Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 11: Syriac Maronite Frescoes

ܗܺܝܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܳܝܬܐ ܕܰܒܠܶܒܢܳܢ

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union–Tur Levnon

When one travels to Greece, Cappadocia, France, Ravenna in Italy or to any other ancient Christian country, one discovers the magnitude and splendor of the art of frescoes. But did you ever suspect the existence of the world’s largest collection of Syriac frescoes being in the mountains of Lebanon!? Aside from the two wonderful examples of the Saint Moses Monastery in modern Syria and the Monastery of the Syriacs in Egypt’s Sinai, most of the heritage of Syriac frescoes resides in Lebanon. They are mainly medieval, except for the patriarchal example in the Monastery of Cannobin. Lebanon is a living Syriac open-air museum: from the Mar Theodoros of Behdidet Church in the Jbeil Region to the Mar Séba of Eddé in the Batroun Region, passing through Mar Charbel of Maad, Our Lady of Kaftoun, and many more of the remaining frescoes that survived here and there in churches, chapels, and caves.

Mar Charbel Church, Maad

We will start our journey in the historical church of Mar Charbel in Maad. This Phoenician temple was rebuilt by the Romans and converted into a church during the Byzantine period. It was named after Saint Charbel, the Syriac Saint of Edessa, martyred in the middle of the third century. All of its richness and diversity becomes obvious as soon as we enter the narthex and then the nave. And we see the many Corinthian, Doric, and iodic columns all mixed in one space. In the tenth century the church was ornamented with Syriac frescoes, and again during the Middle Ages when it was restored by the Crusaders. It was enriched with even more Syriac frescoes.

The first composition to be seen is the one of the apse. The person recognizable in the center might be Mar Charbel of Edessa and, on each side, St Peter and St Paul followed by four evangelists. St Peter is of course the one holding the Key. The tradition here is in the ancient Syriac style: all the faces are identical, and differentiation is only obtained by the color of the hair and beards. The script used in these frescoes is the Estranguélo (or monumental Syriac) script in white paint.

On each side of the apse there is an absidiole. From the left absidiole we can access the Phoenician temple podium just behind the Syriac Maronite altar. From the right absidiole we enter what could maybe be the most beautiful and important chapel of Lebanon: the Chamber of the Dormition. Inside this chamber we are propelled into another world. The world of contemporaneity with Christ and his Saints. On one hand we are in the presence of an important person that could be Mar Maroun, Saint Cyprian or maybe Mar Charbel of Edessa. Next to him, stands a woman saint. If the man was St Cyprian, then this woman would be St Justine. But if the man is Mar Charbel, then here we are in the presence of his sister Babai, martyred like him between 236-250 AD.

If the spectator now turns to the left, there, on the south wall, is the big fresco of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Mary is on her bed surrounded by saints and angels. Above her body is Jesus Christ holding a baby in white, symbolizing Mary’s soul. As common in the iconographical tradition, St Peter is bending towards her head. He has white hair – he is in the lower part of the photograph. Also, respecting tradition, St Paul is bending towards Mary’s feet. Mary is shown sleeping, not dead. The tonsure, or shaved head, seen just behind her, reveals a Franc influence imported by the Crusaders.

Again, like in the apse, the faces are all alike, only differentiated by the color of hair. We can also say the same about the expressions. To express pain and sadness, the hands are holding the faces. There is no significant expression drawn in the eyes or on any other part of the face.

You can also watch episode 11 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv


St Theodoros of Behdidet, Jbeil (Byblos) Region

Another Church-Museum is St Theodoros in Behdidet in the Jbeil Region. It is also medieval but smaller in size. Yet, its fresco is probably one of the most complete medieval examples in Lebanon. The entire apse is painted as well as its base, its upper arch, and the two sides. It too contains a marvelous Deisis typical of most Syriac Maronite churches. A Deisis shows Christ sitting in Glory with the Tetramorph or four creatures of the evangelists, as well as the cherubim, seraphim, St Mary and St John. And at the base of this Deisis are also the 12 apostles and evangelists.

