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Medieval wall paintings in the Middle East
Written by Mat Immerzeel   
Friday, 05 February 2010 01:12

Image An impressive quantity of churches decorated with medieval wall paintings have been discovered in the mountainous regions of North Lebanon and Western Syria. Today over thirty sites with murals, unfortunately often in a poor state, are known in the area between Tripoli and Jbeil, in the Qadisha Valley and in Beirut, and about ten more are present in the Qalamun region north of Damascus, and in Homs. This is, however, only the tip of the iceberg as written sources report about the presence of many other, now vanished, embellished sanctuaries. Most of these buildings were used by indigenous Christian communities - Byzantine Orthodox (Melkite), Maronite and Syrian Orthodox - and witness of the prosperity of the local Christians and interaction with their Muslim and Latin neighbors. The Crusader element is disappointingly limited, though this is not very surprising since the surviving churches are mainly located in remote areas. The Latins had their churches in coastal cities, where urban renewal and renovations have erased almost all traces of painted decoration. Exceptions are the finds in the chapels of the defence forts Marqab Castle and Crac des Chevaliers in Syria, which, however, seem to have been embellished by local artists.

Although some monastic churches in the Qalamun were painted for the first time decades before the foundation of the Crusader states around the turn of the eleventh century, the large-scaled embellishment of church interiors was energetically commenced about one century later, in the Crusader County of Tripoli as well as in the Muslim-controlled Damascus region. This genuine ‘Christian Renaissance’ coincided with a period of profound changes in the political landscape. After Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been reduced to some coastal strongholds, a setback urging new waves of western warriors to divert to Cyprus in 1192 and Constantinople in 1204. In that year, the Ayyubid rulers in Cairo and the Latins agreed upon a truce which temporarily halted the Muslim advance. This string of events heralded a period of over half a century of relative détente, prosperity and tolerance which was also to the benefit of the Syrian Christians at both sides of the frontier. About five decades later, the delicate balance was seriously upset by the advance of the Mongols. They occupied Damascus in 1260, but were soon pushed back by the Mamluks, who had succeeded the Ayyubids in 1250. Determined to get even with foreign forces, the Mamluks also launched military operations against the Latins. Within a few decades, the Crusader states crumbled, and, with the fall of Tripoli in 1289 and Acre two years later, the Latin supremacy in the Levant came to an end. By then, the ‘Christian Renaissance’ was already past history; in all likelihood it came to a halt in the turmoil of the ravaging Muslim attacks.

After centuries of negligence, the documentation and restoration of these monuments is now in full progress, offering us a fascinating glimpse of the rich indigenous Christian culture in the twilight of the Crusader era. The following presents five monastic sites with wall paintings, two in Lebanon and three in Syria, some of which have recently been discovered and/or restored. I had the honor of being involved in the research on these sites and could not resist the temptation to add some personal remarks about the role of coincidence and professional intuition in my scholarly activities.

Monastery of Our Lady of Kaftoun (Lebanon)

Image This fairly modern Greek Orthodox convent is located in a delightful and fertile valley to the southeast of Tripoli. The present structures are erected on the remains of a medieval predecessor, at a short distance from the well-preserved monastic church dedicated to Sts Sergius and Bacchus. Reconstruction works in 2003, aimed at making this building suitable for worship again, resulted in the discovery of thirteenth-century mural paintings of extraordinary quality, with inscriptions in Greek and Syriac. These are being restored by a team of the Polish Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology, headed by Tomasz Waliszewski and Krzysztof Chmielewski. On their request I visited Kaftoun in November of that year, together with my colleague Nada Hélou. This monastery had already drawn our attention because it owns a splendid thirteenth-century bilateral icon, showing the Virgin and Child (obverse) and the Baptism of Christ (reverse). We had already noticed the strong stylistic similarities between this piece and the famous double-sided ‘Crusader’ icon representing the Virgin and Child and Sts Sergius and Bacchus on horseback in the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. With this remarkable discovery in mind, I arrived in Kaftoun with a picture of this icon in my luggage, and indeed my intuition did not fail me: stylistically, some of the new findings were so similar to both icons that we immediately realized that all were made by the same local workshop or even artist.

The paintings attributed to this master are a Deisis in the apse, the Annunciation on the triumphal arch, four monastic saints in the soffits of the adjoining arches in the lateral walls of the nave, and the life-size figures of the military saints Bacchus, Sergius, George and Theodore inside the arches near the western entrance. He must have worked side by side with a skilful Byzantine artist, who embellished the lateral walls with the Communion of the Apostles, the bust of an archangel and some saints. Remarkably, ‘Deir Keftun’ is mentioned in both Maronite and Melkite manuscripts from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; there is, however, little doubt about the Byzantine character of Kaftoun’s art, which I date in the second or third quarter of the thirteenth century.

