When most people think of icons they think of delicate Greek triptychs or the fabulous jeweled icons of Russia locked deep in the vaults of the Kremlin. Yet for almost three centuries, Arab artists, usually members of Christian religious orders, made icons in the Middle East. Icon is a Greek word meaning 'image' but on the basis of funeral portraits found in Fayyoum, Egypt, scholars have suggested that the iconic form itself may be Middle Eastern.
The Arab icons are called "Melkite" icons because they were painted by Arab artisans who belonged to the Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic Church. Virgil Candea, a Rumanian scholar, first used the term when he was consultant for an exhibition of icons from Lebanese and Syrian collections produced by the Sursock Museum of Beirut in May 1969. His source was the derisive expression "Melkite" used by heretic Nestorian Christians to refer to communities which remained loyal to the Byzantine State Church after the early theological disputes over the nature of Christ. In the 18th century, after reuniting with the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholics used the term to distinguish themselves from their former Greek Orthodox brethren.
According to Sylvia Agemian, the discovery of the Melkite icons is very important scholastically. Mrs. Agemian, a researcher at the Sursock Museum and possibly the only specialist in Melkite icons in the Middle East, says: "For the first time it is being recognized that there were schools of iconographers in the Middle East which followed the Byzantine or Greek iconic tradition with the addition of Islamic elements."
Icons are an integral part of the religious life of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Like statuary and Gothic carvings they are seen as holy objects to be venerated, not merely appreciated as decoration. Yet just as decoration they are unique. Icons—original icons—are images painted onto a gold veneer applied to a smooth coat of plaster on a wooden board. Usually they were placed on a screen in front of the altar for the congregation to contemplate during the services.
Because the first icon was thought to be the image of Christ left on St. Veronica's veil which she had given him to wipe his face with when he was carrying the cross to Calvary, the early Church decided that portrayal of the divine could not be left to the imagination of the individual artist. Up to the 17th century, traditional Byzantine icon painters were forced to follow instructions in a church manual which decreed that holy persons must be as other-worldly as possible. To achieve this the artist imposed geometric molding on the body to make his subjects appear almost fleshless, and minimized any hint of the sensual by swathing them in heavy draperies. Since the saints were blessed with the Beatific Vision and therefore exuded an inner holy light, the artist painted fine white lines on the saint's cheekbones and hands to suggest the light.
As part of the formula to emphasize holiness, the artist also gave his saints heads that were disproportionately large, and formally molded beards and hair. Even colors were specified by the church guide. The Virgin's maphorion, a veil which covered the head and shoulders of all female saints, was always an ochre red to symbolize the tragic fate of her son.
If they appeared, mountains and buildings were highly stylized, bearing almost no relation to reality. But they didn't appear often. On orthodox icons divine persons were pictured against a background of gold with no terrestrial elements other than those associated with the particular saint: books for the Evangelists and Patriarchs, swords for martial saints such as St. George. (See article on page 4.)
Melkite artists probably learned the form of the icon from icons brought to the Middle East by Byzantine Greek and Russian patriarchs and pilgrims, and from Greek artists who lived and worked in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. But the Melkite craftsmen also knew the Cretan works of the 14th and 17th centuries. On an icon of the Archangel Michael, which he did in 1726, the artist Hanna al-Kudsi, who worked in Syria and Lebanon during the first half of the 18th century, put an inscription saying it was based on an earlier Cretan icon. Melkite icons, however, differ from their Greek and Russian counterparts more in detail and treatment of subjects than in form. General traits like decoration, the faces and bodies of the subjects, the frequency of certain themes and, of course, Arabic inscriptions, distinguish the Melkite icon.
In the early days, Melkite artists naturally looked to the Byzantine Greek models for guidance. But as they matured they quickly began to express their own tastes and feelings. Although the Byzantine elements prevail in the majority of the early paintings, the presence of markedly Arab characteristics is apparent. All the faces painted by the Melkite artists—not just Middle East saints, but Christ and his angels too—have Arabized complexions. There is a more natural oval to the faces and a softer expression than in the Byzantine icon. The bodies are fuller and rounder with less of the modeling which is characteristic of traditional icon painting. In addition, there are Arab costumes, contemporary furniture and daily household objects—all in sharp contrast to the other-worldly and awe-inspiring Byzantine saints. In one early 18th-century Melkite work, for example, the baby Virgin Mary is rocked in a cradle still common to Syria and Lebanon today. In others, Abraham, preparing to sacrifice his son, wears a turban, John the Evangelist writes at an Arab writing desk and St. George brandishes an Arab sword.
The earliest Melkite works are characterized by sumptuous decoration which the Christian craftsmen borrowed directly from Islamic art. The intricate decorations found on brasswork, on Persian carpets, and on the brocades and wood panels of Damascus are all found on Melkite icons. The whole surface of the icon was covered with floral, vegetable and geometric designs; bent leaves, lotus flowers, pomegranates, lilies, tulips and palms are scattered on the borders, the halos and the clothing of the saints. This is not to say that all Melkite icons are ornately decorated; the 19th-century ones are often simple in the extreme.
Like European artists, the Melkite painters were influenced by their environment when they chose themes to illustrate. Local saints and legends that are typically oriental or have an oriental setting were popular: St. George, who, legend says, fought his battle with the dragon near Beirut, St. Saba, who headed a monastic order outside Jerusalem, St. Simeon Stylites who stood on his pillar in Syria for 60 years, St. Mary the Egyptian, the Virgin Mary in the Garden of Jesse and the Prophet Elie beheading the priests of Baal.
