Art and architecture

A comprehensive study of Syr. Christian art and architecture is still missing, and only a few subfields are relatively well covered in overview monographs, such as the architecture of Syria west of the Euphrates (Butler; Lassus; Tchalenko), floor mosaics in churches of Syria and Lebanon (Donceel-Voûte), manuscript illumination (Leroy 1964), and wall paintings in Syria and Lebanon (Cruikshank Dodd; Immerzeel 2009). Given Syr. Christianity’s intertwinement, throughout its history, with other linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions, the definition of what constitutes ‘Syr. Christian’ art or architecture is somewhat elusive and should not be attempted here. In the early period much of Syr. Christianity was situated in the Roman Empire, in which there was a great deal of overlap between Syr. Christian and Greek Christian art and culture. In the Islamic period certain forms of art were shared between Syr. Christians and Muslims. In addition, the proximity of Byzantine Christianity or even Western Christianity (esp. in the period of the Crusades) had its impact on themes and forms of expressions. There is some evidence in the early Syr. tradition of the use of portable icons (the image of Edessa, which was believed to be a portrait of Jesus, being the most famous of these), but it is only among the Christians of the Chalcedonian traditions (Melkite and Maronite) that the art of icon painting flourished and that local styles emerged, such as in the 13th cent. in Tripoli and in the 17th cent. in Aleppo. In the other Syr. traditions (Syr. Orth. and Ch. of E.) the cult of images in whatever form never became as prominent as it was in the Byzantine tradition, even though there is no evidence of any opposition to the use of figurative art, and suggestions that Syr. Christianity was somehow connected to the iconoclastic movement within the Byzantine tradition or to any other an-iconic tradition should be rejected (Brock 2004; Teule). In general, the study of Syr. Christian art and architecture is seriously hampered by the fact that the surviving remains are fragmentary and mostly deprived of their original context. Accompanying inscriptions, occasionally containing dates and names, may provide crucial information. In the present overview only a few areas will be highlighted.

The art of the semi-independent kingdom of Edessa is accessible to us in a number of funerary mosaics, dated or datable to the first three cent. AD (prior to the mid–3rd cent.). Some of these show portraits of the deceased, often with their family; others have topics or figures from Greco-Roman antiquity, such as the Phoenix or Orpheus playing the lyre. Reflecting the life of the urban aristocracy, the mosaics show the proximity of the Parthian world, in particular in the costumes (Leroy 1957). Most of the mosaics (some of which are dated in their inscriptions) are contemporaneous with the nascent Christian communities in Edessa, and with our earliest Christian authors, such as Bardaiṣan, but none of them can be identified as specifically Christian (Drijvers and Healey; Healey; Segal).

The earliest dated church in the Syr. Christian area is the church of Yaʿqub of Nisibis which in a baptistery inscription that survives to the present day is dated to 359, i.e., the time when Ephrem lived in the city. Even though we are in the easternmost corner of the Roman Empire and in the heartland of Syr. Christianity, the inscription is not in Syriac, but in Greek.

Most of the evidence for churches between the 4th and 7th cent. is from the region between Antioch and Aleppo. Known as the ‘Dead cities’, because they were abandoned in the early Islamic period due to shifting patterns of economy and trade (and are still largely deserted today), numerous sites show the secular and religious buildings of villages and medium-size communities. Several churches are impressive, and the architectural skeleton of some of them is well-preserved, having been exposed to the forces of nature only, not to re-use or destruction by humans. Some churches are very small (such as the single-aisled church of Qirqbize). Other churches derive their importance from their role as pilgrim destinations, such as the church of Qalbloze, and above all the magnificent church of Shemʿun the Stylite, which was built in the late 5th cent. and which consists of four three-aisled basilicas converging on the saint’s pillar. Even today the scattered ruins and the very refined capital sculptures evoke the church’s former majesty. Another popular pilgrim destination, which flourished in the 6th cent., is the shrine of Mar Sargis (St. Sergius) in Resafa, more eastwards in the Syrian steppe (ca. 160  km. southeast of Aleppo).

The region of Ṭur ʿAbdin and the wider area around it also preserve some of the earliest churches of Syr. Christianity, some of which were expanded throughout the centuries and are still in use today. The well-preserved main church of Dayr al-Zaʿfarān dates back to the 6th cent., while some of the rebuilding and refurbishment of the church of the Monastery of Mor Gabriel can be dated to the reign of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius (r. 491–518). Several other churches in this area go back to the early Islamic period, such as the church of Ḥaḥ and the church of the Holy Cross, in the monastery of the same name (Dayr al-Ṣalīb).

