By Dr. Michael Erdman Curator of the Turkish and Turkic Collections at the British Library
As a commemoration, Easter encapsulates the central miracle of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The focal point of all four Gospels is the story of Jesus’ execution by Roman soldiers, followed by His return to life. For millions of Christians around the world, the narrative of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, betrayal by Judas Iscariot, march through the streets of the city, and eventual crucifixion on Golgotha provide the framework for a week of prayer, meditation, fasting, and celebration. Key aspects of this saga have so permeated the cultures and traditions of predominantly Christian communities as to become cliché, handy for the description of the mundane and outlandish alike. To call someone a Judas is to highlight their propensity to betray friends; even Lady Gaga included this reference in her 2011 song of the same name. Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are a trope for the wages of treachery. Golgotha has been recycled by demagogues and ideologues of all stripes to designate the site of crushing defeats suffered by supposedly anointed nations and clans. And, of course, the Last Supper, Jesus’ final repast, has been used in countless iterations, stretching from the sombre to the satirical.
Such key events in the final days of Christ and His resurrection are also mirrored in artwork throughout the Christian world. For Western audiences, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (L’Ultima Cena) is perhaps the most iconic rendering of these paschal scenes, but it is by no means the only one. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ persecution, execution and resurrection have long been favourite topics for Syriac painters, especially those tasked with the illumination and illustration of liturgical and theological texts. The British Library, which has one of the largest collections of Syriac manuscripts in the world, is fortunate enough to be the custodian of several volumes featuring exquisite illustrations of the Easter story. From December 2019 until March 2020, I benefitted from the opportunity of cataloguing a number of these, in preparation for their digitisation and publication on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page. While this project is now delayed due to the COVID-19 shutdown, I feel it apt to provide a sneak preview of some of these fantastic works just in time for the celebration of Easter (April 12 according to the Gregorian calendar; April 19 on the Julian one).
The four Gospels of the New Testament relate a host of encounters between Jesus and various historical figures. All of these provide the opportunity to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers, as well as the wisdom embodied in both his earthly and divine beings. It is his entry into Jerusalem (commemorated on Palm Sunday), however, that marks the start of the Passion, the drama of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Two manuscripts within the British Library collections contain wonderful renderings of Jesus’ arrival to the spiritual centre of Judea. The first, Add MS 7170, is a 13th-century lectionary, possibly from northern Syria. The image is a spectacular one, and if it looks familiar to you, it might be because it was featured as part of a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. It’s not just the quantity of gold used by the illustrator that draws in the reader: the diversity of expression, ethnicity, and attire of the various individuals pictured, as well as the detail of the flora, fauna, and buildings make this image a true feast for the eye. It also betrays a certain level of Byzantine influence (according to Leroy) or possibly Armenian influence (in the estimation of Raby and Brock), marking the many different realms whose cultural sway impacted the development of art and literature among Syriac speakers. Further discussion of these influences, as well as the role of Islamic art in the evolution of Syriac iconography, can be found in this scholarly article by Bas Snelders.
Compare this to the second image of Christ’s entry into the holy city, taken from Or. 3372. Originally thought to be a 12th– or 13th-century manuscript, Julian Raby and Sebastian Brock have argued that this Harklean gospel lectionary is actually from several centuries earlier. Copied in Turabdin (near Mardin, Turkey), its image of Jesus entering Jerusalem is remarkably different, but no less complex, than the one found in Add MS 7170. Despite the damage to the pigment and the fading of colours, it is easy to see a greater attention to depth, whether in the branches and leaves of the trees, or in the swirling and pleating of the holy men’s cloaks. The differences in architecture, too, beg the question of illustrators’ reliance on the dominant styles of buildings in their respective periods and places, and how much such visual cues seeped into their imagining of Roman Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
From the entry into Jerusalem, our next stop is the Last Supper, as popular among Syriac artists as it was with European painters and sculptors. The first manuscript illustration comes from Add MS 7169, a 12th-century Syriac lectionary. We are immediately faced with another style of representation, one that is flatter and more schematic than the images found in Or. 3372 or Add MS 7170. Discussed briefly in the Raby and Brock article (as well as in Jules Leroy’s 1964 monograph and a piece by Meyer Schapiro in The Art Bulletin behind JSTOR’s paywall), these two authors refer to the item as “problematic” and “enigmatic”. They speculate that it too might come from Turabdin, and cautiously reiterate Leroy’s hypothesis that it bears traces of very early Christian iconography, possibly even being part of the Melitene grouping of artworks. Whatever its origins and connections, Add MS 7169 bird’s-eye view of the table is beautiful. Jesus is standing in the bottom-left corner of the work, while His Disciples are seated around the table in a scene reminiscent more of a Chinese restaurant than Leonardo’s masterpiece. This is the big reveal: Jesus’ admission that he knows he has been betrayed; thrown under the bus, to use the modern parlance, by the man seated to his left, Judas Iscariot. Compare this to the far more detailed example from Add MS 7170 (at the start of the blog), in which Jesus’ likeness has now been defaced. Here, we are treated to an engrossing cross-section of the table with the diners all seated in a semicircle in what looks to be a well-appointed establishment, a lone cock parading before them.
