Wall paintings in Syria and Lebanon

Syriac-speaking Christians painted their churches throughout their long history. In the Early Christian period, these paintings closely followed the style and iconography of painting in Constantinople. In the city of Resafa, Syria, built by Justinian in the 6th cent., remains of wall paintings are well preserved in the soffits of the windows of the Cathedral and a large cross was painted in the apse of a side chapel. The remains of an Adoration of the Magi from the 6th cent. are visible in the Cathedral of Bostra, in the Ḥawrān (S. Syria). A remarkable painting of the Enthroned Christ with angels still adorns the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, which was used as a Christian church. There are many other examples not so well preserved.

Following the Arab conquests, Christians continued to paint their churches and these paintings were reportedly much admired, even by Muslims. When Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099, eastern Christians, both within the occupied lands and outside of them, experienced what Leroy calls a ‘Renaissance’ in all aspects of their religious and cultural life (see Renaissance, Syriac). This growth is evident in their painted churches.

Fine paintings from the late 12th cent. adorn the walls of the Church of Sts. Sergios and Bacchos in Qara, Syria, and in the nearby Dayro d-Mor Yaʿqub. The little church of Mar Elian in Ḥimṣ still preserves paintings that have been damaged by recent restoration. There is an account of painters from the monastery of Mar Elian, in Qaryatayn, who came to paint churches in Lebanon and paintings have been restored in the chapel of Maʿarrat Ṣaydnāyā, near Damascus. Wall paintings from the 13th  cent. also remain in the castles of Marqab and Crac des Chevaliers. Although the paintings in the castles were commissioned by the Crusaders, there is every indication that they were painted by local painters, trained in the Syr. tradition. The best preserved of the paintings in Syria are in Dayr Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabashī, near Nabk (Syr. Orth.), where the walls of the chapel were elaborately painted on at least four different occasions in the 11th and 12th/13th cent.

By the end of the 12th cent., Christians of different communities, Syr. Orth., Ch. of E., Maron., Chald., Syr. Cath., Melk., and even Abyssinians and Copts had moved into Lebanon to profit from new opportunities in trade and commerce offered by the Crusader states. The liturgies of many of these churches in Lebanon were in Syriac. Fragments of church painting from the late 12th and 13th cent. in the mountains of Lebanon witness to a continuing tradition of church decoration during this period. In both Syria and Lebanon, the earlier paintings are inscribed in Greek, whereas by the 13th cent. the common language for the inscriptions was Syriac (mostly in Esṭrangela), Arabic (often in Garshuni), or a combination of both.

Churches decorated with outstanding paintings in Lebanon are the Church of Mar Phocas in Amyūn, Mar Saba in Eddé, Mar Tadros in Bahdeidat, Mar Charbel in Maʿad, and Sts. Sergios and Bacchos in Kaftun. In addition, there are more than two dozen churches with fragmentary remains of painting on the walls. These paintings are all in the north of Lebanon, centered around the rich commercial area of Tripoli, in the Holy Valley of the Qadisha in the Lebanon range and in the lower foothills around Byblos and Batrun. Some of these paintings were hidden for many years under a coating of whitewash. Others remain untouched in the hermit caves by the river and under the cliffs of the Qadisha Gorge. Taken all together, they present an overview of the varied painterly tradition during the Crusader occupation, a tradition that survived into the Mamluk period. Paintings still exist also from the 16th and — until very recently — the 17th cent. Some of these paintings were destroyed in the last few years but have been recorded. The remainder are in precarious condition.

In Syria, this tradition of Christian painting was continued during Muslim rule. In Lebanon, the paintings indicate the rich and continuing tradition of Christian art in lands dominated by Crusaders. Both traditions are evidence of a flourishing Christian society that acted as liaison between Arabs and Franks. In this cultural ‘Renaissance’, the Syr. Orth. were especially prominent. In the 12th and 13th cent. they moved into Lebanon from the outlying areas of Damascus, Mardin, Diyarbakır (Amid), and Mosul, in order to occupy the monasteries behind Tripoli, taking over many Maronite establishments. The Mamluks allowed them to prosper in Lebanon, and they were joined by a further influx of monks from lands as distant as Abyssinia. By the end of the 15th cent., especially after 1488, the Maronites had assumed control of the Qadisha Valley and the adjacent mountainous areas. These areas remain largely Maronite today.

See also Art and architecture.

See Fig. 15, 17, 62, 63, 86, 87, 88c, and 101.

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How to Cite This Entry

Erica Cruikshank Dodd, “Wall paintings in Syria and Lebanon,” 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/Wall-paintings-in-Syria-and-Lebanon.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Erica Cruikshank Dodd, “Wall paintings in Syria and Lebanon,” 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/Wall-paintings-in-Syria-and-Lebanon.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Dodd, Erica Cruikshank. “Wall paintings in Syria and Lebanon.” 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/Wall-paintings-in-Syria-and-Lebanon.

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