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Forgotten Heritage II: Study and Documentation of the Church of Mar Elias Btina in Beirut (Lebanon) and Its Wall Paintings

Tomasz Waliszewski, University of Warsaw, and Krzysztof Chmielewski, Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Project Grant 2011/12

Introduction

The Church of Mar Elias Btina in Beirut is located within the grounds of the Mar Elias Btina College, on Mar Elias Street in the district of the same name. Although it constituted part of the city’s southern peripheries in the 1950s, at present this is a densely built-up area lining the road leading to the airport. The College grounds, with their spacious courtyard, school building, and church, are bordered to the west by the road and to the south by the Mar Elias Palestinian Refugee Camp. The Orthodox church stands within a former monastery building which now serves as a school. In 2007 an unexpected discovery was made in the oldest part of the church—its presbytery. A piece of plaster painted in white fell away from the north wall revealing beneath it a fragment of damaged wall painting. In that same year conservators from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw carried out a series of uncovering tests in the outer layers of plaster on the presbytery walls, and in other areas were traces of painting were extant. As the results of these tests proved positive it was decided, once all of the presbytery walls had been examined, to remove any secondary coats of plaster in order to reveal the paintings hidden beneath them and to undertake essential conservation measures. This work was carried out over two summer campaigns held in 2010 and 2011.

The Former Monastery Building and Church

The church edifice is concealed within a former monastery building, erected in the final quarter of the 19th century. The main body of the monastery is square in plan and has a large central courtyard. The building has three storeys: a ground floor level and two upper floors. The first floor is accessed by an external staircase on the north wall of the building. This level features a square courtyard flanked by two-storey galleries on all four sides. These galleries open out onto the courtyard through a series of semicircular arcades supported on slender columns.

The church occupies the monastery building’s west wing up to the level of the first upper storey. The interior consists of three parts which differ from one another in both chronological and stylistic terms. The church’s layout is complex and heterogeneous.

  1. The earliest, eastern end of the church features a small, square presbytery. Its walls and barrel vaulting were hewn from solid rock. The upper portion of the presbytery’s east wall terminates in a broad, hemispherical conch, below which there are two small niches. Two small rooms of irregular shape adjoin the north wall, with a slightly wider room abutting the south wall. A cuboid stone altar stands in the middle of the presbytery. A wooden iconostasis separates the presbytery from the remainder of the church.
  2. The central, principal section of the interior came into being when the entire monastery complex was built in the 19th century. Its broad expanse is divided by a row of pillars supporting a groined vault. At the north end this part of the interior is around 2 m higher, forming a type of choir loft accessed by a small number of steps. The east and southeast walls (like the adjoining presbytery) are carved out of solid rock. The remaining walls are masonry.
  3. The most recent is the church’s west end, which was built in the 20th century. This part of the church interior was enlarged by the addition of a space covered with a flat ceiling and preceded by a small vestibule through which the church is entered.

Uncovering the Paintings and Architectural Decoration of the Conch in the Presbytery

The wall paintings were uncovered in stages by delicately removing the overlying plaster layers using knives, hammers, and scalpels. In 2010, the extant murals covering the upper section of the presbytery’s lightly concave wall surfaces were exposed in full. At the same time, secondary layers of plaster were removed from the vault surfaces revealing the underlying plaster layer, which, however, proved to be undecorated. In 2011 work began on removing the outer layers of plaster coating the surface of the conch. It was expected that further fragments of painting would come to light, but instead a monumental shell carved in solid rock was revealed within the conch. Its sculpted form gradually became discernible as successive layers of secondary plaster were removed. In some areas there were as many as ten of these layers, some of which were additionally coated in a homogeneous grey or dark blue color. Yet others were white or clay colored. All of these layers represent successive episodes of renovation within the presbytery. At some point it was decided to completely obscure the shell detail, covering it with layers of plaster.

Iconography of the Wall Paintings

Two very poorly-preserved compositions survive on both the north and south walls of the presbytery. These compositions adjoin one another and are delimited by red borders. The compositions are not identical in size and shape, nor are they symmetrically spaced. The paintings on both walls are in such poor condition that it is difficult to fully discern every shape and detail. Schematic drawings were made of them to obtain a clearer picture.

The representation on the north wall, at the conch end of the presbytery, depicts a seated figure of the Prophet Elijah. The prophet sits in front of a backdrop of schematically rendered rocks and bushes. He is shown in frontal pose, the hand of his right arm, bent at the elbow, supporting his face, which is slightly turned to the right. His left arm is held straight with the hand resting on his lap. Elijah wears a long, voluminous, dark green mantle fastened on his chest. His long hair, which falls onto his shoulders, is discernible, as are the long beard and moustache framing his face, and the outline of his mouth and nose. The prophet’s head is encircled by a yellow halo bounded by a thin black and white line. In the top right corner of the composition, above the prophet’s shoulder, the outline of a flying raven with a small round piece of bread in its beak can be seen. Below it a damaged, although relatively legible, white inscription in Greek gives the prophet’s name. The composition is set against a grey-blue background.