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Site of Kfar Shleiman (Lebanon)

Kfar Shleiman is a Maronite mountain village, about 10 km to the east of Batrun. The presence of elaborate rocks and several rock-cut caves of uncertain age, and the abundance of (early Byzantine?) potsherds, makes this a fascinating monastic site from an archaeological standpoint. The former church lives on in the memories of the older inhabitants of the village and left its traces in the smoothened rock forming the north wall of the church in the shape of rectangular holes, and the ‘negative’ of a groined vault enclosing a painting fragment showing two saints. Other murals are present in a rock-cut annex chapel dedicated to Our Lady (Saydet Naya). In the spring of 2007, the Italian restorer Livia Alberti cleaned and consolidated these paintings. This campaign was made possible by the Association pour la Restauration et l’Etude des Fresques Médiévales du Liban, the Association Philippe Jabre, and the Association Les Amis de Sourat et du Patrimoine, demonstrating the abilities of the Lebanese to organize the preservation of their cultural heritage under difficult political circumstances.

One enters the rectangular chapel by way of a flight of stairs; its low ceiling scarcely allows an adult to stand upright. The program includes a Deisis with two deacons (east wall), Christ Enthroned between the four living creatures (ceiling above the altar), and furthermore the Virgin Galactothrophusa, St George on horseback, and a cross with the inscription IC XP / NHKA, flanked by an archer hunting a deer (St Eustathius?). All the images are painted in brown, yellow and blue, and display little nuance in their execution. Stylistic similarities with other murals in the area lead us to believe that the church and chapel of Kfar Shleiman were decorated by a local artist in the second or third quarter of the thirteenth century.

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Monastery of Our Lady, Saydnaya (Syria)

My introduction to Saydnaya, some 30 km to the north of Damascus, occurred in 1994. Together with some colleagues, I went to the nearby village of Macarrat Saydnaya (‘cave of Saydnaya’) to study the icons in the Greek Catholic parish church. After showing us the icons, the priest of the church insisted in showing us medieval paintings in a cave chapel dedicated to the Prophet Elijah (Mar Elias), which local workers had discovered in 1982. We were the first scholars to visit this place, and felt that we couldn’t just take some pictures and walk away. In the next years a team of Leiden University and the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) restored these murals, which date from the first half of the thirteenth century roughly and betray the hand of a Byzantine-Cypriot master.

This passionate discovery encouraged me to focus on Saydnaya’s past, which is hidden behind the façade of modernity. Our knowledge about the history of this site mainly derives from pilgrims’ journals. Saydnaya’s famous Greek Orthodox Monastery of Our Lady is reputed for a miraculous icon (Chaghoura) that attracted Christians of different denominations, Orientals and Latins, as well as Muslims, from the late twelfth century onwards at least. Even though the church and large parts of the complex were rebuilt in the 1860s, the original apse - which housed the Chaghoura - was kept as it was. Several sources describe the old church as a basilica with a portico with four columns, a central nave and four aisles separated by four rows of five columns, a central apse, two lateral chapels, and a pointed roof. This layout suggests that the alleged foundation of the monastery in AD 547 is not far beside the truth, the moreover because several visitors noticed floor mosaics representing animals in rectangles in the apse, which were still visible in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the apse was decorated with wall paintings, and there was an iconostasis with old icons and a marble canopy over the altar. The only mural found so far is a fragment of an archangel in the southern lateral chapel. It was discovered in 1999 but vanished a few years ago.

Saydnaya has not yet revealed all of its mysteries, and certainly is a fertile hunting field for art historians and archaeologists. The Church of St Peter, for example, is a well-preserved Late Antique mausoleum, whereas several other churches were built up from Antique spoils. Sources also refer to traces of wall paintings in churches built along the roads leading to the monastery, some of which have survived, e.g. in the Churches of St John and St Sophia. The British traveler John Madox (1825) describes a Last Judgment scene in the Church of St Nicolas. So far I did not succeed in checking this allegation; finding the person with the key is a time-consuming challenge, but once Saydnaya’s almost permanently closed sanctuary doors are opened one is seldom disappointed.

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Monastery of St Thomas, Saydnaya (Syria)

One of the most remarkable yet hardly explored archaeological sites in the Qalamun is that of the Monastery of St Thomas, situated near the modern homonymous convent on top of a mountain to the west Saydnaya. The best-preserved building is the Church of St Thomas, which actually is a converted Roman temple. There are traces of medieval paintings on the north wall, which are in need of restoration. An impressive number of caves can be found inside and outside the outer wall of the monastery. It is, however, uncertain whether they were cut out to house monks, or date from pre-Christian times.

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Monastery of St Moses the Ethiopian, Nebk (Syria)

The Monastery of St Moses the Ethiopian (Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi) is situated in a remote valley across the mountains to the east of Nebk in the Qalamun, ca 80 km northeast of Damascus. Some parts of the outer wall and keep of this impressive construction may date back to the sixth century, when this Syrian Orthodox monastery was mentioned for the first time. Deir Mar Musa has attracted the attention of art historians for the wall paintings in its church, as well as inscriptions furnishing clues to their date and the names of artists and people involved in subsequent rebuilding campaigns. These fascinating paintings have been restored by the Istituto Centralo per il Restauro in Rome and the DGAM. The earliest layer was applied between AD 1058 and 1088. In 1095, the painter Hunayn (John) redecorated several parts of the building, whereas the nave was entirely repainted in 1208/09 by an artist called Sarkis (Sergius). Remarkably, nothing in the murals betrays the Syrian Orthodox denomination of this complex. The inscriptions on the eleventh-century layers are in Greek and those on Layer 3 in Syriac, but this language was also used by Melkite, Maronite and East Syrian (‘Nestorian’) Christians. Moreover, the iconographic themes are fairly common for a Middle Eastern church and contain fashionable elements such as a Last Judgment scene on the west wall and military saints carrying crossed banners, demonstrating that the Syrian Orthodox of the Muslim-controlled Qalamun were anything but isolated from their fellow believers living nearby and across the Lebanese mountain chain.