A special architectural feature in some of the earliest churches is the bema. This is a raised platform, usually horseshoe-shaped and with low walls, which is located in the middle of the nave and on which the liturgy of the Word was performed. The above-mentioned churches of Qirqbize, Qalbloze, and Resafa provide interesting examples, while detached pieces of the bema construction have found their way to modern museums, such as the stone bema lectern of Bennawi, which is presently shown in the garden of the National Museum of Damascus (Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, 43). In recent years the bema has received considerable attention, both from liturgists and archeologists (Cassis, Loosley, Renhart, and Taft).

Several other detached pieces of church decoration, chancel panels, or door lintels, exhibiting ornamental motifs or iconographical themes, are found scattered all over the world. Two chancel panels in stone, uncovered at Rasm al-Qanafez (to the east of Salamiyya, Syria) and presently in the National Museum of Damascus, show Daniel among the lions and the three Magi approaching the Virgin with Child (Syrie, 358–59; Peña, 84).

Floor mosaics as well often have left their original location. Most of the mosaics belonging to churches in Syria and Lebanon have conveniently been brought together by P. Donceel-Voûte, with the ‘Adam mosaic’ in the Michaelion of Huarte (ca. 15 km. north-northeast of Apamea) as one of the highlights (Donceel-Voûte, 105), to be compared with the royal Adam shown on a mosaic panel in the Museum of Ḥama, the latter with a Greek and Syriac caption (ibid., 113; also in Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, 41). More recently beautiful mosaics have been uncovered at Tall Biʿa, near Raqqaʿ/Kallinikos, in the church of a monastery that may have been the Monastery of Mar Zakkay, to which Yuḥanon of Tella once belonged (Kalla, with further references).

While by far the largest part of our evidence for the early period belongs to the W.-Syr. tradition (in particular Syr. Orth. and Melkite), there has been in recent years considerable and promising archeological activity in the geographical area of the Ch. of E. (Hauser; Kröger, with further references). The Christian monuments of Iraq (belonging to either the Ch. of E. or the Syr. Orth. tradition), a number of which go back to the first millennium, have been surveyed by Fiey in his three-volume publication Assyrie chrétienne, while the same scholar devoted a separate volume to Mosul (1959). Sites of particular significance are the city of Tagrit (Harrak 2001), Dayro d-Mor Matay and Dayro d-Mor Behnam (nowadays Syr. Cath.), with its exceptional 13th-cent. carvings on the main entrance door. There is also some evidence of building activity associated with the Ch. of E. in the Holy Land, in particular a hermitage near Jericho (Fiey 1983, and Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, 46) and possibly a monastic complex at Tel Masos, in the northern Negev (Fritz and Maiberger).

An excellent survey of illuminated mss. kept in Western and Middle-Eastern libraries, with detailed analysis, is available in Leroy 1964. The most significant set of early illuminations is found in the opening quire of the 6th-cent. ms. that contains the Rabbula Gospels (named after the scribe of the Gospel text), with its richly decorated canon tables and its full-page illuminations. Of the same period, or possibly slightly later, is the so-called ‘Syriac Bible from Paris’ (Paris, Bibl. Nat. Syr. 341), which contains mostly OT themes and figures (Sörries). The art of ms. illumination came to full fruition in the 11th to 13th cent.: along with biblical mss., such as the ‘Buchanan Bible’ (ms. Cambridge, Univ. Libr. Oo. I.1,2; on which, see Hunt), there are a number of lectionaries, most of them belonging to the Syr. Orth. tradition. The number of E.-Syr. illuminated mss. is very limited (for some 15th-cent. examples, see Leroy, 417–18 and 393–403; Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, 237–38). In the 16th cent. the tradition of ms. illumination was given new life among the Chaldeans (see e.g. ms. Borgia Syr. 169, Leroy, 404–8). For more recent studies, esp. on the Syr. Orth. mss. of the 11th–13th cent., see e.g. Doumato. It should also be noted that ms. illumination is not limited to the mss. of the mainstream ecclesiastical traditions, but is also found, e.g., in magic mss. (Balicka-Witakowska 2008).

