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The Hidden Treasures of Christian Arab Art

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 14:49:23

Abraham dressed like an Arab Sheik. A horse ­depicted in Romanic style. The robes of the saints decorated as if they were miniatures. An Ecce Homo and a Saint Joseph with Child of ­obvious Latin tradition. A Byzantine ascension as theme and composition of the scene. Gold ­assist technique to illuminate the robes of Christ, the angels and some saints by means of thin golden streaks. The background gold of obvious Byzantine tradition decorated by stamping and ­embossing to create decorative whorls and ­spirals. Perspective architecture, stylised and Arab-Muslim on the background of the scenes. Post-Byzantine baroque style in the works of the Cretan Michael Polychronis. Use of Arabic next to Greek. Recurrent use of ‘local’ saints such as St. George, St. Sergius and St. Elias. These and other characteristics recur in the icons presented by Mother Agnès Mariam de la Croix. The author, dividing them into schools based on workshops closely connected to the monasteries, defines them as expressions of Arab-Christian art. Historically and geographically we are in the Ottoman Empire, between the XVI and the XIX century in the area between Aleppo, Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem. This is Christian art, or to be precise, portable icons destined for churches and monasteries commissioned by Arab speaking communities of Greek-Orthodox and Greek-Latin rite and produced by a series of ­local craftsmen, not always of equal value, or coming from the post-Byzantine world (Constantinople fell in 1453). The historical events of the early Otto­man period, in fact, made it possible for the Christian communities to renew contacts with other monastic centres of Greek tradition, to come into contact with the Latin world present in the area as a result of trade agreements and missionaries and, lastly, to relate with the ­Slavic-Orthodox world that intended to strengthen its links with the Holy Land. The extreme diversity of the icons reflects the networks to which the communities commissioning the work belong: the growing Latinisation of some communities going back under the authority of Rome is evident, for example, in the Koimesis dated at 1593, perhaps of Maronite origin, in which the two clients are a bishop with the Latin tiara and Byzantine vestments and a priest dressed in a Latin chasuble bearing a large red cross and the typical Syriac cowling headdress (kukulos). The same can be said of the magnificent icon of the baptism of St. Paul belonging to the School of Aleppo and dated 1715. In this case, Anania, in front of religious architecture symbolising the city and the Christians of Damascus, is dressed like a Byzantine priest and is baptising Paul with the shell that is typical of Latin tradition. Instead, elsewhere the influence of distant geographical areas like Valacchia and the Ukraine is explained by means of the movement of icons and craftsmen along the networks of the ­Orthodox world (this is the case for example of a ­prolific painter coming from the Ukraine and working in Aleppo in the XIX century). ‘A new world,’ as the author rightly describes it, which is the product of a new and marked ­circulation of goods, people and ideas in the area of the Mediterranean and eastern Europe. The work of Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, already published in French, is particularly precious for the iconographic and stylistic deciphering of the different groups of icons grouped together under the label of Arab-Christian art. This material, unknown to most and now magnificently ­illustrated in the Jaca Book edition, could represent a stimulus for other scholars to investigate the dynamic of the interaction between styles and dissimilar iconographies more in detail, so as to look profitably at the categories used to ­describe them and to compare this art with ­other Christian art works produced under a Muslim power. We have in mind early Islamic Egypt and Cyprus in the period following the crusades, but the examples could be more numerous.