The Archduchess, the Bell Tower and the Tabernacle

The Roman Germanic Empress Maria Theresa of Austria turned to the monk Sarkis, saying: "You will have your bell, and I want it to be the most beautiful in Lebanon."

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on 28 May 2022. The original can be found here.

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

On a dark cold night in the year of grace 1760, the monk Sarkis of the village of Ashqout advances into the cloister of Our Lady of the Fields monastery in Dlébta, on the heights of Mount Lebanon. Under his hood, the Maronite monk has his face straight down staring at the floor as he approaches the church with a humble and light tread. Then he presses his foot against the shaft of an antique column. Humming a Syriac prayer, he grabs the rope and starts ringing the bell with all his strength to announce the midnight service.

The resonance of the church bell was just beginning to vibrate on the oaks, pines and cypresses, when a dull noise muffled the sound and interrupted the ringing. The bell of Our Lady had cracked. This Bronze Lady was “the pride of the monastery, the only one, next to the one of Qannoubine, to exist in all of Lebanon since the arduous days of yore,” say Joseph Goudard and Henri Jalabert. It was a major scandal throughout all of Kesrouan. Monk Sarkis was slandered and accused everywhere. Feeling ostracized, he eventually headed to Europe in search of ways to resolve this unfortunate incident. He had to get another bell at all costs.

Our Lady of the Fields Monastery in Dlébta, Lebanon. ©Nada Raphaël.

The Archduchess of Austria

He had been in Vienna for several weeks when a young Archduchess fell seriously ill. Because certain members of the court had spoken of this foreign monk with the scent of holiness to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the empress summoned him. Monk Sarkis, dressed in his black tunic fitted in the Maronite fashion, introduced himself. He kneeled by the Archduchess’ bedside, opened his Syriac prayerbook and, after saying the triple Qadish (Holy) of the Trisagion, invoked Our Lady of the Fields to heal the dying young woman. That same day this Archduchess opened her eyes. She was out of danger.

Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, Roman Germanic Empress. (Photo Wikimedia)

The Roman Germanic Empress Maria Theresa of Austria then turned to monk Sarkis, saying: “You will have your bell, and I want it to be the most beautiful in Lebanon.”

This promised bell was cast in Venice in 1766. It came accompanied by many gifts for the monastery of Our Lady of the Fields: a monstrance embellished with precious stones, four complete ornaments, four chalices mounted in filigree, a magnificent painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary and above all a tabernacle in Baroque style. The painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, unfortunately, was lost during a shipwreck at sea.

The tabernacle of the Our Lady of the Fields monastery

As for the tabernacle, it was the result of a strange encounter between the Baroque splendor of the Austrian Counter-Reformation and the starkness of Syriac Maronite asceticism. Flanked by two golden angels, it is composed of an aedicula resting on two Ionic columns. The crucifix in the center is surrounded by inscriptions in Latin and Syriac characters. And it is here that the encounter of these two Christian worlds is the most moving. Monk Sarkis was only able to draw the Syriac characters on three pieces of paper. Two of the inscriptions have been reproduced on the silver plates at the base of the tabernacle, while the third adorns the tympanum surmounting the crucifix.

The epigraph at the entrance of the church mentioning Father Pierre Dib (dated 1755).
The tabernacle of Our Lady of the Fields in Dlébta.

The Austrian or Venetian artist had done a magnificent job in reproducing the Latin and Austrian texts, while the Garshuné inscriptions in Syriac letters have been redrawn without the slightest notion of the Syriac alphabet. The text of the tympanum was even engraved upside down, probably because the monk had not clearly specified in which direction his paper should have been read. On each part of the tabernacle, the letters of the Syriac alphabet, reproduced as if they were simple drawings, are difficult to decipher. The Syriac letter ‘Ain is placed higher than the Lomad, the and the Qof are elongated, almost lying down, and the final Olaph is abnormally curly as if it were a .

But once deciphered, the Garshuné text of the two lower silver plates reads:

“In the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy, I, the humble servant, the monk Sarkis of Ashqout, I beg your generosity, by the recognition and the mass for all those who support us in charity.”

And in the tympanum surmounting the crucifix, we read upside down:

“Our Lady of the Fields, property (waqf) of the monastery.”

The two plates at the base of the Tabernacle.
The inscription engraved upside-down above the crucifix on the Tabernacle .

Celebrations in Mount Lebanon

When this treasure arrived in Lebanon, the country celebrated and all of Kesrouan made praises to the Roman Germanic Archduchess and Empress. Scents of incense and hymns extolling the Blessed Virgin rose up from all the valleys. The empress and the monk were laden with the most dazzling metaphors. Father Moussa Dib even painted a new painting replacing that of the shipwreck. He included the empress and monk Sarkis along the Blessed Virgin Mary.

When the ornaments and the chalices made their entry into the monastery, but above all when the imperial bell was mounted on its bell tower “it was something so magnificent that everyone came to see it… People came from far away, from Beirut, from Sidon, from Jerusalem itself, it is said. The Druze and Shiites were not the last”, said Fathers Goudard and Jalabert.

Our Lady of the Fields has achieved great fame. The only daughter of the reigning prince, Youssef Chehab, was also healed by the prayers of the abbot Father Pierre Dib of the monastery. The abbot was renowned for his holiness and his name is engraved in the Syriac epigraph of the church dated 1755. The Prince of Lebanon was then baptized at the same time as his daughter, bringing his dynasty to Christianity. Monk Sarkis will only have an echo of this glory through correspondence. He died in Europe without ever having seen his portrait next to the Blessed Virgin and the empress, nor the tabernacle in the apse of Our Lady of the Fields that he had loved so deeply.

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