The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Frescoes

Posted: July 4, 2014 - 12:26 , by Robert Mason
The fresco of the Last Judgement on the West wall of the chapel at Deir Mar Musa.

A report on Deir Mar Musa would not be complete without an account of the frescoes. Others have done most of the work studying these paintings, but my architectural study of the monastery buildings has certainly provided important informaton about the rationale for the last phase of frescoes (for which see a future blog). The frescoes are actually the foundation of the recent history of the site, as an early paper on the frescoes by Canadian scholar Erica Dodd brought Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio to the site and led to the restoration of the buildings and restablishment of the community. Dodd published a book on the frescoes in 2001. The restoration of the frescoes by an Italian team from the Istituto del Restauro, Rome, brought in by Fr. Paolo created new information, some of which did not get into Erica Dodd's book, so this account will draw on these an other sources.

This painting of St. Cecilia is from the first phase of the frescoes, dated to after 1058 and before 1088.

The paintings in the chapel at Mar Musa may be called mural paintings, all paintings on a wall are mural paintings. There are two main types of mural painting. The dry or "secco" technique involves painting onto dry plaster. The fresh or "fresco" technique requires applying fresh plaster, and then quickly painting on the plaster when it is still wet, so that the paint becomes a part of the plaster itself to create a more durable bond. These paintings at Deir Mar Musa are technically frescoes. 

This painting of Samson and the Lion is from the first phase of the frescoes, dated to after 1058 and before 1088. 

There are three major phases of fresco. The earliest seems to be sealing an inscription in the wall equal to 1058, while an inscription painted onto the first layer of frescoes commemorates a death in 1088, so the first phase dates to between 1058 and 1088. A further phase, which comprises the painting of St. Simeon Stylites and the Baptism of Christ, is dated by an inscription dated to 1095. Two other layers were identified by the Istituto del Restauro conservators, between the first and last phase, but these are so fragmentary they make no contribution to the history or iconography of the frescoes.

From the second phase, dated to 1095 , this angel carries a towel for the Baptism of Christ, whch is mostly lost.

The final phase of frescoes also has a date inscribed to commemorate its completion, although with some disagreement as to the precise date depending on whether it is actually written in the Seleucid calendar or the Muslim calendar, with Fr. Paolo reading 1208, and Erica Dodd reading 1195. Given the closeness in these dates either is acceptable for archaeological purposes!

Fresco of first phase with the Ascension of Elijah (red pigments, white ground), and the final phase (blue ground) with the Evangelist Mathew and inscription of 1208.

The last phase is the most complete, although in most cases traces of the first phase show the last phase mostly follows the same pattern. The frescoes show influences from Byzantine, Syriac, and also western traditions introduced into the Middle East by the Crusaders (although Mar Musa was never a part of the Crusader territories). For example the great domed churches of Byzantium will have Christ Pantocrator in the dome, supported by the Four Evangelists (writers of the recognized Gospels), in turn supported by columns that carry images of the saints. All of these are found at Deir Mar Musa, although the shape of the building requires rearranging the location.

From the 1208 phase this painting of John the Baptist shows the bedraggled hair of a desert prophet.

The clerestory of the South and North walls carry Equestrian Saints, warriors that had a life of fighting and hunting and then found God. The best preserved is this particular saint on the South wall, St. Bacchus, the important Syrian equestrian saint. This is a typical composition, reproduced for centuries afterwards in other representations of equestrian saints, such as icons.

The paintings of Equestrian Saints are very Syrian in their origins, and are found in the first and last phases. There are six, three on the north wall of the nave, three on the south. They are in pairs, with St. Sergios and St. Bacchus at the western end, St. George and St. Theodoros in the middle, and St. Demetrios and St. Christopher at the eastern end. In this case there is clear evidence of influence from east to west, as equestrian saints, especially St George, became very popular in the west. Also very Syrian is the depiction of female saints in the soffits (under the arches), found in the first phase and the last. Even the saints depicted, St. Barbara, St. Anastasia, St. Juliana, St. Elizabeth, and St. Catherine, were especially popular in Greater Syria.

Amongst the many female saints depicted on the walls are St. Barbara, left, the Patron Saint of Masons; and St. Julia, right, both from the 1208 phase.

Around the altar is a depiction of the Virgin and Child flanked by the Apostles.

St. Catherine from the 1208 phase.

The last phase of 1208 is thought to particularly be influenced by Jerusalem, then an amalgam of Syrian, Byzantine and European styles. Following the Battle of Hattin in 1188 and Salah al-Din's conquest of Jerusalem there may have been refugees, or there may have simply been greater access to the Holy City for Eastern Christians. This would include the insertion of the Evangelists, painted over the Old Testament motifs, and also the monumental Last Judgement.