Most of the late antique churches must have contained painting, either of a purely ornamental nature or intended to provide instruction or to impart devotion. Remains of painting can be found on some of the ruins, but no full Christian wall paintings from the first millennium have survived. The wall paintings in Syria and Lebanon deserve separate attention, with those of Dayr Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabashī, Qara, and the Lebanese Qadisha Valley as unmistakable highlights. Most of these belong to the period between the 11th and 13th century. To the same period in all likelihood belongs a newly discovered wall painting in the church of Mar Gewargis in Qaraqosh, near Mosul, representing the Baptism of Jesus (Snelders 2007). The art of wall painting continued well into the modern area. Interesting 18th-cent. examples are found in the Syr. Orth. church of Sergius and Bacchus in Ṣadad, ca. 100 km. north east of Damascus (Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, 147–50).

In addition to the heartlands of Syr. Christianity, wall paintings reflecting Syriac Christianity may be found in Dayr al-Suryān in Egypt, which from the early 9th cent. onwards had a mixed Coptic and Syriac monastic population. While the earliest paintings in the main Church of the monastery predate the arrival of Syr. monks, some of the later paintings must reflect the interests and taste of the Syr. monks. This may be the case for the probably 10th-cent. painting of the Three Patriarchs (Innemée 1998), and even more so for the very fragmentarily preserved paintings of Emperor Constantine and King Abgar (holding the mandylion), both of which are accompanied by Syriac inscriptions and may also belong to the 10th  cent. (Innemée and Van Rompay). Fully preserved paintings in three half-domes of the church, with Syriac inscriptions, belong to the early 13th cent. (Leroy 1982).

A large number of 5th- or 6th-cent. liturgical objects from Syria have been uncovered in the course of the 20th cent., in the area south-west of Aleppo (Mundell Mango). In some cases inscriptions provide information on the date and on the church to which the objects belonged: Kaper Koraon (the exact location of which is uncertain) and Beth Misona (three chalices and a paten, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art). While the link with Syriac Christianity seems to be obvious, the inscriptions are in Greek, not in Syriac. A rare Syriac inscribed silver dish from the 6th cent., in the collection of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, has been made popular among Syr. scholars by R. Murray’s Symbols of Church and Kingdom (1975 and 2004). It represents the Ascension, the women at the tomb, and the Crucifixion, along with soldiers, Peter and the cock, and Daniel in the lions’ den.

To a slightly later period, perhaps 8th or 9th cent., belongs a very well preserved bronze incense burner uncovered in Takrit (now in the National Museum of Baghdad); it has nine scenes from the life of Jesus (Harrak 2006), but no inscriptions.

From the early 13th-cent. a bronze liturgical fan is preserved (marwḥā or marwaḥtā, ‘flabellum’), now housed in the Belgian Museum of Mariemont. The Syr. inscription reports that it was made in 1202/3 for Dayr al-Suryān in Egypt; it may have been produced in a workshop in the Mosul area (Snelders and Immerzeel). To the same period belongs the church treasure of Resafa, which includes a skillfully decorated silver chalice and a paten, both bearing inscriptions in Syriac (even though the objects may have been of Western origin or inspiration). The paten was a gift to the church of St. Sergius at Resafa by Ḥasnon of Edessa. These objects had probably been buried in order to be saved from the Mongol invasions of 1259/60 (Ulbert; Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, vol. 2, 212).

While some information on liturgical vestments may be extracted from literary sources and from depictions in ms. illuminations and wall paintings, a rare piece, presently housed in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, has recently been studied: a bishop’s stole (batrashil), bearing inscriptions in Syriac and Arabic. It was made for Bp. Athanasius Abraham Yaghmur of Nabk in 1534–35 (Ball).

While the precious remains of ancient Syr. Christian art and architecture nowadays are receiving more attention from Syr. scholars and Syr. Christians alike, Syr. Christians at the same time are creating their own art forms, often inspired by the treasures of the past, to which they add new layers of interpretation and meaning according to their present-day situation. Churches are being renovated or new churches are being built in the Middle East, in India, and in the worldwide diaspora . In many of these churches the ancient art of wall painting is brought to new life, while present-day liturgical publications often reflect the illuminated manuscripts of the past (for the Maronite tradition, see e.g. Badwi).

See Fig. 1, 9, 10, 11, 12c, 13, 14, 15 , 62, 63, 64, 65, 71c, 77c, 80, 86, 88c, 101, 104c, 112, 115, 116, 117, and 118 .

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How to Cite This Entry

Lucas Van Rompay, “Art and architecture,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Art-and-architecture.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Lucas Van Rompay, “Art and architecture,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Art-and-architecture.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Van Rompay, Lucas. “Art and architecture.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Art-and-architecture.

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