The Maronite Icons: Modern Sacred Art

By Guita Hourani  
Chairperson of MARI

The Maronite Icons: Modern Sacred Art.
Dar Sader Publishers: Beirut, Lebanon, 1999, 204 pages.

The East was the earthly abode that received Christ and His plan of salvation. Consequently, it was the East that first tried to understand the mystery of Christ through theology, liturgy and art. This was accompanied by an abundant artistic creativity manifested in church architecture, frescoes, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and icons. These were created to manifest God's presence in the world.

The word "icon" is originally Greek and means image, likeness, persona, figure, or portrait. Icons are religious paintings, enamels, mosaics, and other depictions of a sacred being or personage. They are created in accord with doctrine to symbolize the Incarnation of the Word, the humanity of Christ and His presence in the world. The icons are themselves venerated as sacred. The art of iconography is also known as "visual theology." 

The book, The Maronite Icons: Modern Sacred Art, states that "an icon is a prayer in line and form; a hymn of praise in color and harmony, a work of beauty inspired by God, an offering of the soul, painted to adorn the Church. It illustrates the words of the Gospel, is faithful to apostolic teachings, and follows the traditions of the Church. It speaks to the heart and soul of the faithful, is a window into Heaven, and lifts us up to Christ and the Saints. An icon belongs to the liturgical worship of the Church. While it embodies eternity, it brings Heaven to earth."

Much of early Christian art was destroyed by invaders, wars, ignorance, and the passage of time. However, it was the iconoclastic controversy or movement that raged within Christianity which was most responsible for the destruction of the icons painted before the eighth century. This violent movement was begun in 726 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Leo who ordered the destruction of all religious images within the empire and the replacement of the crucifix by a cross without the "Corpus" or the figure of Christ. 

Bloodshed resulted from the warfare between the iconoclasts who opposed such imagery and the iconodules who venerated the icons. Thousands of images in the form of icons, frescoes, murals, mosaics, and the like were destroyed. Iconoclasm was supported by the Synod of 753 A.D., held under Constantine V, the son of Leo III but was later revoked by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. With the latter Council, the dogma of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation provided the basic rationale for veneration or the honoring of images. The rationale behind the Council of Nicaea was that God -- Invisible -- was incarnate in Jesus Christ, His Only Son -- Visible. Hence, the depiction of the Incarnation in icons and other renditions was permissible. Furthermore, such images help preserve the memory of Christ just as do the scriptures. In the East, such imagery complements the Scriptures. 

After the total defeat of the iconoclastic movement in 843 A. D., a great epoch of sacred and ornamental art ensued. This artistic expression strived to depict the majesty of Christ's mystery -- His birth, His death and His resurrection. In the era which preceded the iconoclastic movement, portraits were simple and only depicted Christ and/or the Blessed Mother. In the post-iconoclastic era, i.e. after the 9th century, icons became increasingly complex, descriptive and symbolic. Subjects and events from the Old and New Testaments and the lives of Saints were also portrayed. The icons were painted in tempera on wood, using ivory, metal, precious and semi-precious stones, enamel, and mosaics.

There was a revival in iconography following the iconoclastic era. However, in the past few centuries, a tendency to adorn churches and houses with statues and pictures has reduced the importance of icons. The Second Vatican Council stressed the importance of restoring diverse authentic and original traditions in the Church, especially those of the Eastern Churches. By that, the Council reinvigorated all aspects of worship and liturgy and as well, theology and art in the Eastern Churches. Furthermore, the demand for and interest in icons increased following the sociopolitical changes in Russia. Magnificent old icons were refinished and new icons were produced to satisfy demand.

The Maronite Church is one of the churches that is reclaiming its Syriac and Eastern roots. Very few Maronite icons and little information about Maronite iconographic art have come down to us. This absence prompted His Excellency Archbishop Boutros Gemayel, Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus, to promote modern Maronite sacred art and make it available in book form. 

Renewed interest in iconographic art within the Maronite Church may be attributed to the vision and work of Father Abdo Badwi, Director of the Institute of Sacred Art at the Holy Spirit University. Father Badwi has led the renaissance in Syro-Maronite architecture, iconography, mosaics, murals and religious vestments for the past 20 years.

This book, The Maronite Icons: Modern Sacred Art, is one manifestation of the renewed interest in and reverence for icons. Of the 51 icons in the book, 49 of them cover the Maronite Liturgical Year, which starts on the first Sunday of November and ends at the last Sunday of the Season of the Holy Cross; and include one of Saint Maron, Patron saint of the Maronites and one of Saint

John Maron, First Patriarch of the Maronite Church. A quotation from the Bible, a prayer from the Maronite Liturgy, and an explanatory text in both Arabic and English precedes each of the icons. 

All the icons, produced in the Maronite Diocese's workshop in Cyprus, are the work of Mrs. Jacqueline Ann Ascott, who has a Ph.D. in Coptic Art and has studied Byzantine and Syriac art. Following old, traditional procedures, she painted these icons under the supervision of Father John Sader, holder of a Ph.D. in Theology and Art History. The Antonine Sisters and other volunteers have helped Mrs. Ascott. As Archbishop Gemayel explained in his preface to the book, Mrs. Ascott "would live the liturgical event through meditation and prayer." She would share in the Eucharist, read the Bible, meditate and pray in order to reach deeply into "the mystery of the icon."

