By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon
What is the specificity of Syriac Maronite architecture? What is the correlation between Syriac inscriptions and art? And what is the role of these inscriptions on the facade of Syriac Maronite churches? To answer these fundamental questions, we gathered 36 examples of churches across Lebanon. They all have inscriptions in Syriac letters, along with crosses and circles placed above the entrance, in common.
The larger elements, like the door, are on the base of the composition, followed vertically by smaller features like the rose window. For this reason, we call it “Soyumuto Poramidoyto”, the Pyramidal composition. This pyramid appears on Syriac Maronite churches all over Lebanon.
In Our Lady of Tamish (images 1 and 2) for instance, the door is framed by two windows surmounted by epigraphs. Above the door stands the cross, and higher is the rose window. One of the epigraphs is circular like a Host and contains a cross. It is dated 1670, and mentions Syriac Maronite Bishop Gabriel, Bishop Joseph of Blaouza and Patriarch Estephanos Douayhi.
Another example of these compositions is in the monastery of St John the Baptist in Rishmaya (images 3 and 4). Its epigraph is dated 1686. It is incorporated in a composition with the door, the cross and a window. The simplicity and purity of its text is obvious in form as much as in the content. It leaves is no place for virtuosity.
The same phenomenon appears in 1740 in Our Lady of Besré. Again we observe the door, the cross, the window, and the epigraph. Like in Rishmaya, the text is very simple and topped by three crosses. Two years later, in 1742, the composition is repeated in Our Lady of Zakrit. It is one of the simplest. Its epigraph is also modest, in form as well as in content.
In contrast, St Joseph of Débié (image 5) offers one of the richest and most complete compositions. The entrance’s tympanum contains all the items of the Soyumuto Poramidoyto or Pyramidal Composition. We notice the epigraphs, the crosses, the two stars and the fruits of the Eucharist. The stars are the sun and the moon: The Divinity and humanity of Christ. The Eucharist is clearly represented by the Host and the Chalice. The inscription is as simple as usual, with no place for any virtuosity. It is dated 1753.
Two years later, in 1755, in Our Lady of the Field in Dlebta (image 6), a sculptor shows his skills all over the church’s entrance: on the columns, on the lintel, and on the epigraph’s frame. But it was fundamental that all this richness stayed away from the inscription. Inside the frame, purity is the rule. Above the frame, is the tree of life, topped by the Chalice and the Host. The text mentions the year 1755, and the names of the priests as well as Syriac Maronite Patriarch Tobia Khazen.
Ten years later, in 1765, the church of St Joseph in Daraoun (image 7) was restored. The use of Phoenician megaliths for the jambs and for the superimposed lintels enhanced the pyramidal effect of the composition. The variation in stone color made the pyramidal effect increasingly apparent. The elements of the composition are here: The imposing entrance, the Cross, the epigraph, and the oculus (rose window) symbolizing the light of the Eucharist and the shape of the Host. Once more, the inscription’s style continues to respect the values of austerity, humility and extreme simplicity.
Mart Moura’s Church in Rishtaamout also shows an entrance with imposing masonry, a cross, an epigraph and an oculus, light and shape of the Eucharist. Its inscription is dated 1769, and its spelling is as simple as usual.
Despite the bigger scale of St George of Néemé (image 8), the composition is still based on the same principles. It shows the entrance, the cross, the epigraph, and the oculus. Notwithstanding the richness of this oculus, or rose window, the inscription continues to follow the tradition of simplicity. These values are even explicit in the text that advises us to stay away of the materialistic world and earthly feelings.
Even when the pyramid is not visible, the vertical composition is still there. In the monastery of Maad, for example, we notice the cross and the two stars inside the tympanum. They are all on a central vertical axes. Above, is the epigraph topped by the rose window. Despite two tiny rosettes, the inscription is still very simple. It just mentions the construction of the church by the monks of the Lebanese Order in 1797.
The verticality of the composition is also visible in St Morun church in Mazraat Yeshoua (image 9). On the base we have the door with the cross on its lintel. Above it, appears the osmoses between the oculus, or rose window, the epigraph, the cross, and the two stars. The inscription is curved and turns with the oculus’ shape. The sun and the moon testify to the divinity and humanity of Christ.
Sts Sergius and Bacchus church in Qartaba also shows us a very basic type of vertical composition. It shows the door, the epigraph and the cross. Its inscription is one of the most rudimentary. It mentions the names of Sts Sergius and Bacchus, and the year 1830. It doesn’t contain the slightest poetry, nor verbal virtuosity.
The church of Mor Shalita in Qotara (image 10), contains an interesting epigraph dated 1857. It is on the entrance’s lintel, surmounted by a big rose window. What is particularly interesting in this epigraph is the fact that it is engraved on the lintel together with all the other elements of the composition. The Syriac letters are there, with the Chalice and the Host, next to the cross on one single stone.
In Bkerké (image 11), the pediment also assembles all the elements together: The circle contains the cross and the Syriac inscription.
The church of Mor Awtél in Kfar Sgob, made use of white stone for all the elements of the composition. The contrast they produced next to the rest of the brownish facade, made the pyramidal composition clearly visible. Its epigraph is very simple. It mentions the construction of the church and it is dated 1776.
Most important for our research is the inscription on the door’s wood. It is dated 1882, and it defines the liturgical symbolic of the church’s door by stating the biblical verse of Isaiah 60:11. We read in Garshouné:
“Your gates will always stand open, they will never be shut, day or night”
It is directly followed by Psalm 5:7:
“I can come into your house; in reverence I bow down toward your holy temple.”
This is still chanted in every Maronite mass today:
“Lvaytokh aloho ‘élét wa qdom bim dilokh segdét”.
So the importance of the door, in itself, becomes very symbolic as part of the general Soyumuto Poramidoyto, the Pyramidal Composition. Above it, are always the cross and the representation of the Eucharist. We also notice that the inscription of the epigraph is necessarily free of any letter ornamentation or verbal virtuosity.
We can now conclude that there is a Syriac Maronite tradition in the architecture of the church facades. What is the message behind this pyramidal composition? And what is the meaning of each of its elements? In our next article we will discuss the theological dimension in this tradition.
Amine Jules Iskandar is President of Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
From the book “Epigraphie Syriaque au Liban – vol 2” , Amine Jules Iskandar, NDU Press, Louayzé, Lebanon, 2014