Syriac Identity of Lebanon part 12: Syriac Maronite Iconography and Modern Art

ܗܺܝܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܳܝܬܐ ܕܰܒܠܶܒܢܳܢ

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union–Tur Levnon

What role does the Syriac language play in Lebanese art? What are the characteristics of Syriac Maronite iconography? Does it have any influence on modern art in Lebanon?

The history of Syriac Maronite art starts with the Codex Rabulensis, the illustrated manuscript composed by the Syriac monk Rabula in the year 586. The Codex Rabulensis became the reference guide against which all other manuscripts where compared in determining their date and context, or to be analyzed historically and iconographically. The Codex sets the Christian artistic rules, conventions and canons, and the Codex defines the themes and norms that will later be seen in most Christian traditions, whether in manuscripts or frescoes.

In and around their apses, Syriac Maronite churches adopted the Codex’s guiding type of composition placing scenes from the Old Testament above those of the New Testament. Christian iconography always respected its principles of frontality, platitude, brightness, and perspective. All these principles are visible in the two Maronite schools of iconography, the Atelier (School) of Cyprus and the Atelier of Kaslik.

Codex Rabulensis (586 AD)

The Atelier of Cyprus

The Atelier of Cyprus has its own particular style with gentle or pastel colors and Syriac monumental Estranguélo script as well as the use of Greek as second language. On its icon of the Resurrection (Image 1) we read in Syriac: Mshiho qom / ‘Christ has risen’. The composition is included inside an arch supported by two columns, in accordance with the tradition of the Codex Rabulensis.

The icon of St Raphael has the following inscription: Rophael rish Malakhé / ‘Raphael Head of the Angles’. Again, the composition is framed by the traditional arch sitting on two columns. And again the script used is the Estranguélo script that characterizes sacredness and monumentality.

The third icon of the Atelier of Cyprus is a representation of St Rebecca. Her name is written in vertical Estranguélo: Touvonito Rapqa / ‘Blessed Rebecca’. It is interesting to notice the perspective of the carpet she is sitting on. It doesn’t seem correctly horizontal because of its vanishing point that is intentionally too high. As if it was outside the icon, trying to be one with the spectator.

Atelier of Kaslik

The Atelier of Kaslik uses much brighter colors than the School of Cyprus. It also chooses the Syriac cursive Serto script that was originally not intended for the arts.

In the icon of Jesus Savior (image 4), the traditional arch is still there, sitting on the thin columns. The upper arch gives the twelve months of the year, while the lower one contains the liturgical calendar. Jesus Christ is represented as a child. Above him is the dove of the Holy Spirit. A big vertical and horizontal Serto inscription draws a cross. It reads: Poruqo Yéshou / Jesus Savior.

Another icon shows two knights on their steeds. They are St Sergius and St Bacchus (Image 6), two very important saints in Syriac Maronite liturgy and Iconography. Sergius, written Mor Sarguis, is riding his black steed. While Bacchus, written Mor Bakhos, is on his white steed. The use of these brownish colors is distinctive of the Atelier of Kaslik.

The icon of the Annunciation in Image 6 has the title: Suvoro d Yoldat Aloho / the Annunciation of the Mother of God. We see Mary standing in the traditional architectural composition under the arch. Archangel Gabriel is addressing her, but both are looking towards the spectator, respecting the frontal attitude. Frontality is essential to be loyal to the two-dimensional representation.

Even the podium under Mary’s feet doesn’t respect the laws of perspective. Its vanishing point is not in the icon, but in the spectator. This phenomenon is called ‘the aberrant perspective’ because it defies the rules of nature. Its aim is to put us out of any particular space. This is what is called Utopos / ‘the no place’. And because the spectator is projected inside the scene, he also enters its Uchronos / “the no time”. There is no particular time because the icon is in the contemporaneity of Jesus Christ. The scene is not just historical, it is continuously contemporary and living, because Jesus is everywhere and eternally alive.

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Another icon is the Nativity. Its inscription says: Yilidoutéh d Moran / The Birth of our Lord (Image 7). It is written on the bottom of the icon. But a second curved inscription in on the upper part. We read: Teshbohto l’Aloho ba mrawmé / Glory to God in the Highest. This is a Hymn often chanted in Syriac Maronite liturgy. Since the third dimension is an evocation of volume, and volume represents flesh and the materialistic world, each person is drawn flat without shades. The absence of roundness and depth is the absence of place that keeps us in the Utopos, out of this materialistic world. The absence of shade is also the absence of darkness that is associated with Evil. So, light is everywhere as the eternal trace of Good.

