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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Preserving Syrian Icons from the Toll of Time and Loving Touches

Time and the caresses of the faithful have taken their toll on these unique works of art.

At the rear of the Mariamiyeh Church in Damascus, near the entrance, two glass-shielded icons shimmer in candlelight on either side of the central aisle. Throughout the long Sunday service worshippers enter the church and give a donation to an attendant. Most people then take one candle from the attendant’s table, some take more. They light their candles, place them in the sand of the candlestand, and bow their heads. Then they turn, approach the icon and pray. Some kiss the glass over the icon’s face, because “you always like to kiss somebody who is very close to you,” says Elias Zayat, a leading authority on Syrian icons. Others kiss their fingertips and then touch the icon’s covering.

Last October, the icons of Syria were brought together and exhibited at the Assad Library, a modern cultural facility in the Syrian capital. Some of the precious paintings were collected from churches, convents, and monasteries that date back to the earliest periods of Christianity. Hundreds of people visited the exhibit and were able to examine paintings that normally reside in remote or little-known sanctuaries.

This attention came none too late. While in the 8th century icons were being destroyed by people who feared idol-worship, in this era the ravages of time and usage have been taking their toll. Many valuable pieces have been “loved to death,” as it were. Without any consideration for the paintings themselves, believers have kissed, touched, and tacked icons into oblivion.

Father George Damaskinos knows. He works at the Greek Orthodox Mariamiyeh Church in Damascus, the largest in the country. He has studied icons, particularly their religious significance. His dark beard easily yielding to a warm smile, Father Damaskinos explains that the faithful “want to kiss the icon to show their respect, and sometimes they don’t reach.” He recalls an old woman, about four feet tall, whose lips cannot reach an icon of Jesus. “She will not bring a chair to go up, so she used her hand to kiss the face of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the people want to reach a definite place, you see.”

So that definite place, after thousands of loving yet eroding touches, becomes worn off. A piece of rich religious art is diminished and is less of an inspiration to future worshippers.

Another way icons have come to be destroyed is even as people have shown honor toward the personage represented in the image. When a sick relative or friend would recover after prayers for intercession, it had been customary to tack figures made of precious metals onto the icon, thus unintentionally disfiguring it.

“You see these small things inside?” asks Father Damaskinos, pointing to gold and silver eyes, heads, hands, and legs tacked to an icon of the Virgin Mary. “They say ‘I ask you, Mary Virgin, to help us,’ let’s say, ‘for the cure of the eyes of my son.’” And when the son gets cured, Mary gets a symbolic token of thanks – a set of silver eyes tacked firmly onto her portrait.

Some icons had become totally unrecognizable because of all the “limbs of gratitude.” “When I took off the nails, the picture was destroyed,” the priest says dejectedly.

Now transparent covers are used to protect icons from those who would tack the “thanks” on the image as well as from the touches which wear off the image. “They don’t think of the value of the icons, just [that] they are looking at the saints. They are talking to the saint, not to the picture,” Father Damaskinos says.

These days, people make do with kissing the glass over the icon or donating the silver hands or feet to the church – without tacking them to a precious painting.

Perhaps the person most knowledgeable about the icons of Syria is Elias Zayat. Ever since his days as an art student at the University of Damascus in the 1950s, he has focused on “the history of this art, the theology of this art, and the Syrian origin of this art.”

He has also given new luster to faded and worn old icons through restoration. By his count he has restored between 200 and 300 icons, including many of those exhibited at the Assad Library. An artist in his own right, he has painted roughly 200 icons, which hang in churches throughout Syria and in private collections. He says there are about five or six icon artists in Syria.

Elias Zayat paints and studies and restores in a dark basement warren jammed with books, hung with paintings and sculpture, and smelling of paint thinner. He eagerly shows a visitor the icons he is restoring at the moment and proudly produces “before” and “after” photos of past efforts. A pile of dirt-smudged cotton puffs on his worktable bears witness to the hours of painstaking cleaning old icons must undergo. After hundreds of years of exposure to dust, candle smoke, and incense, to temperature changes and human “erosion,” it is no wonder that many once-glowing paintings come to this table looking like little more than pieces of dark wood with vague images hidden beneath murky surfaces.

The traditional style, colors, and presentation of icons facilitate worship, enhance the liturgy, and carry on in visual form what words, music, and incense have begun.

Custom dictates the location of icons on the iconostasis, the wall which separates the priest from the congregation in Orthodox churches. Zayat theorizes that the large, icon-filled iconostasis of today’s Orthodox church originated after the iconoclastic controversy and symbolizes “the victory of the icon.” In earlier times the separating wall was smaller. The central, or royal, door, is flanked on the right by Christ and the left by the Virgin Mary. The patron of the church is next to Mary, and John the Baptist is next to the icon of Jesus. A depiction of the Annunciation, with Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. usually appears over or on the door, along with the Four Evangelists.

All these members of the universal Church “come down in their icons and are with us,” the Church on earth, to celebrate the Liturgy, says Zayat.

Incense is used in the liturgy around the icons “to give a spiritual atmosphere,” he continues. “You give them the good smell, because we believe that they are with us in the Liturgy – all the saints, Christ, with the nine ranks of angels. And behind the iconostasis you have the prophets of the Old Testament, all the prophets who spoke about the coming of Christ.”

As the worshippers enter the Mariamiyeh Church, they light a candle. Its flame is a symbol of sacrifice, a sign of sins burned away, according to Zayat. The flame also symbolizes the powerful living faith of Syrian Christians, who remain a vulnerable community. Bright, steady, and pure, it has burned through the many trials of the Church here over long generations. In communion with all members of the universal Church, including the holy women and men portrayed in the Syrian icons, today’s Syrian Christians share in the timeless, the eternal.

Anthony B. Toth, a writer specializing in the Middle East, lives in Damascus.

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