The church of Panagia Phorviotissa, or Panagia Asinou (Panagia is the Greek name for the Mother of God), named after the nearby village, is located in the northern foothills of the Troodos mountains that dominate the intrior of Cyprus, on the east bank of a stream, three kilometers south of Nikitari village. According to the dedicatory inscription above its south entrance, the church was built between 1099 and 1105 CE. The donor was a local magistrate, Nikiphoros Ischyrios, who, after his wife’s death, took monastic vows under the name Nikolaos. Asinou was the katholicon (monastery church) of the Monastery of Phorvion, which was dissolved in 1825 CE; the church is the only remainder of the monastic building complex to survive.
The church consists of two parts: the vaulted single-aisled nave and the narthex, the latter having been added in the second half of the 12th century. The narthex with its two semi-circular apses and calotte belongs to a type directly influenced by Constantinople. In the highland style, a steep-pitched timber roof, covered with flat tiles, shelters the vault. The structure has frequently suffered damage from earthquakes and other natural disasters. Towards the turn of the 13th/14th century, the conch of the apse collapsed, but was soon rebuilt and redecorated, and the exterior reinforced with external buttresses. Shortly after, the flying buttress at the eastern end of the north wall was built.
The interior of the church is painted with vivid, colourful frescoes depicting scenes from the Orthodox Christian faith, and is among the most cherished sites in Cyprus. It was painted immediately after the construction of the nave in 1105/6 CE in the latest style of the Comnenian period. These are the earliest original and most important paintings in the church, many of which are preserved in the apse of the Holy Bema (sanctuary) and the east and west wall of the church (initial layer of paintings), such as The Dormition of Virgin Mary, the Assumption and the Communion of the Apostles and Panagia Phorviotissa on the arch over the original entrance to the church. They are distinct in their colour, rhythm and harmony, the restrained expression and mobility of movement. Experts believe that they are some of few surviving frescoes that reflect the technique of Constantinople, thought to be the birthplace of the artist. The strong influence of the Empire’s capital can be explained by the fact that the prevailing geopolitical conditions of the time led Alexios Comnenos (1081-1118 CE) to establish Cyprus as his most important military base of the north-eastern Mediterranean.
The narthex was also decorated with mural paintings soon after it was built, and was redecorated in 1332/3 CE with strong Frankish influences. In this layer, follwoing the iconographic programme of the 14th century, a large number of donors can be distinguished. Only parts of the original frescoes in the 12th-century narthex have survived and can be detected underneath using modern imaging methods. The most interesting scene in the “portrait gallery” of the numerous 13th-century donors is a mounted St. George painted on the southern arch of the narthex as a votive wall painting of a certain Nikiphoros Kallia. Also significant is the wall painting of the Virgin Mary with two Frankish donors on the semi-dome of the southern arch of the narthex, in which the female donor wears a long black veil, common amongst refugees from Syria to Cyprus mourning the fall of Acre in 1291.
Several frescoes dating from the 17th century also survive in the church, including that of Christ Emmanuel in the sanctuary. That these paintings span different eras is the result of the various redecorations that have taken place throughout the lifetime of the monument. Many are considered to be among the most important representatives of Byzantine style.
In 1985, Asinou church was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage monument belonging to the Troodos Painted Churches group, in which various trends of Byzantine and post-Byzantine monumental art have been preserved, created from the 11th to the 19th century. The church of Asinou is visited by 30,000 tourists per year, and many Cypriot babies are still baptised there. Accessibility through well-graded roads, the picturesque setting in the foothills of the Troodos mountain and of course, the colourful interior of the monument make Our Lady of Asinou one of the top sightseeing destinations in Cyprus.