By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon
Do the Syriac Maronites have a unique character within the more general world of Christian Syriac art and architecture? After observing 36 Syriac Maronite church facades with Syriac epigraphs, we notice the omnipresence of a vertical composition revealing a pyramidal shape. What is the message behind this composition? And what is the meaning of each of the elements composing the imaginary pyramid?
The Church of Mor Awtél in Kfar Sgob, dated 1776, reveals the particular composition through the use of a different colors of stone within the pyramidal shape. All the elements are clearly determined:
* The entrance enhanced by its color.
* The cross.
* The symbol of the Eucharist.
* The Syriac script in its purity and extreme simplicity.
* The small opening symbolizing the light of the Eucharist.
This iconographical display is repeated in 36 examples gathered from across Lebanon. In this article, we will go through them briefly and try to analyze their continuity beyond the variations.
The pyramidal composition of Our Lady of Ilige (image 1), dated 1276, shows the striking entrance, the cross, the Syriac inscription, and the source of light at the top. We notice the same effect at St Shalita, dated 1628. Here again: the door, the circle of the Host, the cross, and the inscription.
Another pyramidal effect is at Our Lady of the Prairie (image 2), dated 1703. It shows an imposing composition for the door at the base of the pyramid. The lintel contains the cross, and the two cosmic signs, the sun and the moon, testifying to the humanity and divinity of Christ. The rose window above contains the shape and light of the Eucharist as well as the Syriac letters.
Four pyramidal examples (image 3) from Machmouché, Geita and Besri, each contain the recurring and imposing entrance, the crosses, Syriac inscriptions, and a circle or source of light symbolizing the Eucharist.
The pyramidal composition is very rich at St Joseph of Debié (image 4), dated 1753. It shows the imposing door signified by its megaliths, the crosses, the Syriac letters, and the Eucharist indicated by the chalice and the Host at the top. On each side, the sun and the moon are placed as witnesses of the humanity and divinity of Christ as clearly mentioned by St Ephraim the Syriac in the fourth century.
Another obvious pyramid is at St Joseph of Daraoun (image 5), dated 1765. Apart from the imposing megaliths, the crosses, the inscriptions, and the rose window, the pyramid strongly stands out by the dimensions and the color of the stones around and above the door. The color reveals the pyramid again at St Awtel’s Church, dated 1776. The second inscription on the wood also describes the door’s importance. Above it is the cross, followed by the chalice for the Eucharist. Higher, is the epigraph in Syriac letters, followed by the source of light.
St Abda (image 6)is dated 1797. Its entrance’s importance is expressed by the megaliths. The tympanum contains the cross and the two cosmic signs. And above is the epigraph. At the top, is the rose window, light and shape of the Host. Our Lady of the Seeds, or Saydet Zrou’, dated 1838, represents the most complete pyramidal composition, as it contains (image 7):
* The megaliths for the entrance.
* The epigraph in Syriac letters.
* The rose window, light and shape of the Host.
* The chalice just next to it.
* The cross with its two cosmic signs: ‘shémsho u sahro‘ (the sun and the moon).
* The two serpents, in Syriac ‘grossé‘.
St Shalita of Qotara, dated 1857, offers a unique example by concentrating all the elements of the pyramidal composition on the entrance’s lintel. It assembles the chalice, the Host, the Syriac inscription and the cross on one single stone.
Our Lady of Bkerké (image 9) has some sort of a pyramidal concept even though it is not on the church but on the entrance to the patriarchal monastery. Yet, the prevailing composition is respected as for the other churches. We can see the door, the cross, the circle and the Syriac inscription.
What is the purpose of this design on all of these facades composed along a vertical axis? What is the meaning of each of its components like the purity of the calligraphy, the cross, the cosmic signs, the source of light, the circle, and the chalice? To unveil all of these messages, we need to visit Our Lady of the Seeds, or Saydet Zrou’, in Kfifén.