The icon of St Rebecca (Image 8) is also painted in the Kaslik style, with the use of brown and cursive Serto letters. In accordance to the tradition, an icon is not supposed to be enjoyed, but rather written and read like a book. So every item in the layout has a narrative purpose. Therefore, in the background, the mountains are the Lebanon, the constructions are a monastery, and the cedars are the emblem of the Maronites. Nothing here is to embellish. Everything has a narrative purpose and a message.

Icons of Syriac Maronite saints

The representation of Mor Charbel is a painting (Image 9) and not an icon because in an icon the eyes are always open and staring. Here the eyes are closed. On this canvas we see the mountains, the monastery, the cedar, as well as a book. It is opened on a page carrying the inscription: Avo d Qushto / Father of the Righteous. This is the hymn of the Eucharist chanted by Saint Charbel.

The icon of St Joseph Kassab known as Nemtalla of Hardin (Image 10), once more shows the monastery, the cedar, and the book. The book says: wahshék way ‘ayné mén qéryono da khtové / And his eyes where darkened from the reading of books.

St John Morun, the first patriarch of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, is represented in a famous painting (Image 11), standing at an altar. Over his head, the banner says: Iqoro d Lévnon nétihév lé / The glory of Lebanon shall be given unto thee.

The Syriac script and Maronite iconographic tradition is still respected nowadays in art. A modern stained-glass window shows St Anthony, written Mor Antonios, in the Syriac Serto script. It is a figurative stained-glass art (Image 13). In Anneya however, in the chapel of Mor Charbel, the Serto script is diluted into a totally abstract composition. The entire chapel is decorated with stained-glass windows displaying the hymn of the Eucharist, dedicated to St Charbel: Avo d Qushto / Father of Justice. Each window, one following the other, completes the lyrics.

The modern church of Anneya displays figurative art in its stained-glass windows. It tells the entire life of Mor Charbel. Here and there Syriac Serto scripts appear. We read: Yaoséph ‘laymo shma3 qol Moréh / Joseph as a young man, heard the voice of his Lord. Joseph was Saint Charbel’s name before he took the Holy Orders.


Saliba Douayhi´s abstract Syriac Maronite art

The older windows of this church were a true treasure for modern Syriac Maronite art. They were made by artist Saliba Douayhi. They were entirely destroyed during bombings in the 1980’s. Here the Syriac inscriptions were in complete osmosis with the abstract compositions completing the figurative elements.

Saliba Douayhi took this art a step further to elaborate a typical Syriac Maronite modern art. He used once more, the lyrics of the Avo d Qushto / Father of Justice, the hymn of the Eucharist. His Syriac letters started conforming with the patchwork in the background.

More osmosis between the letters and the patchwork is perceived in his inscription-composition saying: Gergis Chalhoub. It is actually a Syriac Maronite name meaning in Syriac “George” and “Flames”.


Artist Saliba Douayhi painted another well-known Syriac Maronite person, writer and poet Gebran Kahlil Gebran (Image 18). The composition is structured into a grid of squares that encompass Syriac letters. The osmosis is once again total.

The name of Gergis Chalhoub appears again in a vertical inscription (Image 19) in which the letters generate a game of light and shades.

Saliba Douayhi took his art as far as minimalism and purism. He stretched his vertical Syriac letters making them incomprehensible and totally abstract. Some letters like the Syriac letter Shin, extend vertically in yellow, then red, all the way down embracing the whole composition in a minimalist move. In some yellow canvas, there is nothing left to remind us of the inscriptions. The only thing persisting is absolute verticality. Then, the Syriac letter Shin makes a bright return again in red and yellow vertical rays.

Abstract marine by Saliba Douayhi

This game of calligraphy never ends with Saliba Douayhi who became the pioneer of modern Syriac Maronite art. Looking at his paintings, some claim this is the Lebanese coastal line with the promontory of Beirut. Probably because they haven’t followed the evolution of Douayhi’s art, and probably because they don’t know much about Syriac Maronite history, and about the Syriac language and calligraphy.

Our culture is everywhere, and only through it, can we understand the sequences of our heritage, creations and innovations.

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.

Also read in the series:

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

Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 11: Syriac Maronite Frescoes