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Perilous cradle of Christianity

21 December 2017

Nicholas Cranfield views a landmark exhibition, ‘Christians of the East’

© Direction Générale des Antiquités/Musée national de Beyrouth/Tony Farraj

The Virgin and Child: a fresco from Beirut, Lebanon (13th century)

The Virgin and Child: a fresco from Beirut, Lebanon (13th century)

CHRISTIANITY was in origin an Eastern cult, a fact that, at our cost, the West has often overlooked. The teachings of Christ spread out, between the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, reaching down the banks of the Nile and to the Bosphorus, a region where the Hellenistic empire had a very different presence from that which St Paul encountered in the Athenian agora, or in his prison in Rome.

This significant exhibition, which has had more than 100,000 visitors traces the span of the faith across the Orient over two millennia and, crucially, offers a perspective on the resurgence of contemporary Christianity, often in adverse circumstances and under threat of persecution as the Barnabas Fund repeatedly evidences.

It is an encouraging exhibition for those nay-sayers and doubters who are pessimistic about the whole Christian experiment, while at the same time it offers some extraordinarily rich treasures. If you catch the right train with Eurostar, it should be considerably cheaper to reach the Rive Gauche than to fly to Lebanon or to Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. At Turcoing, formerly a world textile capital, where the exhibition moves in the spring, it will be even closer to those of us in Northern Europe, less than 60 miles from Calais.

The relationship of la belle France with the countries of the Levant and the Arab world has always differed from that of Britannia. Jack Lang, formerly Mitterand’s Cultural Minister, is President of the Arab World Institute, and I had the feeling that his stature has greatly aided the organisers in assembling such an impressive range of material. Since 1856, the Christians of France have served those of our brothers and sisters in the Orient, and continue to do so, in the face of the constant more recent maltreatment.

Never before has any presentation brought together so many works from the Christian communities themselves, liturgical objects, manuscripts, and precious relics, and set them in the context of the historical, religious, and cultural world known to Jesus and his first followers.

In the 21st-century Orient, only the population in Lebanon is recorded as being more than 35 per cent Christian; in Iraq and Palestine, it is reckoned as less than 2.5 per cent, while Syria, with its diverse congregations of Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Syrians (both Catholic and Orthodox), Greek Melkite Catholics, Maronites, Latins, Chaldeans, and Protestants, is perhaps only just six per cent.

But contemporary Christians, despite all the vicissitudes of history charted in this show, remain resilient, and have generously shared many of the treasures of their faithful witness. The Syrian Catholic Patriarch has sent any number of illuminated manuscripts from the monastery of Charfet, recalling the history of its relations with Rome.

The Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem has loaned a Gospel book produced in Cicilia in south-eastern Turkey for queen Mariun by the priest Nerses, illuminated by Sarkis Pitzak Sis in 1346. In the scene of the Deposition from the Cross, Nicodemus reaches round under Christ’s arm to use pincers to remove the final nail. Their arms fold together as if he is the Son of God’s dance partner.

This is to see salvation writ large.

As Christianity gradually overtook the gods of the pagan world, conquering the monopoly of the Roman divinities over three centuries, we see how it both transformed and challenged the existing order and developed its own vocabulary of images.

When faced with the later threat of the Muslim invaders, it accommodated much of their style, besides, at one point, carrying out its own destruction of icons. A luxury Egyptian copy of the Penteteuch dating to 1353 was illuminated in such a way as to look like the Qur’an, and, in a 15th-century Syrian Gospel book from Iraq, John the Baptist appears at the Jordan river, heavily bearded and vested as a mullah (British Library Add ms.7174, ff. 2iv-22r).

Despite the early conquest by the followers of Muhammad under the first four caliphs (632-661), the followers of Jesus were often left free to retain their beliefs. Their status as dhimmis, protected persons, allowed Christians to remain at the centre of government and of society, as they continued to do under the Ottomans (1453-1923). In the 19th century, many Christian thinkers in the region continued to play a vital part in the social and political life of their home countries.

The exhibition does not, indeed cannot, shirk the violence so often meted out against Christian communities: one has only to think of the fate of the Armenians in 1915. But the organisers argue powerfully that the question of diversity within the Arab world is still much affected by the part that Christians continue to play in the new secular and civic consciousness that is emerging in much of the Orient.

Political concerns are never far from the surface. We first encounter part of a floor mosaic depicting Alexandria, from the Church of St John the Baptist, Jerash, in Jordan, which is dated to AD 531.

It is a reminder that the Egyptian city was very much the intellectual powerhouse of the world after the collapse of the Academy in Athens and the fall of Rome. The city’s importance for trade at the mouth of the Nile delta and its reputation for scholarship, which lasted long into the period of Islamicisation, assured its survival.

According to tradition, Alexandria was evangelised by the Apostle Mark himself. The Louvre has loaned a deeply cut tinted ivory relief of the Evangelist, surrounded by 34 of his successors, in which we glimpse several persons straining out of upstairs windows to be included. Mark’s right hand is held up in blessing. The serried ranks of prelates crowding around him wear long chasubles in the latest seventh-century style, as if attending a patriarchal synod.

Some of the last exhibits are photographs by Roger Anis (2015) which show a newly married couple standing in the ruins of Cairo, the bride’s white dress at odds with the smouldering ruins of houses behind them. In another, the groom tries to give her a leg up over a graffiti-covered barrier wall.

