By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
The cave monastery of Qannoubin was founded by Theodosius the Great towards the end of the fourth century in one of the gorges of the Kadicha, the holy valley which abounds with monasteries and hermitages. It was the patriarchal seat of the Syriac Maronite Church from 1440 to 1854. It was Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi (d. 1704) who left his mark on the Church by having the most emblematic fresco of Maronite heritage painted there.
Estéphanos Douayhi is represented in this fresco among the other Maronite patriarchs, walking in procession towards the scene of the coronation of Mary. In total, 26 patriarchs officially resided in Qannoubine but only 17 of them really lived there and are also buried there. Their names are engraved in Syriac on the funerary stele erected in 1909 in the nearby cave chapel of Saint Marina where their bones are buried. Thirteen of them are pictured in the main cave on the coronation fresco. However, as this work was not yet completed at the day of death of patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi in 1704, it allowed the painter to add his successor patriarch Gabriel of Blaouza (1704-1705). He also added two important patriarchs who did not die at Qannoubine: Joseph of Akoura (1644-1648) and George of Bsebeel (1657-1670). This brings the total number of patriarchs depicted on the fresco to 15, including the sponsor Estéphanos Douayhi (1670-1704). The fresco was restored in 1781 by artist Moussa Dib of Dlebta, as indicated by the garchouné text in cursive Syriac characters (serto) at the bottom of the composition
For Estéphanos Douayhi, this painting is much more than a work of art. It is a manifesto that incorporates all his previous writings. He endowed Lebanon with a Queen. He appealed to his Western Roman cultural and artistic likings which had become specific to the Syriac Maronite identity. He uses Syriac writing as a seal of his belonging and situates everything in a sacred and highly symbolic place, i.e., the cedar forest of Lebanon. The cedar is the emblem of his Church and Lebanon is a Maronite dogma, conforming what patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi expresses in his handwritten texts.
In accordance with the iconographic tradition, this Christian fresco reads like a story and a testimony. It represents the coronation of the Virgin by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, against a background of a starry sky flanked by the sun and moon. They are all positioned above the cedar forest. At their feet, on either side of an altar, the Syriac Maronite patriarchs of Qannoubine parade in ceremonial clothing, bearing offerings and gifts. Details enrich the scene: the branches of the cedars are adorned with cones as a sign of fertility while the Tridentine altar is enhanced with candles. On each side, two series of cherubs lead to an angel playing the violin, while the other plays the trumpet.
The details become even richer if we closely observe the patriarchal procession which, further down, in the forest of cedars, advances towards Mary. We can see them parading in finely embroidered pontifical vestments, eight patriarchs on the left and seven on the right. All are wearing their emblematic Maronite miter. It is identical to that of the Latin rite and sets them apart from the headdresses of the dignitaries of the other Syriac Churches.
Thanks to the text added at the bottom of the fresco, we know the names of each of the patriarchs in the parade. Indeed, in 1781 the painter who restored the fresco integrated Syriac letter-numbers on each person in the procession. These same numbers are found in red in the text, followed by the name of each: 1- John of Jéj, 2- James of Hadat, 3- Peter of Hadat, 4- Simon of Hadat, 5- Moses of Akoura, 6- Mikhael Rizzi, 7- Serge Rizzi, 8- Joseph Rizzi, 9- John Makhlouf, 10- George Ameira, 11- Joseph of Akoura, 12- John of Safra, 13- George of Bsebeel, 14- Estéphan(os) Douayhi, 15- Gabriel of Blaouza.
In addition to miters and vestments, the artistic style granted itself the liberties of the Italian Renaissance and included perspectives, shadow, volume and side view. It even presents the concept of God the Father, which the canons of Christian iconography normally only represent in the symbolic appearance of a hand stretched out from heaven, as is the case in Saint Theodor or Béhdidét. The Syriac cherubs, which are strongly reminiscent of the winged discs of Phoenician antiquity, and which can still be found in the apse and the apsidioles of Qannoubin, have changed here into Italian-style winged angels reminiscent of Roman cupids.
At the very top of the fresco, in a beam of light emanating from the Holy Spirit, we read in Garchouné: “Come with me from Lebanon my spouse, and you will be crowned”. This verse is from the Canticle of Canticles (4:8) to which the coronation theme has been superimposed here.
It is most remarkable that the members of this Church and this people have been able to preserve so many testimonies of their precious history and culture. Despite six centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman occupation, despite exactions, oppression, massacres, and despite the Kafno genocide-famine of 1914-1918, they managed to pass on to us the testimonies of their rich history, their arts, their Syriac language and their privileged exchanges with Europe and the world.
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