By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
Soteriology in secular architecture
The Trifora, or triple bay, became emblematic of Lebanese architecture, and was used to adorn the Christian monuments of Phoenicia during the Byzantine period. It disappeared from the architectural landscape at the beginning of the Middle Ages to reappear later with the foundation of the Maronite College of Rome in 1584. That was the time of the Lebanese Renaissance which saw the reappearance of the slender columns surmounted by arcades similar to the miniatures of the sixth century Syriac manuscripts and of the twelfth century Syriac frescoes of Lebanon.
Lebanese Prince Fakhredin II the Great (1590-1635) exploited the Maronite Church’s relations with Tuscany, the Vatican and France in order to consolidate the independence of his principality. But he profited from it above all culturally since his reign coincided with the foundation of the Maronite College of Rome. His best advisers and ambassadors were the Maronite scholars who graduated from this college.
From among those scholars, we are particularly interested in Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi (1630-1704) and Bishop Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768). The first carried out the oldest research on the history of the Maronites, on their architecture and their sacred art as well as on their liturgical music. The second was in charge of the Oriental Library of the Vatican, which he enriched considerably after several missions in the East. In particular, he carried out the first studies on the precious Maronite manuscripts of the Codex Rabulensis. These scholars thus brought to light the motif of the triple bay which had been lost for so long in the meanders of history.
In order to grasp the meaning of the Trifora in the Maronite tradition, one should refer to three Syriac sources: The writings of Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi, the hymn of Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Edessa, and the miniatures of the Codex Rabulensis.
Source 1: Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi
Let us consider first the text of Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi who, quoting Saint John, writes in his Candelabra of the Holy Mysteries:
“He said that on each side, the doors were three in number, because the persons of the Holy Trinity are three, and in their name we have been commanded to baptize those who love him and believe in him.”
The patriarch thus explains to us at the end of the seventeenth century that symbolism and meaning are given to these triple bays which represent the Holy Trinity.
Source 2: The hymn of Saint Sophia of Edessa
Our second source is the Syriac hymn of Saint Sophia of Edessa, a cathedral erected in the sixth century by the architects Assaph and Addaï. Being contemporary with the architects, this hymn makes it possible to provide authentic interpretations. This can no longer be considered as a later explanation that does not correspond to the real intentions of the builders of the time. In the poetic spirit of the Syriac spirituality and language, the hymn of Edessa teaches us that “the choir has three windows whose brilliance represents the unique light of the Holy Trinity”.
At that time, it was customary in Byzantium to appoint two architects, one theoretician and the other practitioner, the relationship between material creation and its spiritual symbolism being of great importance. The Byzantine cupola concretizes the celestial vault or the Orbis Romanus (the universe). At its base, the forty windows embody the Integritas Saeculorum (the integrity of the centuries). Space and time are therefore summed up in what constitutes the covering of the cathedral. And for the microcosm to entirely represent the macrocosm, it only needs to add to this material universe, the spiritual world of the Beyond, thus appealing to the Holy Trinity represented by the triple bay.
Source 3: Codex Rabulensis
Our third Syriac source is the Maronite Gospel of Raboula, or Codex Rabulensis. This manuscript from the year 586 presents several examples of triple bays. This motif, inspired by the monuments of the time, became a prototype that ended up influencing the formal repertoire of sixth century iconographers. The similarities are striking between its details and the proportions of the columns, capitals and arcades which are found identically in the Lebanese architecture of the 19th century. The columns of the Lebanese triple bays have nothing to do with Greco-Roman proportions. Their finesse evokes those of the Codex Rabulensis and medieval Maronite frescoes such as those of Saint Theodore of Béhdidet.
In the Middle Ages, this model of arcades on thin columns remained quite widespread in the field of painting but not in architecture. Very common in the miniatures of the manuscripts and on the frescoes of churches, it will not make its reappearance in architecture until after the foundation of the Maronite College of Rome. At first, the arcades act as openwork galleries, like a second facade. They were not necessarily glazed. It was mainly in the nineteenth century that they acquired their refinement in a glazed version, centralized and concentrated on three bays, hence its Italian name of Trifora.
Lebanese architecture, whether secular or sacred, calls for a minimum of ornamentation. On top of that, its rare engraved designs are far from purely decorative; they carry meaning. Here and there appear protective crosses, sculpted birds identical to those that decorate the arcades of the Codex Rabulensis, snakes and above all lily flowers. When this plant is not carved in the stone of the arcade, it is in the woodwork of Gothic style that it multiplies. The triple bay, symbol of Trinity, most often completes its composition with the lily flower.
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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