Since this is the most complete composition, it will reveal the meaning of this architectural iconography. All of the representations and inscriptions are concentrated above the door, leaving the rest of the facade in absolute austerity. Like in an icon where the subject is isolated from the rest of the world to be preserved in Utopos (the no place), and Uchronos (the no time), the Syriac Maronite church facade becomes an icon. It knows no virtuosity because it is not intended to be enjoyed. It is destined to be read. And each part of it, each detail, has a profound meaning, a role and a message that we will discover here.
In Kfifén, what we are looking at is the Christic Cycle comprising each of its themes.
First theme: Melto, the Word. If the calligraphy can’t be embellished it is because it stands for the Word, The Verb, Melto in Syriac. The Word of God is absolute Truth, and can’t be alternated by any superfluous.
Second theme: Métgashmonuto, the Incarnation. Melto étgasham, the Word became flesh. The Word is incarnated in the body of Christ, represented here by the Chalice of wine and the oculus. This oculus is the shape and the light of the Host.
Third theme: Zqiputo, the Crucifixion. Jesus is crucified as shown by the cross, Slivo in Syriac, in the middle of the composition. But this cross is also the sign of Resurrection, Qyomto, as expressed by the rays of light shining diagonally from the center of this cross.
Fourth theme: Kawkbé, the two stars. On each side of the cross, wrote St Ephrem, Shemsho u Sahro, the sun and the moon, came to testify to the divinity and humanity of Christ, Alohuto u Noshuto. By mentioning the nature of Jesus, the Christic Cycle becomes a Christological Cycle.
Fifth theme: Suloqo, the Ascension. The entire composition draws the movement of a pyramid expressing the concept of Ascension. After becoming Flesh, after Passion and Crucifixion, the Cycle is accomplished by going back to the Word.
Sixth theme: Purqono, the Salvation.
Syriac Maronite art is always related to Soteriology, meaning the theology of Salvation. If we look carefully at the iconographical facade of Our Lady of the Seeds, we notice the representation of knowledge, that is the two serpents of Good and Evil. They are the serpents of sin, as opposed to the fruit of life: the Eucharist or incarnation of the Word. Christ saved us through his sacrifice. His body, in Syriac Pagro, is our fruit of life. He is real Bésro u dmo, flesh and blood. He is Purqono, He is the Salvation.
The Christic Cycle starts with the Word represented by the epigraph, and embodied by the purity of the Syriac script and by the simplicity of the text. There is no place for embellishment, nor any tolerance for virtuosity.
In contrast, Our Lady of Gosta also presents a pyramidal composition.
Above its door, we see the epigraph, the sun and the moon, the lily flower, grace of God, and the cross. But the Arabic calligraphy of its epigraph is a profusion of virtuosity in the movements of the letters and in the style of the text. There is no convocation of the Word. There is no Melto. And without the Word, there is no Christic Cycle.
This is precisely what we loose when we abandon our Syriac script.
For the Syriac Maronites, Melto, the Word, is signified by the Syriac script. Its incarnation is shown by the Oukaristia, the Eucharist. The Chalice and the Host on top of the composition, in Debié’s church, are Piré d Hayé: the fruits of life. Shemsho (the Sun), and Sahro (the Moon) are on the sides. Slivo (the cross) is the victory over death. And the serpents (grossé), as seen in Kfifén, are the fruits of Evil, defeated by the fruit of life.
Through its Christic Cycle, the Syriac Maronite facade becomes an icon of Redemption and Salvation. All of the themes and their representations are assembled in a movement of Ascension. From the Word through the mystery of Incarnation, the Word becomes flesh. The Syriac Maronite iconographical facade is the illustration of the Bible verse of St John 1:1:
Brishit itawo Melto
W hu Melto itawo lwot Aloho
WAloho Itawo hu Melto
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God
And then in John 1:14. The Incarnation is accomplished.
U Melto Besro hwo
And the Word became flesh
The Syriac Maronite iconographical facade is the illustration of these Biblical verses.
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