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Selected bibliography

Immerzeel, M., Identity Puzzles. Medieval Christian Art in Syria and Lebanon, Leuven 2009 (OLA 184).

Hélou, N., ‘A propos d’une école syro-libanaise d’icônes au XIIIe siècle’, Eastern Christian Art 3 (2006), 53-72.
Immerzeel, M., ‘Icon Painting in the County of Tripoli of the Thirteenth Century’, in: Hourihane, C. (ed.), Interactions. Artistic Interchange between the Eastern and Western Worlds in the Medieval Period, Princeton 2007 (The Index of Christian Art Occasional Papers IX), 67-83.
See also the reports in Bulletin Archéologique et d'Architecture Libanaises 11 (2007), and Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 16 (2005).

Kfar Shleiman:
Cruikshank Dodd, E., Medieval Painting in the Lebanon, Wiesbaden 2004, 307-314 (SKCO 8).
Helou N., ‘Les fresques de Saydet Naya a Kfar Shleiman (XIII siecle)’, Melanges de l'Université Saint Joseph, forthcoming.
Helou N., ‘Les fresques de Kaftoun: la cohabitation des deux traditions byzantine et orientale’, Chronos 20 (2009), forthcoming.
Nordiguian, L., ‘Une vision de Saint Eustathe au Liban’, Tempora 16-17 (200-2006), 163-169.
Peers, G., ‘Purposeful Polyvalency: the Stag and Hunter Motif in the 12th-13th Century Frescoed Grotto at Kfar Shleiman, Sayyidat Naya, Lebanon’, Iconographica 6 (2007), 44-53.

Deir Mar Musa:
Cruikshank Dodd, E., The Frescoes of Mar Musa al-Habashi. A Study in Medieval Painting in Syria, Toronto 2001.
Dall'Oglio, P., M. Cordaro, L. Alberti et al., Il restauro del monasterio di San Mosè l'Abisino, Nebek, Syria, Damascus 1998.
See also the contributions of Bas ter Haar Romeny, Johannes den Heijer, Mat Immerzeel and Stephan Westphalen in Eastern Christian Art 4 (2007).
A team of scholars headed by Professor Maria Andaloro (University of Viterbo) is presently conducting a monograph about the monastery and the restoration works.

Immerzeel, M., ‘The Decoration of the Chapel of the Prophet Elijah in Macarrat Saydnaya’, in: A. Schmidt, S. Westphalen (eds), Christliche Wandmalereien in Syrien: Qara und das Kloster Mar Yakub, Wiesbaden 2005 (SKCO 14), 155-182.
Immerzeel, M., ‘The Monastery of Saydnaya and its Icon’, Eastern Christian Art 4 (2007) 13-26.
Pyatnitsky, Yu., ‘A Byzantine Cloisonné Triptych in the State Hermitage Museum: From the Monastery of Saydnaya to St Petersburg’, with an Appendix by Mat Immerzeel, Eastern Christian Art 6 (2009), forthcoming.

Mat Immerzeel's research is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and Leiden University.

Article Images

1. Church Of Sts
2. Original Outer Wall
3. Prophet Elijah;
4. Prophet Daniel;
5. Church Of St Peter
6. Monastery Of St
7. Rock-cut Relief
8. Monastery Of St
9. Presentation In
10. Sts Basil
11. Icon: Virgin Child;
12. Virgin Of
13. St Bacchus; Church
14. Communion Of
15. Traces Of A Groin
16. Christ Of Deisis;
17. Virgin Child
18. Monastery Of Our wishes to thank the International Center of Medieval Art (ICMA) and Mat Immerzeel for granting permission to republish this article [original here].

Note from ICMA President

The remit of the ICMA is to cover all medieval art and not just that of the western world, and with that in mind I am delighted to welcome the latest in our series of online exhibitions which this time is curated by Mat Immerzeel, from the Paul Van Moorsel Center for Christian Art and Culture in the Middle East which is based in Leiden University.

Mat is also a former Associate of the ICMA and well known for his work on the arts of the medieval Middle East especially that of Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. A pupil of Paul Van Moorsel, Mat is one of the editors of the journal Eastern Christian Art. In this exhibition he shows us some of the painted treasures in churches in Lebanon and Syria and gives us a detailed bibliography for those who are interested in reading further.

I am very grateful to Mat for all his work on this and wish to thank Gerry (Guest) our webeditor for getting the show online.


Colum Hourihane
President, ICMA

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