By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
The first style among the Syriac frescoes of Lebanon presents stereotyped faces and two-dimensional bodies in a frontal position. Devoid of shadows, the folds of the clothes are expressed schematically by simple dark lines. The faces are only differentiated by the color of the hair and the shapes of the beards. The expression of feeling is suggested by a bodily attitude, such as a hand raised to the face as a sign of distress. This first style was introduced by the churches of Saint Charbel in Maad and Saint Theodor in Béhdidét. The second style that we will meet here is more animated, realistic, and expressive. It is offered to us by the churches of Saint Saba of Eddé-Batroun and of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Kaftoun.
Saint Saba of Eddé-Batroun
The Church of Saint Saba of Eddé-Batroun is dotted with several fragments of frescoes, the most recent dating back to 1261 AD. One of these frescoes recalls that of Saint Charbel of Maad since it is the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin. Their compositions are identical, and their comparison is very interesting. The characters adopt the same arrangements in accordance with iconographic tradition and Christian artistic canons. However, in detail, the differences are quite marked. There is more movement in Saint Saba. Shadows make the scene more realistic and expressive. This is where we see a stronger Byzantine influence.
The nimbus still contain the names in vertical Syriac, but the faces are personalized. They are no longer reduced to a line drawing filled with monochrome areas like the first style observed in Saint Theodor. Here, shadows emphasize volumes, light, and movement. Sadness can be read in the eyes of Dionysios and Yaacouv (James). Each character in this fresco and the nearby scene of the crucifixion is identifiable by their features and not only by the color of the hair or the shape of the beard. In this same church, however, the fresco of the Virgin and Child presents stereotyped faces with simple lines with monochrome fillings. It is therefore from another era and belongs to the same school as the examples of Béhdidét and Maad, thereby offering a juxtaposition of the two styles. We also note a juxtaposition of the two languages since this fresco uses Greek inscriptions.
Saints Serge and Bacchus of Kaftoun
This Syriac style, endowed with Greek vivacity and harmony, is also found in the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Kaftoun. The site, now Greek Orthodox, had also been occupied by the Maronites who left their traces there. There, we find frescoes provided with Greek inscriptions and others with Syriac inscriptions in stranguélo characters (capital letter) surmounting their nimbus. Yaacouv (James), Philipos (Philip), and Marcos (Mark) find there the stylized features and the imposing eyebrows of Béhdidét and Maad but with shadows that give them a certain volume. They also break the rule of absolute frontality by directing their gaze to the side, suggesting the presence of a space specific to the scene. The folds of their clothes also take up the techniques of shadow and light of Byzantine icons, whereas in Béhdidét and Maad this is reduced to the presence of simple straight or sinuous lines.
Frescoes of Syria-Mesopotamia
Comparing the frescoes of Lebanon with those of other medieval Syriac regions of Syria-Mesopotamia, we find appreciable differences. In the Syrian Nebeck and as far as Tur Abdin in southeastern Turkey, the linear stylization that characterizes certain wall paintings in Lebanon becomes more pronounced, even angular. The proportions move away from reality and from Greek harmony, resulting in sometimes atrophied bodies. The fixed and timeless gaze sinks even further into the hieraticism of eastern antiquity. This phenomenon, visible in the many manuscripts studied by Jules Leroy, is becoming more and more widespread in the eastern borders. While the western regions such as Lebanon remain attached to the Byzantine artistic spirit, the surroundings of Nineveh in Mesopotamia denote Persian, Arab and Mongol influences in an archaic style where graphics predominate.
The Lebanon of the Franks is a Mediterranean land turned towards Europe. It is characterized by an openness to the Byzantine artistic world. A Latin nobility and a Syriac soil continue to love Christian art embodied by the Greek tradition. It was probably at this time that the Lebanese character and personality were formed, as much in its Syriac idiom imbued with Frankish contributions as in its art, its culture, and its Western sensibility. The medieval frescoes of Lebanon reflect this cultural synthesis. They form the expression of a particular tradition, which can neither be considered as Byzantine art nor assimilated to the more general Syriac art of Syria-Mesopotamia. It is a specifically Lebanese Syriac art which benefitted from the prosperity and culture of the Latin States.
These frescoes are the expression of the culture of that time when the Lebanese Maronites, Jacobites (Syriac Orthodox), and Melkites prospered in the shadow of Frankish feudal regimes. They lived in the same villages and formed the same army. They mixed their cuisines, their clothes, their armaments, and their construction techniques. The Maronites built their churches with the Franks and composed their manuscripts with the Jacobites. With the Greeks, they painted their frescoes and perpetuated throughout the Middle Ages the artistic canons of the Byzantine tradition.
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
For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org