Norbertines on the Med

Today’s saint, St Barnabas, Our Blessed Lord and the novice all have something in common: that is, they were all born in the same diocese (by current geographic reckoning, of course). St Barnaby and I were both Cypriot-born (Cyprus being within the Latin diocese of Jerusalem), and so it seems fitting to mention briefly the Norbertine presence on that island, which lasted until the thirteenth to the sixteenth-centuries.

The Abbey of Our Lady of the Mountain (commonly known in contemporary times as Piscopia Abbey) was founded by the Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre, under the auspices of the French King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, Almaric II (known to modern historians as Aimery), at about the turn of the thirteenth century (Aimery was King of Cyprus between 1194 and 1205). The canons had been expelled from the Holy Land, along with all Christian monastic and chivalric orders (including some Norbertines), after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187.

These religious, looking for a new home, were charitably received by the king, and given an old episcopal palace on the north coast of the island; we do not know the exact date of the foundation, but the building work began in 1198. These canons, however, quickly decided to affiliate themselves with the Norbertine Order, already well-established by now on the continent, and the monastery became a Premonstratensian canonry in 1206.

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The Norbertines began enlarging the monastery, using the most popular French architectural styles of the time. The ruins today are considered by architectural historians as the most important example of gothic architecture in the Levant.

With the support of the French-Cypriot kings, the abbey became an important pilgrimage site, and the abbot was given many chivalric privileges – including a right to wear golden spurs. There were about 50 canons at its height. The kings frequently stayed in the abbey themselves, and so were keen to support its expansion; some of the kings were buried there.

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As was often the case in the later Crusader period, Christian sites became a target for (mainly Italian) mercenaries, and Our Lady of the Mountains was not spared. The Genoese plundered the abbey in 1373, stealing the large relic of the True Cross, and many of the sacristy’s appurtenances and works of art. The house never recovered from this, and, unfortunately, the canons began to turn away from a life of holiness, and the abbey became a place of ill-repute, a scandal to the whole of Christendom. During this time, the abbey (and its environs) became known as Bellapais Abbey, a corruption of Abbaye de la Paix, though the reason for this has been lost in the mists of time.

The Order was expelled from Cyprus in 1571, and the abbey became an Orthodox church. Many of the locals claimed descent from the canons (for many of them remained and started families after the expulsion), but the ethnic cleansing of Cyprus after the Turkish invasion in 1974 saw the Greek population leave the area, and the church itself was closed by the occupying forces in 1976. Today, the site is a museum and civic venue.

Pray for the souls of the canons of Bellapais, and may St Barnaby also pray for the restoration of peace and concord to Cyprus, and for unity between the Catholic Church and the the Orthodox christians.

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