E. C. Dodd
The Frescoes of Mar Musa al-Habashi
A Study of Medieval Painting in Syria
XXVIII+284 p., 103 b/w ill. + 23 colour ill., 150 x 230 mm, 2001
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The monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi was
built in the sixth century, in the mountains 70km north of Damascus,
near the ancient town of Nebek. For most of its history it belonged to
the Syrian Orthodox Church but was eventually deserted. In 1981 the
author found it with the chapel roofless and paintings decaying on the
walls. An expedition from Beirut and Damascus recorded the paintings at
this time. Meanwhile Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit orientalist from
Aleppo also visited the ruined monastery. He persuaded the Syrian Dept.
of Antiquities and the Italian Istituto del Restauro to restore the
building to its original state, using the same stonecutting techniques
as in the past. This book relates the history of the monastery through
the Middle Ages and presents a detailed study of the paintings and
inscriptions in the church, including those recently uncovered in
restoration. The paintings comprise the only full programme of medieval
church decoration to have survived to this day in the Arab Levant. They
are dated to 1054-1088 and to 1192 and thus illustrate Arab Christian
painting in the hinterland of Syria during the pre-Crusader and
Crusader periods. While in some respects the paintings reflect the
artistic heritage of provincial Byzantium, they also show the influence
of the Crusaders and neighbouring Islamic art. In other respects they
perpetuate a continuing Early Christian tradition in Syria. The
paintings are therefore examples of the living Christian tradition
encountered by the Crusaders and contribute to the story of East-West
relations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.