From the Last Supper, we pass over Jesus’ procession through the streets of Jerusalem (captured today in the Via Dolorosa), right to the nadir of His time on Earth: the Crucifixion. The two images above of the Son of God nailed to the Cross come from Add MS 7169 and Add MS 7170 respectively, demonstrating, once again, the artists’ differing views on both representation and content. This episode is both a reflection of humanity’s failings and a confirmation of Christ’s sacrifice. After having been betrayed by His Disciple Judas and condemned by His community and the authorities alike, the Son dies for humanity’s sins. It is the ultimate means of redemption and salvation, cementing two core themes of Christian faith. In Add MS 7169, we see two scenes: first Jesus’ seizure by the Romans, and then His execution. The latter incorporates the two thieves between which Christ was crucified, as well as two soldiers stabbing him, while two angels fly overhead. This is a more literal take on Christ’s death, a bluntness of approach that is reflected in the bold lines and flat plane of the image. Contrast it to the painting found in Add MS 7170, where delicate lines and complex patterns hold sway. The image is much more didactic in nature, replacing the two thieves with the likenesses of various supporting characters who appear throughout the Passion. Part of the image is also allegorical. In addition to the angels watching the Crucifixion, Add MS 7170 has two other sets of winged creatures. Those to the right of Jesus, flying away from Him, are identified as “the congregation who hated Him” (ܟܢܘܫܬܐ ܕܣܢܬܗ) while those on His left, looking at Him and collecting His blood in a cup, are labeled as “the church that received Him” (ܥܕܬܐ ܕܩܒܠܬܗ). In this case, the artist was especially keen on showing the direct descent of the church – probably his Church – from the blood and sanctity of Christ. Interesting too is the fact that, although both images contain text, they do not have the words uttered by Jesus himself while on the Cross: Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? (Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?; ܐܝܠ ܐܝܠ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ in Syriac).
The same day of Jesus’ death, He was taken down and buried, as befits Jewish custom, by a Jew identified as Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospel of Mark. This is marked on Good Friday, three days before Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. While the Syriac manuscripts in the British Library’s holdings do not show Jesus in his tomb, they do show the revelation of His resurrection through imagery relating to the discovery of an empty burial chamber. In Add MS 7174, a Gospel copied in 1499 CE near Mosul, Iraq, Saint Mary Magdalene is portrayed as finding the empty tomb accompanied by Jesus Christ (who is partially effaced), two angels, and six “sinful Jews who gathered(?)” (ܝܗܘܕܝܐ ܚܛܝܐ ܩܒܘܐ). Among the most remarkable aspects of this particular illustration is the variation in attire between it and the miniatures found in the other manuscripts. Here, all the men are wearing turbans and something more akin to a cloak worn by a local cleric than the flowing robes found in the other texts.
The flattened plane in Add MS 7174 is also a noteworthy characteristic, one at odds with the imagery in Add MS 7169. Here, we have a frontal view of two women meeting the risen Christ, as well as cowering guards. The tomb is far more elaborate a structure, and if you look at the top of its arch, you can spot a cross in the decoration; perhaps identifying it as a sacred space for contemporary Christians.
The most complex of the Resurrections, however, is the one found in Add MS 7170. Here, it is three women who find the empty tomb, this time with a clear image of Christ’s shroud inside the structure. Jesus and the holy women are also accompanied by an unidentified angel. The intricate detail on the various trees, and the embellishment on the tomb and in the border, are matched by the depth of emotion shown in the two weeping guards in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. This image of the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb is also featured on the British Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts portal; an excellent tool for learning about religion and its influence on textual cultures the world over.
The final element of the Easter story that has produced a wide swathe of beautiful images in Syriac manuscripts is the Cross. With the spread and development of Christianity, the means of Jesus’ execution, the crucifix, become the most common and recognizable symbol of the faith. Many manuscripts from Christian cultures feature this visual cue. Syriac manuscripts occasionally have crosses embossed in their leather bindings or painted on the folios at the start or end of the text. Those that are illustrated in pigment are often composed of a mosaic of multicoloured squares. Add MS 7154, a Psalter copied in 1203 CE at Salah (also known as Barıştepe) near Turabdin, holds a faded but beautiful example, inked in six colours of the rainbow. Another cross is found at the end of Add MS 7169, one that includes a wider range of colours, as extra shades of pinks and white are also employed in the decoration of the crucifix. The border of dark red and blue swirling bands is a bold addition, but not bold enough to distract the viewer’s eye from the pencil lines indicating the artist’s process. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska has written about the methods of creating such works of art, but it was Raby and Brock who identified this particular example, as well as one from Or. 3372, as being unique for their inclusion of jewelled elements, visible here on the ends of the object.
The British Library’s holdings of Syriac manuscripts point to the rich and complex artistry of bookmaking among Syriac-speaking communities, as well as their traditions around the story of Easter. The items shown here, a small fraction of the Library’s collections, will soon be digitized and available for all to enjoy and study. Until then, we will have to be satisfied with the depiction of the Passion of Christ in this select group, and the simple Syriac greeting used at churches around the world on Easter Sunday: Qom mašiḥo! Šariro’ith qom! Christ is risen! Truly, he is risen!