All this representation is from the New Testament. But if we move outside the apse’s arch, the Old Testament appears (Image 5). We can perfectly distinguish the sun, the moon, and two scenes from the Old Testament. To the right, God hands Moses the 10 commandments. As the representation of God is forbidden in Christian iconography, we only see His hand. Moses is clearly identified by the Syriac white inscription: Moushé nviyo or Moses the Prophet.

To the left side, the white inscriptions identify Abraham (Avrohom) and Isaac (Ishoq). This is therefore, the theme of Abraham’s Sacrifice. We can also observe a medallion with the image of Jesus Christ Immanuel. And the inscription says: Ammanuel, the Immanel, the-God-with-us.

Still outside the apse’s arch, but on the lower part, is the theme of the Annunciation (Image 6). To the right stands the Virgin Mary, and opposite to her is the Archangel Gabriel to whom she is listening carefully. But if we go back to the apse’s vault, inside the Deisis, we find another representation of Mary, this time facing St John who is holding up his arms. His name is written in white Syriac letters: Youhanon. More to the center, in Jesus hand, is a book. It is mainly in Syriac, but also contains some Greek words. And next to Jesus on each side, stands an angel carrying the inscription of the Trisagion, meaning the triple Qadish.

To the right, the angel is one of the cherubim as clearly noted in white Syriac letters next to the wings. We read Krouvé or Cherubim. The multiple eyes covering the wings express the awakening, because the Cherubim are guardians also called in Syriac ‘iré, the Awaken. To the left, the angel is one of the Seraphim as identified by the white Syriac letters next to the panel he is holding. We read Srouphé or Seraphim.

If we leave the vaulted part of the apse to go down to its base where the Apostles are, we can recognize them one by one, immediately fixating the spectator’s eyes. Like in the church of Maad, they are painted characteristically and only differentiated by the type and color of the hair. They can however be very clearly identified thanks to the Syriac vertical inscriptions in black ink. St Andrew has white hair. His name is written in Syriac: Andraos (Image 10).

St Mark’s (Image 9) name is also written in Syriac: Morcos, or Marcos. Like all the others, he is isolated under an arch fixed on two thin columns. After Andrew and Mark, is St Matthew, written Mattay. Surprisingly, if his name is written in Syriac Serto (cursive) script, while St Peter’s name, Petrus, is written in Estranguélo (capital or monumental) script. Philip, in Syriac Philippos, is represented as a young man next to his name in vertical script. Jacob has his name written Yaacouv. Further to the side is a saint, probably Estephanos (Stephen). This time the inscription is in white letters. Like in the Church of Maad, the tonsure, or shaved head, is a sign of Franc influence from the time of the Crusaders. Sometimes the inscription is unclear, like maybe Moushé meaning Moses. Another uncertain reading is that of Toumo: Thomas. Like he others, his name shows vertically in the aureole. Whether in Serto or in Estranguélo script, Syriac can be written horizontally or vertically.

We notice the eyes of those apostles and saints have been all destroyed during the many attacks against the Christians of these mountains. The eyes are considered the expression of the soul which is why they where punctured by the foreign aggressors. On the other hand, the arch and thin columns seen in the entire composition are very similar to what we find in Syriac manuscripts and in Lebanese architecture up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Now let us move to the 2 large compositions on each side of the nave. Each one represents a Christian knight on his horse according to the Byzantine tradition and style.

On the north wall, the knight is on a brown steed. In respect to Christian iconography, even though the horse is shown laterally, the saint is still represented facing the spectator. The white letters of the inscription are unreadable; but the tradition consisted in painting the portrait of the patron saint of the church. So this knight is St Theodoros (Image 8).

Facing him to the other side of the nave, is another knight on his white steed (Image 7). He is slaying the dragon below. According to iconographical tradition, he is St George. We know the importance of St George in Lebanon, since it is in Beirut that he slayed the dragon to liberate the daughter of the king. We notice the details of the horse. It is white with red ropes and ornaments.