Another photographer captures the Syrian village of Maaloula, once a symbol of religious freedom, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus himself, is still spoken. Assad’s men destroyed the monastery of St Sergius in April 2014 to drive out rebel forces who had occupied it. Nothing new: back in 1020, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in Egypt had launched one of the bloodiest persecutions in history.

But the Word of God has not been silenced, despite the more recent mass migrations of so many Christians from the region.

The priest seen sitting outside the Church of St Anne in Jerusalem with his wife and two daughters, photographed by Fr Jules Ruffier just before the First World War, could not perhaps imagine the world after Balfour; but I am sure that his successors remain just as stoic-looking. The French government maintains the church; built for Queen Melisende between 1131 and 1138, it survived the destruction of Saladin’s 1187 conquest of the city to become a madrasa.

Among the precious items on show is the firman of 18 January 1567 installing the Franciscans in the conventual house of the Holy Sepulchre (Terra Sancta Museum, Jerusalem). The 16 lines of Arabic cursive, running the length of the 77cm scroll, must have appeared exotic and luxurious to the brethren vowed to poverty.

An earlier firman, decreed by the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Barquq, was signed on the feast day of St Francis, 4 October 1397, and allowed the Franciscans to rebuild the shrine church itself.

The rise of monasticism forms a central part of the show, with icons of monastic saints, an early basalt stele on which is carved Simon Stylites, seated atop his column, from fifth- or sixth-century Aleppo, as well as little terracotta ampoules for holy water from the shrines of the military saints Menas and Sergius, and a monk’s linen-and-wool habit from the eighth or ninth century which belonged to a priest Khôti.

For many centuries, monastic communities informed the landscape of the desert. When the fourth-century site of Kellia (“cells” in Greek) was uncovered in 1964 beneath the sands south-east of Alexandria, on the edge of the desert of Nitria, it was found to have no fewer than 1600 hermitages. The boundary measured ten miles; clearly, none of its monks minded walking four or five miles for their weekly shared meal. The community lasted from the time of St Anthony Abbot until the ninth century, when it was gradually abandoned.

A page from the Codex Sinopensis, one of only 44 surviving pages from a Syrian Gospel book thought to date to the mid-sixth century, is written on purple dyed vellum. At f.29r, it illustrates the Matthean account of Christ healing two blind men from Jericho, followed by four of his disciples. To either side, the illuminator, somewhat surprisingly, includes the statue busts of two haloed figures on columns. Who are they?

More remarkable, perhaps, from the same period is the Rabbula Gospel book, not always on display in the Laurentian Library in Florence. It comprises nearly 300 folios, and is open at the page depicting the crucifixion in the upper scene with the first Easter Day below.

This iconography was rapidly adopted by other artists and became “standardised” with the dissemination of such illuminated books; next to the Gospels is a sixth-century reliquary box with a painted lid, depicting the passion and Death of Christ (Sancta Sanctorum, St John Lateran, Rome).

Such images derived from a period when the Christian Church, having found favour in the Roman Empire, had also found wealth. Several display cases show the opulence that came with solid silver vessels. Two of the ten Byzantine chalices originally from the churches at Attarouthi in the north of Syria and dating from the seventh century have embossed figures on them. The treasure was bought for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from a Swiss collection in 1986.

Equally splendid are the later-13th-century works crafted by itinerant Muslim artists for Christian patrons or using Christian vocabulary such as the silver inlaid candlestand made in 1248-49 by Dâwûd ibn Salâma al-Mawsili. On it are engraved scenes from the life of Christ, incongruously set alongside signs of the zodiac, geometric patterns, and profane images.

Scenes from monastic life, including harvesting grapes and working on the land, are enamelled on a delightful Syrian glass vase, while two haloed saints stand outside a church that may or may not have been associated with the cult of one of them (FAF, Vaduz).

Several detached fresco fragments have been installed that demonstrate the range of decoration available to Christian worshippers; and also floor mosaics. They are from some of the earliest known depictions of Jesus and his ministry on the walls of the synagogue at Dura-Europas (Syria). It is staggering to think that the Healing of the Paralytic and Christ Walking on Water date to 232.

A later pavement from Khirbat al-Mukhayyat in Jordan (532-536) shows two goats either side of a fructiferous palm tree. It is inscribed in both Greek and Palestinian, and the exhibition makes the point that this sort of bilingualism, so often encountered in church circles, also gave Christians commercial benefits.

The exhibition also includes several videos of contemporary monastic life, as well as some wonderful liturgical chant.

If I had to choose a single work, it would be the page from an Evangeliary for the Syrian Rite which Petros, son of Father Gabriel, copied in 1065 at Malatya in Turkey. Against a dense sky of lapis lazuli, the Virgin stands in a hieratic pose, her left hand raised from inside the folds of her mantle to greet us, while, in her right hand, she unfurls a bilingual proclamation. The grass beneath her is green as she stands between earth and heaven, the one acclaimed as Mother of God.


“Chrétiens d’Orient: 2000 Ans d’Histoire” is at L’ Institut du Monde Arabe, 1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, Paris 75005, until 14 January 2018. Phone 00 33 1 40 51 38 38. www.imarabe.org

It will then be at MUBA Eugène Leroy Fine Arts Museum, 2 rue Paul Doumer, 59200 Tourcoing, from 17 February to 5 June 2018. Phone 00 33 3 20 28 91 60. www.muba-tourcoing.fr

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