Mrs. Ascott created the icons in phases: First, by focusing on the meaning of the icon by reading the Bible and attending the Liturgy; by going back to a common Syriac theme or idea to choose a subject; and by referring to other iconographic traditions. Second, by establishing the basic design of the icon; by discussing these designs in detail; and by consultation on harmonious shade and color; and then by sketching and painting the icon. Third, by considering the opinion of a group of committed believers before exhibiting the finished icon in church.

The actual icons are painted on wood and are on display at the Bishopric of Cyprus in Nicosia. One observes that these icons have been influenced by Syriac, Byzantine, Melkite and Coptic iconographic art. The inscriptions on these icons are in three languages -- Syriac, the language of the Maronite Liturgy; Arabic, the language used in daily life by the Maronites in Lebanon and in other countries of migration; and Greek, the language of the daily life of the Maronite Cypriots. In these icons, Christ's humanity appears to be a loyal rendition of what one assumes were Christ's Semitic physical characteristics, the traditional beard and long hair. Christ is shown in full or three-quarter view. His divinity and transcendental holiness are shown in the abundance of light, in the golden hallow and in a certain calm and peace. 

Several motifs were used in the icons shown in the book. Whether the main subject of the icon is divine or human, it is presented in human form. Other symbolic, non-human and inanimate forms, such as the dove, the lamb, the peacock, the sheaves of wheat and plant life, the Cross, the Bible, the stars and planets, may also be present as in the following icons: the Dedication of the Church (p. 6), the Deceased Priests (p. 70), the Nativity of Our Lord II (p. 42), the Mystical Supper (p. 114), the Wedding at Cana of Galilee (p.74), the Assumption (p. 190), the Baptism of Our Lord II (p. 66) and the Consecration of the Church (p.2).

A composite painting may contain animate or inanimate objects; human, animal, or plant life; motifs associated with the cosmos likes stars and planets as well as other objects found in nature. Even recognized architectural structures often become part of a panorama in which a sacred event or ritual is depicted. 

In the icon above of the Transfiguration -- marked by Jesus' appearance as recorded in Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 10:2-13; Luke 9:28-36; and John 1, 14 -- human and natural motifs are used to interpret and illustrate the theological concept contained in the icon. Here, thaboric light shines forth from Jesus who is standing on Mount Tabor. To His left stands the Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, and to His right stands the Prophet Moses on Mount Sinai -- two prophets from the Old Testament witnessing the fulfillment of the Scriptures in the New Testament -- the Transfiguration fulfilled in the person of Christ. In this icon, Jesus appears in white giving a blessing with His right hand and holding the scroll of the Divine Word in His left. He appears in the oval mandala of triumph and glory from which rays of light shine forth. Below, the apostles Peter, James and John witness this holy event. The dazzling light affects each of them differently -- Peter is kneeling, John is in reverie, and James raises his hand to cover his eyes from the near-blinding, heavenly light.

In each of the icons, there is a "veiled, hidden or mysterious" aspect as well as a "revelatory, obvious or unambiguous" aspect. Both demand of the believer prayer and an understanding of the theology or theological concept now given shape and made visual through the medium of an icon. 

The book is an unprecedented achievement in the recent history of the Maronite Church. No matter to which school or style of iconography these icons belong, they are an inspiration and a significant contribution to Maronite art. 

Archbishop Gemayel wishes that this book will fall "into the hands of all shepherds, pastors, priests and faithful men and women throughout the world, and that it will be used to enrich prayer in all our churches." The book makes a valuable gift for memorable occasions.

Saint John Maximovitch said that "The value of an icon lies in the fact that, when we approach it, we want to pray before it with reverence. If the image elicits this feeling, it is an icon." Those who have worked so diligently to create these icons and to put them in a presentable and beautiful book hope that these holy pictures will inspire reverence and prayer and that they will become part of the Church heritage, and of the Maronites especially. 

 To obtain a copy of this book, please contact:
Dar Sader Publishing and Printing
P. O. Box 10 Beirut, Lebanon
Fax: 961-4-910270    


Further Reading

Cavarnos, C. Guide to Byzantine Iconography. Holy Transfiguration Monastery: Boston, Mass. 1993.

Denzinger, H. The Sources of Catholic Dogma. Translated by Roy J. DeFerrari, 13th Edition, B. Herder Book Co.: St. Louis, MO, 1955.

Grabar, A. Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins. Bollingen Series XXXV.10, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Cabrol, F. Dictionnaire d'Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie. 15 Vols, Paris, 1913-1953.

Cecchelli, C.; G. Furlani, M. Salmi (des). Rabbula Gospels in Syriac. Facsimile edition of the miniatures of the Syriac manuscript Plut.I, 56, in the Medicean-Laurentian Library. Olten and Lausanne, 1959.

Sotériou, G. A. Icones du Mont-Sinaï. 2 vols. Athens, 1956.

Quenot, M. The Icon: Window on the Kingdom. St Vladimirs Seminary, 1992.

Cruz, J. C. Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Statues and Portraits. Tan Books & Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Ouspensky, L. and E. Meyendorff (Translator). Theology of the Icon. St. Vladimir, 1992.

Nikitich Lazarev, V. et al (Editors) C. J. Dees (Translator). The Russian ICON: From Its Origin to the Sixteenth Century. Liturgical Press, 1997.

Pelikan, J. J. Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons. Princeton University Press, 1990.

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