Mar Séba, Eddé

And if we leave this Church of Mar Theodoros in Behdidet and we move to the Church of Mar Séba in Eddé, we find the same artifacts on the remains of the medieval frescoes. There we notice traces of a white horse, red ornaments, over a dark blue sky. This was probably the St George fresco of this place. The Church of Eddé was rebuilt by the Crusaders and fully enriched with Syriac frescoes. Like the Church of Maad it used to represent probably one of the greatest collections of this art in Lebanon. Unfortunately, it was converted into a mosque for a short period, during which all the interior was destroyed.

Many fragments here and there only give us a glimpse of the ancient glory of this place. This is what is left of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Like in the Church of Maad, we see, on the left of the image, the little child dressed in white. He symbolizes the soul of Mary being carried by Jesus Christ. This fresco shows St Peter, like in Maad, approaching the head of Mary, while to the other side, there would be St Paul next to her feet.

Unlike the style displayed in Maad and in Behdidet, here the faces are much more realistic and expressive. We can feel the sorrow in their eyes instead of just indicating their pain by holding their head in their hand. Also, unlike Maad and Behdidet, there is no mixing between Serto and Estranguélo scripts. The inscriptions are entirely in Estranguélo (monumental) script, indicating the prosperity during this period of the Crusades. To the left, we read in white vertical Estranguélo: Dionisios (Dionysios) and to the right: Yaacouv Ahouy d Moran, Jacob brother of our Lord.

Other fragments show faces with inscriptions. One of them says Youdo bar 7alfay (Judas son of Alphaeus). Here and there, residues give us an idea of the beauty of the calligraphy and the many motifs in this church.

The remains of this fresco of Jesus and Mary, provide us with information about the existence of frames around some of the subjects. The frame appears in red to the right side of the fresco. Some Greek letters, typical of the Byzantine iconography, are integrated here with Syriac tradition. The extreme simplicity of the faces is similar to the older iconography seen in Maad and Behdidet. This fresco belongs probably to an older period than the rest of this church.

The Crucifixion (Image 11), in Syriac Zqipouto, is one of the two most important frescoes of this church, and probably of the entire Syriac heritage. Jesus’ face gets closer and closer to the style that will develop later during the Renaissance. On each side, above the cross, the Sun and the Moon are testifying of his divinity (Alohuto) and humanity (Noshuto). Under the cross, stands St Mary, to the left, and St John, to the right.

Our Lady of Kaphtoun

Other fragments like those have been discovered lately in Kaphtoun, in northern Lebanon. Isolated portions lay here and there like in Mar Séba of Eddé, but also a beautiful Deisis like the one of Mar Theodoros of Behdidet.

Deisis, Our Lady of Kaphtoun

The Apse of Our Lady of Kaphtoun helps us imagine the cultural and artistic prosperity of this place. Its Deisis shows Jesus in Glory. The tetramorphs have disappeared from under his throne but to the sides, St Mary and St John are standing face to face like in Behdidet. Above the vault are depictions of the scene of the Annunciation. Archangel Gabriel stands to the left, and Mary to the right, with a scenic architecture in the background. Another arch shows fragments of two saints facing each other with stars at the top. Due to humidity problems, this part was entirely damaged.

Yaacouv Philippos Marcos

On the walls however, the frescoes are much better preserved. The faces are full of life and movement, and the inscriptions are in horizontal Estranguélo very easy to understand. From left to right, we read Yaacouv, Philippos and Marcos: Jack, Philip and Mark. The calligraphy used is a squarish Estranguélo, with a monumental character corresponding to the capital letters of the Latin alphabets. It appears again in what is left of the triple Qadish or Trisagion.

