by Dr. Mahmoud Zibawi

In the middle of the 15th century, Byzantium was nearing its end. The Eastern part of the Roman Empire vanished, but the Church remained, and its creative art kept shining. Under Ottoman rule, iconography reached its ultimate point, renewing itself with new creative energies. The disparate schools of iconography thrived and united. Greek, Serb, Bulgarian, and Syrian Iconographers all seemed to engage in the same activity. Local workshops contributed to this movement, adopting a common language characterized by their own many-colored patterns. Always open to the invisible, the icon celebrates holiness in lines and color, and reveals "the dwelling of God within men" (Rev. 21 3).

In Antioch, a thriving icon production continued that of the Greco-Balkan world. An Aleppan workshop seems to have constituted the focal point of this activity under the leadership of Yussef Al Musawir. An incomparable painter, Yussef founded a dynasty of iconographers from the father to great grandchild: Yussef, Nehmat-Allah, Hannania and Gergis. The evolution of this production from one generation to the next perfectly reflects that of icon in modern times. Thus, the production of Yussef's work unfolds in perfect fidelity to the Greek tradition. The work of Nehmat-Allah comes more original, constantly renewing its plastic treatment. The pre-set prototypes are enriched with new anecdotal details. The art of Hanania is transitional work of the descendant of the dynasty reflects the fading of the post-Byzantine art.

The most beautiful Aleppan icons are kept in the monastery of Our Lady of Balamand. The painting technique relies on pre- established models but gradually moves to a new originality, in style. Works like "The Crucifixion" or "The Descent into Hades" follow in minute detail the traditional prototypes. The arms are stretched out on the cross and the Savior "lies asleep to rise on the third day." The Virgin and Saint John are sharing the pains of the Crucified. The angels are shrouding their faces with their hands, deploring death of Christ. This pathos is opposed by the glorious descent " to the lower parts of the earth (Eph. 4:9). Trampling down the broken doors of Hades, Jesus Christ frees Adam and Eve from death and opens wide the way to eternal life for mankind.

The "Passion of St. George" takes up the panegyric model at had spread throughout the Greco- Balkan world. As a victim of torture or as a night faced by a coiling monster the Saint always shines with the glory of life stronger than death. Time and place change, actions are multiple, but the person remains impassive. The Saint overcomes all duality to become pure prayer. He lives, suffers and triumphs: in his interior state of prayer he remains in supreme beatitude, and already in this world, he experiences immortality and incorruptibility.

"Christ the Great High Priest" and the "Virgin Guide" reveal other characteristics. The polygonal decor is reminiscent of Islamic bookbinding. The background motif and vestimentary tunics are largely borrowed from Ottoman art. Magnificently worked, the golden surface reveals a harmoniously engraved space of friezes, arabesques and foliation restricting color the faces and hands. Integrated into this universe of signs, the transfigured human shines with gold and fire.

Moving from portrait icons to those depicting groups, the ornamental language becomes more precise and crystalline. The relieves are precise and the pronounced shadows have a great plasticity. The different shades of gold tally harmoniously with the colored tones. Lying on the ground, Jesse falls asleep. His tree blooms and the green branches are full of roses, pomegranites and vine shoots. The Virgin takes her place in the heart of this flowering. Seated around her, the twelve prophets show unrolled scrolls in their hands; calligraphy indicates traditional prefigurations of the Virgin.

The anecdotal style is evident in the narrative icons. New elements emphasizing the vividness of the scene enrich "Dormition of the Virgin." The events succeed one another under the same heaven. The apostles are transported on clouds towards Jerusalem to show reverence to the Mother of Life. In the center of the scene, Christ holds in his arms a swaddled newborn, an image of the immaculate soul of His Mother. Elsewhere in the same icon, the iconographer shows the Virgin being placed on a bier. The action culminates in glory: in the midst of a shining mandorla the Mother of Life is handing her sacred belt to Saint Thomas.

The "Forty Martyrs of Sebastia" adds new hagiographic details to the known prototype. Condemned to freeze to death in an icy pool, the witness-martyrs form a single body. To the right, one of them, unable to stand the torture any longer, renounces martyrdom and goes into a building. On the upper side, a pagan soldier touched by grace prepares to join the assembly of martyrs. The action continues on the upper level. Behind the crowd of saints are several figures: the emperor Licinus with the bodies of the martyrs crammed on a cart, a dying saint carried by his mother, and finally, a brazier on which the bodies of the holy martyrs are being consumed.

The iconographer also creates new compositions. Drawing from known models, the painter borrows, selects and arranges new ones. Inspired by a fixed fifteenth century post-Byzantine model, the school of Aleppo creates an original prototype joining "Simeon the Stylite and Simeon of the Admirable Mountain." The two great ascetics are seated on two pillars of marble, raised in the midst of a rocky site. Ten painted scenes recall their lives and miracles such as the visit of the Arab dignitary sent by the Ismailian queen suffering from infertility, the resurrection of Simeon's disciple, and the healing of a madman and a possessed soul.

Masterpieces of Syro-Christian art, Aleppan icons stand honorably in the history of post-Byzantine art. Far from being a vague memory of a saturated production, they reveal truthful and innovative creativity, extending and vivifying the inherited tradition.

Mahmoud Zibawi

The Iconostasis of St. George Church

The Iconostasis of Our Lady of Balamand Church

Last Judgment


The Virgin Guide

Sts Simeon

Forty Martyrs

Descent into Hades

Sunday of Orthodoxy


St. George

The High Priest