The Syriac Maronite Art Tradition

 

The Maronite Church of Antioch-Edessa has always looked upon creation as a foreshadowing of Christ’s coming, as fingerprints of God’s own divine beauty and presence. Since all creatures are made in the image of God, they are icons of the Divine Artist. Dionysus, a Syriac mentor, described creation as “act of divine ecstacy”. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans says: “Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, i.e. God’s eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things He made” (Rom 1:20).

In a sense all spiritual realities need to be expressed in symbols, and human beings need symbols to come in contact with spiritual realities. The search for beauty is in fact, the search for the Hidden God who reveals himself to us through symbols in creation, words, and most perfectly, Jesus Christ.

For the Eastern Churches icons are not only forms of art; they are prayer and contemplation transformed into art. An icon manifests to us Mystery-Presence – the God who breaks through all symbols. In Jesus, perfect Icon of the Father, human beings are transformed into living icons of God. It is this divinization of humanity which underlies the significance of an icon.

The Rabbula Gospel Book Icons

In the Syriac-Maronite Church a magnificent legacy of icons is found in the Rabbula Gospel Book, written and illustrated in 586 A.D. at the monastery of Saint John, in northern Syria. By 1361 this ancient manuscript passed to Kanubin, Lebanon, and in early 1500 the manuscript was gifted by the Maronite Patriarch to the Pope, and was placed in the Medici Library in Florence, Italy.

Rabbula is the scribe of the text; the icons were painted by different monks. The Gospel Book consists of 14 pages (13.5″ x 10.5″) and 28 icons, most of which are miniatures of the scripture references.

The Rabbula Gospel Book is divided into 3 parts:

  • Icons of the election of Apostle Matthias and on the reverse side Mary, Mother of the Light.
  • Gospel Harmonizing Tables arranged inside of Syriac arches and Greek columns. Outside the arches the artists painted in the upper corners 2 Old Testament figures; in the middle events from the life of Christ, and in the lower corners flowers, leaves or animals. Fruit baskets, floral arrangements and plush gardens convey the sense of paradise.
  • Icons of the death-resurrection, ascension, Pentecost.

Characteristic of Eastern art is the use of animals and birds:

  • Dove a well-known symbol of the Spirit.
  • Rooster refers to awakening of the human heart to Christ.
  • peacock conveys themes of renewal and incorruptibility.

View the following examples of Maronite Art: