BEHDAIDAT, Lebanon: St. Tadros Church is an iconic edifice for the community of Behdaidat. The interior of this small structure in the muhafiza of Kesrouan-Jbeil is adorned by a unique array of 13th-century murals. The works have suffered not only from the passage of time but from a misguided effort to restore them.
Since October 2009, St. Tadros’ murals have been undergoing a more comprehensive facelift. Supervised by the Directorate-General of Antiquities, this conservation project has been executed within the framework of ICCROM-ATHAR, the International Center for Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, through a program focusing on Arab cultural heritage sites.
Though its interior murals – frescoes according to Isabelle Doumet-Skaf (project manager of the company Conservation SARL) – are said to date back to the mid-13th century, the church structure was erected on the foundations of Greek temples.
The DGA placed St. Tadros Church on its monuments list in 1966. In 2007, the archdiocese authorized a local artist to restore these frescoes. The result was inadvertent vandalism.
Doumet-Skaf and several colleagues felt compelled to intervene to preserve the murals. This ongoing restoration work aims to analyse the murals and to stabilize them to prevent these artistic wonders falling into ruin. The team of Lebanese and Italian restoration experts is lead by Conservation SARL’s Giorgio Capriotti.
The frescoes occupy approximately 60 square meters of wall area and there is some controversy about their origin. Though they are said to be of Syriac design, Doumet-Skaf said, “none of the saints associated with Syriac Christianity are represented here.”
St. Tadros’ murals evince the “strong impact of Byzantine fresco techniques on the Syriac murals, generally considered by art historians as archaic and provincial,” Capriotti wrote in the 2009 edition of the Bulletin of Lebanese Archaeology and Architecture. The technique used to create these paintings, he added, involved “a base of calcite [compliant with] the accepted manner of the Syriac-Byzantine School of 13th century.”
Uncertainty about the murals persists. In a 2004 lecture, archaeologist Erica Cruikshank Dodd, who began exploring Lebanon’s frescoes in 1971, remarked that the only sure thing is that this is the “only remaining church decoration in Lebanon that was painted at one time, by the same hands.”
In the church apse is an apocalyptic vision of Christ enthroned, flanked by St. John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.
There are also conventional depictions of the four evangelists: St. Mark’s lion, St. John’s eagle, St. Matthew’s winged figure and St. Luke’s bull. A seraph and cherub are also present, holding the “Trisagion” (a hymn of the Divine Liturgy) in Syriac.
The representation of Jesus is surprising for its massive size, and the detailed textile depictions about the throne. “There is great importance in the representation of textile and fabrics,” Doumet-Skaf told The Daily Star, “it was perhaps a tribute to the merchants who decorated the church.”
Twelve saints are depicted standing in the murals’ lowest point, where the altar is located. The Prophet Daniel is found on the left column while St. Stephen is at the base of the right column. They flank an assortment of figures that include St. Thomas, St. Peter, St. Bartholomew and St. James.
The saints’ eyes have been damaged and Doumet-Skaf explained that some of the village’s older residents confessed that when they were children they played in the church. In those days local residents didn’t realize the cultural value of the work.
On the triumphal arch that frames the apse is a representation of the Annunciation – when Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary of her pregnancy. The representation of Mary enthroned, is again rendered in great detail.
Represented on the upper part of the arcade are the hands of God, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, Jesus, Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice, along with personifications of the moon and the sun.
There was some question as to whether a window, set in the midst of this scene, was part of the original structure or added later. Preservationists concluded that this window was part of the original structure, and was used as a metaphor for Christ’s illumination.
On the left wall of the nave is a representation of St. Theodore, a major part of which was lost when the wall was pierced to make way for a window.
He is depicted on horseback, with a bright yellow halo about his head. Theodore gazes straight at the observer, his right hand raised to ward off enemies, while the horse looks at the apse toward which it appears to be galloping.
Again, Theodore’s clothing, headdress and other textiles have been painted with great attention to detail.
Just beneath the horse’s head are traces of a supplicant figure. Though the paint used to render him are badly faded, his face and hands are evident. The nature of this figure is uncertain but, according to Lucy-Anne Hunt’s analysis, he may be an Italian merchant, a Christian or a townsperson.
Facing St. Theodore’s representation is another of St. George with a young man. This part of the panel fell victim to a ham-handed restoration effort attempted in 2007 with commercial paint.
Hunt describes St. George as “riding over the Aegean sea having rescued the young cupbearer from Crete to return him to Mytilene on Lesbos.” The youth is rendered with his palms open as a sign of gratitude for St. George’s assistance. One mystery that lingers over the mural is the missing Dormition of the Virgin Mary falling asleep, “either lost or no longer visible.” There is no clue about where it can be found in the church.
Doumet-Skaf and Capriotti have sponsored the restoration work, with contributions from Conservation SARL members Sylvia Tribolati, Ghada Salem and Badr Jabbour-Gedeon as well as U.K. art historian Lucy-Anne Hunt. Cyprus’ Leventis Foundation is also involved, as are the U.S. Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Heritage, the Philippe Jabre Association, Carol and Antoine Kareh, ICCROM-ATHAR, and Alice and Roger Edde.
The process, as Doumet-Skaf explained, has been painstaking. First, they had to analyze and identify the pigments used in the original painting. Five pure pigments were found: black, white, two shades of red and yellow. Although traces of blue or green are evident when gazing upon the work, neither of these colors was actually used.
Water seepage, calcification and carbonate crystallization have all damaged the murals. Restoring the work, Doumet-Skaf continued, required that conservationists fill the surface cracks with cement or gypsum (hydrated calcium sulfate). This, she said, enabled better results in the “pictorial layers.”
Restoring these murals is a huge project which needs financial assistance. Until now, the conservationists have collected approximately $200,000 for the work. Much more is needed to finish the work.