Our Lady of Qannoubin

From the Middle Ages we will now move to the Renaissance. We leave the 13th century and move on to the 17th century, i.e. to the Monastery of Our Lady of Cannobin. This church also contains a Deisis but most importantly is the big fresco of the crowning of the Virgin ordered by Patriarch Estephanos Douayhi (d. 1704). The smaller grotto of Cannobin called grotto of St Marina contains the bodies of the Syriac Maronite Patriarchs who where based in this monastery. The larger grotto however contains the main patriarchal church with its apse and its two absidioles.

In respect to the tradition, the apse is painted with a Deisis showing Jesus in Glory. He sits on a throne carried, as usual, by the tetramorph: the lion of Mark, the eagle of John, the ox of Luke and the man of Matthew. There is a small difference however next to the Deisis, because instead of St John it is St Stephen who is facing the Virgin Mary. And another difference is observable in the new Syriac Maronite culture of the Renaissance. Latin letters replace Greek next to the Syriac inscriptions. So Mar Estéphanos is written in Latin as well as Syriac letters. Facing him is the Virgin Mary with her name also written in Latin and in Syriac letters.

In the first absidiole, we recognize the theme of Daniel in the Lions’ den. He is being saved by the God of Israel. Under the scene, the Garshouné inscription says: the prayers on this altar of prophet Daniel are dedicated to the souls of the dead.

In the second absidiole, we see St Joseph holding Jesus as a child. He is shown as a carpenter, while Jesus carries the globe of the universe. In one of the inscriptions we read Mor Yaoséph (St Joseph), while the second inscription says Apis 7lofayn or ‘Intercede in our favor’. If the cherubim and seraphim are still represented as faces with wings according to the Syriac and Byzantine tradition, the main fresco of this church – the Crowning – displays more freedom with Latin Roman influence showing full bodies.

The fresco of the Crowing of Mary was ordered by Syriac Maronite Patriarch Estephanos Douayhi in the 17th century. The angels painted in full body are under the Virgin Mary. This representation became possible after the opening of the Maronite College of Rome in 1584, when the Italian Renaissance influenced the Syriac Maronite Church. In this fresco, St Mary is being crowned by the Father, with the white beard, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit (the dove). In all medieval frescoes and icons, the Father was always revealed as a hand coming out of the clouds. It was never permitted to make an image of God, since he had never unveiled his face, and he can only be seen through his Son. This is another originality of Qannoubin’s art making use of the Renaissance possibilities.

From the top of the fresco, the Dove of the Holy Spirit sends a light with the verse 4:8 of King Solomon, in Garshouné: “Come from Lebanon my Bride, and be crowned”. This is how Syriac Maronite Patriarch Estephanos Douayhi declared Mary Queen of Lebanon, crowned by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, on top of the forest of the cedars of Lebanon. Mary is indeed shown sitting on top of the cedar trees, while at the bottom, all the patriarchs of Cannobin march in procession carrying presents and congratulations.

Two groups of patriarchs are approaching from both the right and left side. They are all dressed in ceremonial vestments. All of the patriarchs are laid to rest in the nearby grotto of St Marina with their names engraved in Syriac. Patriarch Douayhi is one of them. He is taking part in the procession, dressed like all the others.

On each of the patriarchs’ marvelous garments appears a letter corresponding to a number in Syriac. The late discovery of a Syriac text in the lower part of the fresco helps us understand the purpose of these numbers. It gives the name of each Patriarch related to the corresponding number. They all match with the list on the monument inside the grotto of St Marina.

It is important and commendable to thank Syriac Maronite Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi for this magnificent piece of our history, for his love of art and culture, for his enriching through writings, and for all the architectural and artistic heritage he has left us.

Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2.

This article by malfono Amine Iskandar in the series Syriac Identity of Lebanon was taken from his book “La dimension Syriaque dans l’art et l’architecture au Liban”, Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar, CEDLUSEK, Kaslik, 2001.


For the article in Spanish and French.

Also read in the series:

Syriac Identity of Lebanon part 10: Architecture and the Lebanese Mandaloun