By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
The facades of Romanesque and then Gothic churches in the West present very animated biblical scenes intended to catechize the spectator. The Maronite Church did the same, but in its own way. It is not the images of hell and paradise that interest this tradition. It is the Eucharist as the incarnation of the Word in the flesh and then Its salvation/sacrifice that are at the center of the representation. The different elements of the façade thus trace the Christic cycle.
Simplicity constitutes the principal character of architecture and art among the Syriacs in general and among the Maronites in particular. The concept of asceticism and austerity is found everywhere as a basic principle and constitutes, according to Charles Malik, “the splendor of the Maronite rite“. There is no room for Greek imperial pomp, nor for virtuosity and embellishments, because each element of the composition must have a meaning and a message. The whole should be read as an icon in what Bishop Simon Atallah calls “the nature and climate of Syriac liturgies“.
In this ascetic atmosphere, only the soteriological message allows itself a decorative space in which it is expressed through the art of Syriac symbols and epigraphs. For the church, the facade of the entrance allows itself a decoration concentrated on the vertical axis of a fictitious pyramid which structures it. This refinement, or enrichment, is then more or less timid or avowed. It can also be reduced to a simple symmetry located on a part of the facade in the axis of the door.
The facade acquires an iconographic value in the Christian sense of the icon. Because the latter, as Philippe Sers correctly explains it, is “not illustrative but representative“. It is not intended for delight but for reading. We can therefore consider the Maronite facade with its pyramidal composition as a kind of iconostasis where the Christian cycle and the theology of Salvation are read.
The kind of composition observed in the majority of Maronite churches of the medieval style (a style which will last until the 19th century) is quite simple. And yet, that does not prevent it from revealing constants, highlighting artistic canons linked to an architectural tradition.
Our Lady of the Seeds (Zrou‘) in Kphiphen
The Church of Our Lady of the Seeds (Zrou‘) in Kphiphen offers us one of the most accomplished examples of pyramidal compositions typical of the art of Syriac epigraphs of Lebanon. At the base, the portal receives the faithful who have come to meet Christ in his flesh and in his blood. Its welcoming role towards the Eucharistic celebration, is that defined by Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi and by the inscription of the door of Mor Awtel of Kfar-Sghob, both quoting Isaiah “your doors will always be open; neither by day nor by night will they be closed” (Is, 60, 11).
The Host and the chalice
Above this portal, the epigraph deploys its pure Syriac writing. Hereby, it expresses only the Word in its Old Testament condition, without name and without face, therefore without the slightest ornamentation. But then, the Melto (Word) is incarnated. Here, above the epigraph, the Melto offers his blood in a Kosso (chalice) for all those who have come to celebrate this mystery. The Host of the Qurbono figures even higher. It is divine light and enters the sanctuary through the circle of the oculus-host.
The Eucharist is central. It is the purpose of the mass; it is the mass. It is no coincidence that, in Syriac, the two terms Qurobo (celebration of the mass) and Qurbono (Eucharist) come together in a common source. But, more than that, among the Maronites, the mass itself is simply called Qurbono, no longer distinguishing itself from the Eucharist. Thus, the representation of the latter on the facade becomes that of the entire mass. And at Our Lady of the Seeds, the two elements of the divine meal (Ukharistia) are opposed to the (Grossé) serpents, fruits of Evil, which tarnished the image of Adam and his descendants.
In this surge of redemption, appears the Slivo (the cross) of the Savior, which comes to restore the divinity of Man. The mortal instrument of the Zqipouto (crucifixion) then lights up to become ilono de piré de hayé (the tree of the fruit of life). The rays of light in its center are those of the resurrection of which it now becomes the symbol. The Son, incarnation of the Word, revealed his power over the world.
The two stars
Shemsho w Sahro (the sun and the moon) are there to testify to this. These two stars are, according to Saint Ephrem, the images of the human and divine natures of the Savior. Thus, from being Christic, the cycle becomes Christological. The sun bears witness to the Melto (word), and the moon to the Pagro (body), or even to the Bésro (flesh).
The pyramidal composition
These elements of the facade end up being organized in the shape of a pyramid drawing the path of ascension which signifies the return of the incarnate Son to the Melto (the Word). It is therefore the Christic cycle with the incarnation of the Word in the flesh and blood of Christ Who will be crucified for the salvation of the World. By His resurrection and His victory over death, He goes back to the Word.
Throughout the Christic cycle, it is the history of salvation which recounts the restitution of the image of Adam through the sacrifice of the Man-God by means of the Eucharist and the crucifixion. Through its facade with a pyramidal composition, accomplishing the role of a holy image, the church invites us to experience redemption in the absolute present, that of the contemporaneity of Christ as experienced in the Christian image. The Syriac Maronite Church has developed its own art, respectful of its liturgy, its theology and its particular identity. Epigraphy tends to demonstrate this through its historical, literary, linguistic, liturgical and artistic components. This is achieved through concrete data, embodied by the Syriac epigraphs of Lebanon and by the abstract and figurative representations that accompany them.
By comparing the epigraphs inscribed in Arabic letters with those in Syriac letters, we have observed the introduction of virtuosity in form as well as in content. Arabic calligraphy becomes ornamented, and the text becomes more complex. There is therefore an absence of the Word implying the perdition of the Christic cycle. Through the austerity and purity it imposes on itself, Syriac writing remains transparent in order to be able to represent the Word. Syriac language and writing thus appear as carriers of spirituality, identity and relation to the sacred. Far from being a simple instrument of communication, Syriac embodies and transmits the deepest aspirations of the Maronites and their relationship to the Absolute. It generates in their arts, the expression of their association with the Creator.
The various components of the church’s facade contribute to the writing of a message. The serpents of Evil opposed to the Eucharistic fruits of life, the cross of the crucifixion and the resurrection, the two stars, the Syriac writing embodying the Word, the portal inviting to the Eucharist, all of them participate in the Christological representation. The facade of the Maronite church describes the salvation concept of the Man-Adam. Soteriology thus forms the basis of architectural design among the Maronites.
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
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