Medieval Frescoes of Lebanon — Part 1

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on 23 April 2022. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

Europe is renowned for its landscapes and monuments, including the magnificent medieval frescoes in Romanesque churches. One can only be won over by the shapes, colors, and history of its testimonies of a rich past that has shaped this continent. And yet, right here, in the heart of the Lebanese mountains, frescoes from the same period tell our story, our tastes, our sensibilities, as well as our cultural, spiritual, and artistic richness.

Adorning the many caves of Qadisha and the high country of Batroun, they spread out with even more splendor in the few churches where they survived time, invasions and above all the devastating genocide of the Mamluks. Dating back for the most part to the 12th–13th centuries, they recount the Syriac renaissance which accompanied the period of the Latin States of the Levant. They are mainly concentrated in the territory of the County of Tripoli. Some, closer to the coast, especially in the Koura, bear Greek inscriptions and classical faces indicating their belonging to the Byzantine periphery. However, they are mostly the work of local artists. Going deeper into Lebanon, its mountains and valleys, its caves and chapels, it is the Syriac script that predominates, without, however, abandoning the traces of Greek. At that time, monks and artists were often bilingual, sometimes trilingual since they were beginning to master Arabic or the language of the Franks.

The idiom in use remains Syriac for the three components of the indigenous people, whether they are Maronite, Jacobite (Syriac Orthodox), or Melkite (Rum). Although their speech is full of Canaanite substrates and many Frankish contributions, their written language remains that of liturgical Syriac. It is the latter that adorns the many frescoes and remains of paintings across the mountains of what was the County of Tripoli between 1104 and 1289.

Four churches still offer quite extensive collections that have managed to partially survive the vicissitudes of history. They all denote a local Syriac style. However, among them, Saint Theodor of Béhdidét and Saint Charbel of Maad have a simple style, while Saint Saba of Eddé and Saints Sergius and Bacchus of Kaftoun display more expressive and elaborate faces.

Saint Theodor of Béhdidét

Saint Theodor presents the most complete apsidal collection and gives an idea of what our vaulted medieval churches might have looked like. This church is renowned for its large frescoes of the Saints Theodor and George, which cover its north and south walls. It is also especially famous for its Deisis representing Christ in glory in the theophanic vision carried by the tetramorph or four evangelical symbols. This fresco occupies the conch of the apse with cherubim and seraphim angels, Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist. Their names are written in vertical Syriac: krouvé, srouphé, Mariam, Yohanon.

Halfway up the curve of the arch, there is another scene with the Virgin of the Annunciation on the right, and the Archangel Gabriel on the left, framing the shell of the apse. This is the theme of the Annunciation in very good condition. Above, the Old Testament scenes occupy the triumphal arch according to a tradition taken up by manuscripts and other frescoes from the East and West. On the right, we see the hand of God extending the tables of the Law to Moses, and on the left, the scene of the sacrifice of Abraham with Isaac and the substitute lamb. There we read: Moushe nviyo (the prophet Moses), Avrohom, Ishoq.

At the bottom, on the base of the apsidal wall, are the apostles and evangelists who stand upright in a series of arcades with slender columns. Each is identified by his name inscribed vertically in Syriac in the nimbus: Pétros, Paolos, Andraos, Philippos, Marcos, Toumo, Mattay, etc. Their figures are stereotyped, with the same almond-shaped eyes, the same thick lines for the eyebrows and for the contours of the faces. They are only differentiated by beards and hair color.

Saint-Charbel-d’Edesse in Maad

The same phenomenon of stylization is repeated in Saint Charbel of Edessa Church at Maad in the country of Jbeil. Here too, the figures standing in the apse are quite rigid and lack the flexibility of Byzantine forms as well as the volumes of their drapes. This church, built with the materials of a pagan temple and decorated with medieval frescoes, is a marvelous museum. Its three naves are carried by a series of antiquity columns of Ionic style which sometimes use bases as capitals. Among its many treasures, its ultimate masterpiece is hidden behind the apse, in the chapel of the Dormition. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of Lebanese artistic heritage. The narrowness of the space places us face to face with the actors of this scene in which we find ourselves physically transported. Mary is lying on her mortuary bed surrounded by the apostles. Paul at her feet, Peter leaning towards her head, Christ collecting her soul in the form of a swaddled child, are all surrounded by various lamenting faces.

The characters of the Dormition of Saint Charbel Church in Maad, being stereotyped as in Saint Theodor of Béhdidét, cannot express sadness through facial features. Pain is therefore symbolized by the gesture of the hand raised to the face. These two churches offer us examples of the stylized model among the Syriac frescoes of Lebanon. It is characterized by solid colors without gradients and without shadow effects. It is livelier and more flexible than the Syriac style of Syria-Mesopotamia but remains less realistic than the second Lebanese model influenced by the Byzantine schools. The latter also constitutes a properly local Syriac art but even more eventful and expressive. We will discover it in particular in Saint Saba of Eddé-Batroun and Saints Sergius and Bacchus of Kaftoun.

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

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org