapsulated into a Late Byzantine iconographic cycle. This is unique, as no fourteenth-century cycle of Christ’s early life survives on Cyprus, other than that at Asinou, contributing as an exceptional paradigm.
The group of the southern part of the vault begins with the Nativity. A triangular mountain dominates the scene with a large, seated Mary within the cave, Jesus in a stone manger, overlooked by an ox and ass and above him the star of Bethlehem. In the bottom left corner, Joseph and two sheep are turned in the direction of Mary, while the bottom right corner is occupied by the scene of the bath. Above this, there is a piping shepherd who turns his face to an angel, emerging from behind the mountain. Corresponding to the other side, three magi and two angels can be seen behind the slope of the mountain and an arc of Heaven hangs from the top frame. In terms of style, a smooth tentativeness is something that characterises the figures of the Nativity scene.
Motifs of direct parallel from the scene to earlier paintings in Cyprus can be easily discerned. The churches of Lagoudera and Asinou share the same composition of Nativity, the piping shepherd resembles that at Pera Chorio and the handkerchief in Mary’s hand and the crouching Joseph are both quoted from Moutoullas. Thus, it can be easily stated that the Asinou Master was inspired by local models, although embodied in a more simplified manner. Nevertheless this inspiration encompasses an important fact. The late Comnenan cycles of wall-paintings, especially those of Lagoudera, played a major role in the decorative motifs of Asinou. Those cycles had become classic as early as the earlier Byzantine painting and it would be unsurprising if some were already available in the original frescoes of Asinou.
On the other hand, characteristics of the Palaiologan art are present, as well. The treatment of the landscape and especially the use of light on features are attributes of Palaiologan painting that have been aroused by contemporaneous Byzantine cases such as the Nativity at Saint Nicholas of the Roof.
Consequently, it is evident that a blend of Middle and Late Byzantine characteristics arise in the scene of Nativity at Asinou.
The group of scenes goes on with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. In this scene, surprisingly, two contradictory things happen. On the one hand, there is no hint of tentativeness as attested in Nativity scene. The clothes have richly heaped drapery folds, robust volumes in the limbs and facial features and a decorative play of colour and ornament in the background. On the contrary, in terms of iconography, the scene is characterised as totally traditional and conservative. Mary, holding the child and Symeon face one another in front of the altar of the Holy Holies; Joseph follows her carrying two pigeons and Anna stands behind Symeon, bearing a scroll on which it was written: 'This is the child who established heaven and earth'. Even though, from the thirteenth century onward, in this scene Symeon holds the child, at Asinou the painter or painters still draw Mary holding the child. Hence based on the style, this fresco composition could be assigned to the painting of 1106 A.D. Finally, the presence of the star of Bethlehem inside the cave is a representative example of a mingled Italian and Byzantine imagery body which is established on Cyprus as early as the fourteenth century.
The scene of Baptism is situated below that of the Nativity. In the representation, Christ stands in the river which has the shape of a cone with ten fishes and a figure personifying the River Jordan. John the Baptist makes a gesture toward Christ’s head as a dove descends from an arc of Heaven and while six angels reach from the right.
Conservatism can be discerned in this scene, too. The cape-like tunic and the bare minimum clothes of John, the cross-legged position of Jesus, the standing figure of Jordan lifting his face to Christ’s gesture of blessing are all characteristics of the conservatism of the previous represented painting style.
As in the Nativity scene, iconographic and stylistic characteristics reflect the force of other twelfth-century trends from Pera Chorio, Lagoudera, Kalogrea, Ksilotimbou, Kato Lefkara and Monagri on the inspiration of fourteenth-century painter or painters. These characteristics are the twist of Christ’s body, the bevy of angels, and the strange figure of Jordan.
Ending, the Transfiguration is the last scene of the four attested on the southern part of the vault of the central arch. The depth of meanings for the Transfiguration scene regarding its theological content was heightened during the Palaiologan period, likewise for the Baptism.
Iconographically, Christ is surrounded by a mandorla in a mountainous landscape, Elijah stands to his right side and Moses to his left. John lies on the Christ’s feet, while Peter has kneeled and James stands on one knee on the right. The stylistic trends of the late thirteenth early fourteenth-century representation of the scene do not succeed in conveying the emotions of the late twelfth-century figures or the shocked and keeled over postures of the disciples in the Palaiologan art.
In sum, the same four scenes should have occupied the southern part of the vault in the initial imagery program of 1105 A.D. However it would be entirely hypothetical to say how those looked due to the combination of different geographical and temporal characteristics.