By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
The lily flower
The decorative theme most linked to the Trifora of Lebanese houses is without any doubt the hanging or standing lily flower. It adorns the arcades, sometimes even the capitals of so many of sacred and profane buildings found throughout all of Lebanon. If not incorporated in the stone section of the arcades, it is repeated tirelessly in the Gothic-inspired woodwork typical of Lebanese architecture. It survived in the joinery until the beginning of the twentieth century after which it faded away into the undulations of Art Nouveau, and later into the simplification of Art Deco. If the Trifora, or triple bay, with its three arcades, embodies “the unique light of the Holy Trinity”, it is worth exploring the deeper meaning of its typical lily flower.
The Armenian Gorzi Carpet
The standing lily flower is featured on the frame of an Armenian carpet in the Berlin Museum. It is known as the Gorzi Carpet and of great importance for the interpretation of the elements of Lebanese architecture since it constitutes a synthesis of the gate of Paradise symbolized by the triple bay of the Trinity.
This rug has a band of lilies and an Armenian inscription that places it in the year 1651 and which is made in dedication of Saint Hripsimé. It contains not only the arches and the lilies, but also the written proof of its Christian and sacred affiliation. For writer Volkmar Gantzhorn, who is interested in the identity and meaning of this motif, “it is clearly a question of lilies of the species Lilium Candidum, the white lily, a flower cultivated since antiquity and of Lebanese origin. It is a symbol of divine grace, and, in this case, it represents the grace of God at the Last Judgment”. It seems to have held as prominent a place as the Cedrus Libani in the Canaanite and later in the Christian repertoire.
The Gorzi Carpet has three arcades carried by a system of twin columns. According to Jules Leroy, this typical doubling of the columns, like the triple bays of Syriac manuscripts, is a symbolic evocation of perspective. It is therefore the representation of a church with three naves representing none other than the door to Paradise. This door is adorned with lilies, the symbol flower of divine grace. Volkmar Gantzhorn summarizes the message of this Gorzi Carpet as follows: “The church is the door to the hereafter and to Paradise. It is reached through the triumphal arch of faith with the help of God’s grace at the Last Judgement.”
A palace in Amshit brings together all these components in one. Here, the architect has reproduced in a very particular way the symbolic techniques of two-dimensional representations, characteristic of manuscripts and carpets, in a three-dimensional architectural art. He doubled the columns of the Trifora, clearly drawing inspiration from the motifs of iconographic painting. He also enriched the three arcades with a series of lily flowers. The facade of this palace thus presents the Trifora in the full glory of its soteriological message, i.e., the theology of salvation: because the doubled columns are those of the nave of the church, the door to the hereafter. The triple bay is the light of the Holy Trinity that leads to Paradise. And the lily flower represents the divine grace that makes us worthy of entry to the hereafter.
The Serpents of Hadat-Gebbé
An other house in Hadat-Gebbé, enriches the composition of its triple bay with a dove of the Holy Spirit, the lily flower, and serpents on the capitals of the columns. The snakes are two. They represent the knowledge of good and evil. It is them who dethroned Adam from Paradise.
In order to redeem himself, the Man-Adam is given recourse to the Holy Trinity (the Trifora), to its light, to the grace of God (the lily flower) and to the Holy Spirit (the dove). These two snakes are the same that we find on the epigraph of the Syriac Maronite church of Our-Lady-of-Semences (Zrou’) in Kphiphén. They are the fruits of evil, as opposed to the fruits of life, and are represented on the church by the body and blood of Christ the Redeemer.
The epigraph of Our Lady of Mayphouq
At the Monastery of Mayphouq, a phenomenon demonstrates that this soteriological approach was a conscious choice and in no way accidental. The spandrel of his Trifora from 1904 holds a Syriac inscription which deals with the theology of salvation:
“Lo purqono élo ba slivo, w lo hayé élo béh”
“There is no salvation but by the cross, and no life but by it”
The triple bay speaks an explicit message of salvation. Elsewhere, it evokes salvation by the light of the Holy Trinity and by the lily flower of divine grace in confrontation with the serpents. The epigraph therefore supports the symbols in their transmission of the soteriological message.
Another testimony confirms the attribution of a meaning to each of the elements and motifs. It concerns a nineteenth century photo showing the construction site of a house in Mount Lebanon. On closer inspection, we recognize an architect supervising the work. He is a priest. For the Church, whether Syriac Maronite, Greek or Armenian, was always, like in the West, the school, the university, and the hospital. It was the Church that initiated the arts and shaped identity at the same time as it formed liturgy and spirituality. Like their Church, the Lebanese were deeply imbued with the soteriological value that they expressed in both their secular and sacred architectures.
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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