Even the dedicatory inscriptions on Melkite icons take on a distinctly Middle Eastern literary flavor. Whereas Greek and Russian inscriptions are succinct, those on Melkite works are long and flowery. For example, an icon of St. Spiridon given to a Rumanian church in 1749 by Sylvester, the Patriarch of Antioch, has not only the giver's name and the occasion but blessings and salutations covering about one-fourth of the icon.
Most of the early Melkite icons were made in Aleppo, where a family of Syrians and their students produced some of the finest examples of Melkite work. The priest, Yusuf al-Mussawwir; his son, Ne'meh; grandson, Hanania; and great grandson, Girgis, span two centuries, from the 17th to the 18th, with their works. The greatest of this family of iconographers was Ne'meh, who developed the Aleppo style. Though he did not completely break with the traditional Byzantine manner of icons, he preferred a stylized naturalism. Ne'meh's angels and women have more pronounced oval heads than in Byzantine painting, his young people have rounded faces and his men have large heads with bulging foreheads, prominent cheekbones and hollow cheeks. While their noses retain the slenderness of their Byzantine prototypes, his saints have the fine almond-shaped and heavily lashed eyes found among Arab people. Ne'meh, moreover, personalized his icons with alternating green and red borders covered with gold decoration.
The influence of the Aleppo School lasted until the late 18th century with an astonishing continuity and abundance. Shukrallah ibn Yuwakim, also from Aleppo, Kyrillos al-Dimashki and some anonymous painters belonging to the Basilian religious order adhered to Ne'meh's physiognomic types, general ornamentation and the characteristic green and red borders that mark the Aleppo School of painters.
Although anonymity remained the general rule among icon painters outside the Aleppo School, several independent Melkite craftsmen do emerge. Hanna al-Kudsi, who painted during the early 18th century, did mostly restorations and reproductions of earlier works, including some of Ne'meh's. His own works are closer to traditional icon painting. Mikhail al-Dimashki, who worked in Damascus about the same time as Hanna al-Kudsi did in Jerusalem, painted traditional icons of a popular nature with elements taken from western painters.
The works of Sylvester, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, though made in the Middle East, are strictly Byzantine in form. They attest to the controversy between the Eastern Church and the Church of Rome. Sylvester spent most of his life fighting Cyrillus V, the Patriarch of Aleppo and some of Cyrillus' bishops who, under the influence of Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries, left the Greek Orthodox Church and joined the Roman Catholic doctrine. Sylvester's paintings are formally Byzantine because he was countering the spread of doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, which is not a precept of the Eastern Church.:
By the 19th century, the demand for smaller, more popular icons, and the larger prosperity made personal ownership of icons a possibility. At the same time, however, individuals had less money to use on the ornamentation of an icon than did the church so instead of etching their subjects on gold, artists took to painting directly on the wood. With the increased demand for icons, especially from the newly established Greek Catholic churches, the artists had less time, so the elaborate ornamentation of earlier Melkite icons gave way to simpler decoration and by the second half of the 19th century decoration completely disappears. Instead of intricate designs which cover the surface and borders of the icons in works from the Aleppo School, there are simple clusters of flowers. Stylized bodies and faces totally disappear and the painters break completely with dogmatic artistic restraints.
In these later icons, Middle Eastern villagers and peasants are prominent, particularly in the works of Butros 'Agaimi, a Lebanese priest who worked during the beginning of the 19th century near Deir al-Kamar. His icon of St. Jean Climaque pictures the saint with a large fleshy face, a wide nose, big eyes, and rough workman's hands. He could just as easily be a Lebanese or Syrian laborer as the sixth-century priest who lived in Sinai and wrote a famous book of virtues. There is no gold at all used in this icon and the colors are earthy browns and grays.
A mid-19th-century Melkite painter who also favored the simple style is Ne'meh Naser from Homs, Syria. His works are characterized by their roughness. He worked directly on the wet plaster and the grooves are visible even through several layers of paint.
Although the influence of the Aleppo School dies out in the 19th century, in the middle of the century another school of painters appears in Jerusalem—the Kudsi. A group of three Melkite artists, Mikhail Mhanna, Yuhanna Saliba and Nicolas Theodorus, must have had a kind of assembly line workshop because they have so many icons of the same subject done in the same manner. Their works are characterized by large brush strokes and simplicity. Their saints have heads as round as oranges and faces that are touched with a sweet serenity.
The biggest influence on Melkite painters in the 19th century came from a Cretan painter, Michael Polychronis, or Michael the Cretan, who lived and worked in Damascus from 1809 to 1821. Almost every church of any significance in the Middle East has an icon done by Michael. Although his icons have Byzantine and Italianate elements, his works, which are done in oil, include decorative themes from the woodwork panels of Damascus in the draperies of his saints and so are classified as Melkite. The draperies of the robe are magnificently molded and his saints retain the fierce spirituallity of expression of the Byzantine world. Michael's significance is not confined to his achievements but to his influence on the average artist of his day. Outside the primitive painters like Butros 'Agaimy, every Melkite painter tried to imitate Michael's occidental style.
With the attraction of things western at the turn of the century, artists abandoned the local style. For decades the knowledge of Melkite icons was the privileged information of only a few Lebanese and Syrian collectors. With their rediscovery a valuable addition has been made to art and religion. Scholars are hoping, although the study of Melkite icons is still germinal, that they will provide new insights into the lives of the Arab Christians.
Karen Lewis is a graduate of Miami University of Ohio, a former Peace Corps teacher in Ethiopia and a former reporter for the New York Post. In Beirut she has contributed to the Washington Post and does news broadcasts for ABC radio.