The Western wall of the church has a depiction of the Last Judgement. Apart from the upper two registers it is arranged with the Good People on the left, and the Bad People to the right, who are going to Hell, shown in alternating bands of blue represnting the waters of the River Tartarus and red representing the fires of Hell.
The Last Judgement is arranged in 5 main registers or tiers. The top has two figures representing the chief Fathers of the Church, St. Peter and St. Paul. At the centre of the next register is the Hetoimasia, the empty throne to be occupied by Jesus in judgement, but which is presently occupied by symbols of the Passion, including the cross, nails, a crown of thorns hanging from one limb of the cross, and two ladders, one of which is probably a mistake and should be a lance. To each side are arrayed the Four Evangelists and Apostles sitting on a bench with their feet on cushions.
Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, together with Mary, gather lost souls in their cloaks (not actually just their heads).
In the third register Adam and Eve are at the centre of the arrangement. Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, together with Mary gather lost souls in their cloaks to the left of Adam and Eve. In the eastern churches, including the Coptic and Syrian churches, the patriarchs were often called upon to intercede with God. To the right of Adam and Eve is the first register of the damned, who take up all the registers on the right side below this, the left hand side of the person in the judgement seat, of course. None of the damned are given names, but this first register of Damned are clearly all Christians, and so are leaders of churches considered heretical by the Syrians. In this context it is important to realize that the Syrian Orthodox church had major schisms with other elements of Christianity, especially at the Council of Chalcedon (451), in which the Syrian church together with the Coptic church found no agreement with the church in Constantinople or Rome. Two of these three groups could be the leaders of these churches, while the third group of two might be other heretical leaders, such as Arius or Nestorius.
The extension of the Last Judgement onto the northern wall, the helmet-hat men.
The extension of the Last Judgement onto the northern wall, wicked women or Nestorian priests?
The next register has two Archangels at the centre blowing horns to announce the Last Day, probably Michael is facing the Damned, the other is probably Gabriel. To the left are four individuals whose inscription says they are kings and prophets, and who by convention are David and Solomon (the latter usually depicted as old and wise), a beardless Moses carring the Ten Commandments and the dishevelled hair thought appropriate to a desert prophet, and most probably Elijah. After these are three church leaders with title "patriarchs" this first of whom is by convention St. John Chrysostom, they are followed by threee "bishops", and overlapping onto the south wall are three "priests" and three "deacons".
On the right hand side are two smaller registers of Damned, the first group wear turbans and are thought to be Muslims, the next group have scarves and are thought to be Jews, and running onto the north wall are three men with helmet-like hats. In the next half-register of damned sits Hades himself hugging a Sinner in his lap, followed by three undistinguished men, three men in pointed hats, and on the north wall three women or unshaven men with round head-dresses. All the Damned seem to have tears, the people on the north wall seem to shed tears of blood. Erica Dodd suggest that the helmet-like hat men are soldiers, but with all the Equestrian Saints it should probably not be assumed that all soldiers are damned. It strikes me that, like the other sects of Christians, the Muslims, and the Jews, these symbols probably were recognised to denote some group who are damned by simply being in that group, which would have to mean other religious groups. Groups such as Nestorians (depictions of Nestorian priests in Central Asia show them shaved and with rounded black head-dresses), Manichaeans (shown with tall white head-dresses in Central Asia), Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians certainly existed at the time, as they do now.

The lowest register of the Last Judgement probably depicts members of the community in 1208, men and women, being ushered into Heaven through the Pearly Gate by St. Peter, carrying the customary key. To the right is an angel, pulling down on the scales by which Sinners are Judged. 

The lowest register has a niche at the centre, with on the left an angel pulling down on the scales, St. Peter opening the Pearly Gates, and a procession of what is thought to be two martyrs behind Peter followed by monks and then nuns, possibly the community of the monastery when the wall was painted. To the right of the niche a little devil is also pulling on the scales, but with less effect, and then two smaller registers of Sinners. The first four sinners are bound by their shrouds, and seem to have a symbol of their sin hanging from their neck; while the lowest register contain seven naked sinners, their hands bound behind them and chains about their neck, both men and women judging by the hair, with serpents torturing them. The symbols of the four sinners are not explicit. Reference to the seven deadly sins (wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony), codified since at least the 4th century are of limited use since we only have four sinners. The first shows two round objects which may be cymbals, or may be mirrors, which were often carried as a nesting pair in the Roman period. The next sinner, with a sword, is presumably obvious. The next seems to have a belt-pouch with a draw-string, a money bag, so if that identification is correct then it would be an apprpriate symbol of avarice. The fourth may be carrying scales, perhaps symbolic of envy?

The lowest register on the right side of the Last Judgement are Sinners, the upper register show people condemned by various symbols that reflect the sin they are guilty of, most of which are quite obscure, but the sword is pretty obvious; while the lowest register contain those naked and chained Sinners who are guilty of Sensualism, with snakes entering their bodies through the organs of the senses.



The Frescoes of Mar Musa Al-Habashi: A Study in Medieval Painting in Syria by Erica Dodd, 2001, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto.

Il restauro del monastero di San Mose l’Abisino, Nebek, Siria, by P. Dall’Oglio, M. Cordaro, L. Alberta, et al, 1998, Damascus.


NAVIGATION (links will become hot as they are published)

The Monastery of St. Moses, Syria: Introduction

The Monastery of St. Moses, Syria: The Pottery

The Monastery of St. Moses, Syria: The Frescoes

The Monastery of St. Moses, Syria: The Cave Survey

The Monastery of St. Moses, Syria: The Buildings

The Monastery of St. Moses, Syria: The Prehistoric Remains

The Monastery of St. Moses, Syria: Conclusion and Syria Today