Next to it is a second scene set within a horizontal rectangle. This partially preserved composition depicts the Prophet Elijah standing in frontal pose on a chariot, of which only part of one wheel is visible. Elijah’s symmetrically outstretched arms are bent at the elbows. In his right hand he holds the end of his mantle, which he proffers to a figure of the Prophet Elisha (not preserved). His left hand holds the reins of four red horses harnessed to the chariot. The horses are depicted in profile, their backs and heads overlapping one another. Fragments of their harnesses and saddles are discernible. Behind them part of a schematically painted rock can be seen. Above this, a semicircular trace of a symbolic representation of the firmament survives against a grey-blue background. One white Greek letter (Λ or A) is all that remains of an inscription giving the prophet’s name. The figure of Elisha survives only in the form of a red preliminary drawing. Visible details include the prophet’s long robe, which is belted at the waist, and part of his head, encircled by a halo. The left and lower sections of the composition are entirely lost.

The south wall of the presbytery bears two vertical compositions depicting two standing figures of unidentified saints set against a grey-blue background. This painting is badly damaged, surviving only partially in the underlying drawing, and features numerous losses. The figure on the left holds his right arm aloft, bent at the elbow, making a gesture of benediction. His left arm, held downward, clutches an unfurled scroll, on which several damaged and poorly legible Greek letters can be seen. The saint wears an undergarment and a mantle around his shoulders, which is fastened on the chest.

The saint on the right is similarly attired in a red robe with a green mantle around his shoulders. His right arm is bent at the elbow, with the hand barely discernible; in his left hand he also holds a damaged scroll. To the saint’s lower left is a small, standing figure (possibly a donor?) clad in a red robe, with arms outstretched in an attitude of prayer. The saints’ entirely destroyed faces are encircled by yellow halos circumscribed by a black and white line.

All of the fresco surfaces feature numerous later graffiti, which are incised in the plaster layers.

Wall Painting Techniques

Once the murals were uncovered it became apparent that fragments of an underlying earlier wall painting could be seen along the damaged plaster edges. It is not possible to determine the extent to which this earlier artwork survives, as it is overlain by the plaster supporting the top painting. However, it seems probable that the earlier painting also dates from the medieval period, as part of a painted halo is visible on an exposed fragment of it on the north wall.

Samples of plaster and paint layers were removed from various areas of the walls, vaults and conch, and submitted for laboratory analysis (see Annex). The completed analyses enabled the following sequence of earliest technological strata on the walls to be determined:

  • Stone substrate of the walls and vaults (limestone rock)
  • Render layer (chronologically first painting)
  • Plaster layer with painting (chronologically first painting)
  • Plaster layer with painting (chronologically second, top, painting).

The stratification of the two render layers underlying the first painting and the overlying outer layer of plaster supporting the second painting are clearly visible in photographs showing samples P24s and P17N in cross-section (see Annex).

The surface of the vaulting and the carved surface of the conch are covered with a layer of render like that underlying the paintings. All of the aforementioned renders have a lime binding agent and a quantitatively predominant lime filler. The binding medium in the paint layers is calcium carbonate. No natural organic binders were observed in any of the samples. In consequence, these paintings can be said to have been executed in the true fresco technique, on wet plaster. The traces of a vinyl binding agent identified in two of the samples doubtless came from secondary layers, or from materials used in the course of conservation.

Several natural pigments were identified in the samples taken from the paint layers: lime white, iron oxide red, iron oxide yellow, plant black, and green earth.

In addition to the chronologically earliest layers, some of the secondary plaster layers from the conch were also partially analyzed and described (see Annex, samples A2, A3, A4, A5).

Conservation Treatments

Conservation measures undertaken included:

  • Consolidation of the delaminated plaster layers
  • Structural reinforcement of the plaster through impregnation with synthetic resin
  • Securing damaged plaster edges with fresh mortar
  • Surface cleaning of murals to remove layers of secondary calcite, salts, black soot, and dirt
  • Impregnation of weakened paint layer where necessary
  • Filling of losses in the carved stonework of the conch with fresh mortar
  • Filling of plaster losses in the wall paintings and vaulting with fresh mortar
  • Chromatic integration of the fresh mortar used on the surface of the conch and vault

Conclusions

Stylistic analysis of these wall paintings is hindered by the fact that they are so severely damaged. They are fairly rigid and schematic in form. It can be presumed that they were executed in the 12th–13th century, the period when most of Lebanon’s extant medieval frescoes were painted. It has to be remembered that in reality we are dealing with two chronologically different layers of painting. They must have been created at least several dozen years apart. They are among the few medieval wall paintings to survive in Beirut, and they are currently the only medieval representations of the Prophet Elijah in Lebanon, confirmed by an inscription. E. C. Dodd makes mention of a wall painting in the Church of Sayyidat ad-Darr in Hadchit that may have depicted Elijah in a chariot, although its iconographic identification was uncertain in view of the significant degree of damage (E. C. Dodd, 2004, Medieval Painting in the Lebanon, 59–60.). Today, this wall painting is entirely obscured by a new layer of paint. There is also a depiction of a seated figure of Elijah in the Church of Mar Elias in Kfar Quahel, but this is not confirmed by an inscription (Dodd 2004, 52–53.). Geographically, the nearest depiction of Elijah in his chariot comes from the Church of Mar Musa in Syria, and compositionally it is similar to the fresco discovered in Beirut. The carved shell within the conch of the presbytery probably dates from Late Antiquity and is a remnant of a larger architectural structure, such as a tomb. In the medieval period it was incorporated into the interior of a church or chapel built on this site. The paintings of Elijah confirm the dedication of the present-day church, which lies in a region where this prophet was greatly venerated.

 

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