"A cloud of English sailed to Jerusalem;
then the wicked wretch sold our island to the Catholics."
Revered as a holy martyr, Neophytos was born on the island of Cyprus in the town of Lefkara and lived to see Richard the Lionheart's conquest of the island. He lived in a cave most of his life and was eventually killed for his faith; his historical value lies in the accounts he gave during the tumultuous era of The Crusades and his understanding of the various power shifts that occured during the time. Living from about 1134 to 1219, Neophytos embodied the model of a monastic life at the time. He shunned all material possessions and lived in utter seclusion.
He first entered the monastary of Saint John Chrysostomos at Koutsoventis as a novice. He desired to break off a marriage arranged by his parents. In 1158, he left Cyprus attempting to live as an anchorite near Jerusalem. Then, he reportedly had a vision which told him to return to his native island and he then found his retreat in the hills near Paphos. On the 24th of June, 1159 he officially took up seclusion in his cell in the caves. He dug alone, enlarging the place and finally finished it approximately a year later, on the 14th of September of 1160. He built an altar within the cave and even built his own tomb. This act would serve as the foundation for his monastic community which would later flourish there. In 1170, he was officially ordained priest by Bishop Vasilios Kinnamos of Paphos (1166-1205).
One of his more memorable works on monastic life is entitled Simplistic Verses of Contrition, which is a typical confession of sins that the man was supposedly guilty of and therefore, because of this transgression, he bound himself to such a barren life. From that piece:
"For me it is not proper that I speak or that I converse, it is not proper for me to be seen or again to see, nor to be fed upon food proper for human beings. For me it is proper that I keep mourning, day in day out, that I eat the dust of the earth and the leaves of the trees, that I drink my own tears, because of my own shameful acts, for I have surpassed excessively that prodigal son."1
Neophytos' most memorable achievement was his founding of the Agios Neophytos Monastery, a huge church which is made of rock. The actual church was built about 200 years after his death. It is about 10 km outside of Paphos, near the village of Tala. Some of the most beautiful Byzantine icons and frescos in the world from the 12th century through the 15th century are found here.
Neophytos is one of the best known religious leaders in the island's history who established a community of followers in caves near Paphos in Cyprus. Also, he had artists paint the walls of the caves above the monastary with scenes that depicted the lives of the various saints as well as the life of Christ himself. Neophytos named his cave section "enkleistra," which literally translated as "seclusion." Theodoros Apsevdis painted frescos in this cell of Neophytos. By 1199, the crowds of pilgrims had grown so numerous that he dug his cave further into the cliffs. Supposedly, his new cave was cut above a small chapel. There was a hole in the floor of the cave which allowed him to hear the services. He would only come down on Sundays to deliver sermons and to give instructions to his disciples. In his cell itself, his rock table and the platform of rock on which he slept are still preserved. His grave is also still there.
Interestingly enough, there was a short film made about the aspects of Neophytos' work in the caves above Paphos called A Window to Heaven: Saint Neophytos and the Icons of Wishful Thinking. It was made in 1990 and looks at the relationship between Neophytos' personal philosophy that is expressed in his writings and the representation of that through his cave images.