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Preserving Syrian Icons from the Toll of Time and Loving Touches

“They don’t think of the value of the icons, just [that] they are looking at the saints. They are talking to the saaint, not to the picture,” Father Damaskinos says.

text and photos by Anthony B. Toth

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At the rear of the Mariamiyeh Church in Damascus, near the entrance, two glass-shielded icons shimmer in candlelight on either side of the central aisle. Throughout the long Sunday service worshippers enter the church and give a donation to an attendant. Most people then take one candle from the attendant’s table, some take more. They light their candles, place them in the sand of the candlestand, and bow their heads. Then they turn, approach the icon and pray. Some kiss the glass over the icon’s face, because “you always like to kiss somebody who is very close to you,” says Elias Zayat, a leading authority on Syrian icons. Others kiss their fingertips and then touch the icon’s covering.

Last October, the icons of Syria were brought together and exhibited at the Assad Library, a modern cultural facility in the Syrian capital. Some of the precious paintings were collected from churches, convents, and monasteries that date back to the earliest periods of Christianity. Hundreds of people visited the exhibit and were able to examine paintings that normally reside in remote or little-known sanctuaries.

This attention came none too late. While in the 8th century icons were being destroyed by people who feared idol-worship, in this era the ravages of time and usage have been taking their toll. Many valuable pieces have been “loved to death,” as it were. Without any consideration for the paintings themselves, believers have kissed, touched, and tacked icons into oblivion.

Father George Damaskinos knows. He works at the Greek Orthodox Mariamiyeh Church in Damascus, the largest in the country. He has studied icons, particularly their religious significance. His dark beard easily yielding to a warm smile, Father Damaskinos explains that the faithful “want to kiss the icon to show their respect, and sometimes they don’t reach.” He recalls an old woman, about four feet tall, whose lips cannot reach an icon of Jesus. “She will not bring a chair to go up, so she used her hand to kiss the face of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the people want to reach a definite place, you see.”

So that definite place, after thousands of loving yet eroding touches, becomes worn off. A piece of rich religious art is diminished and is less of an inspiration to future worshippers.

Another way icons have come to be destroyed is even as people have shown honor toward the personage represented in the image. When a sick relative or friend would recover after prayers for intercession, it had been customary to tack figures made of precious metals onto the icon, thus unintentionally disfiguring it.

“You see these small things inside?” asks Father Damaskinos, pointing to gold and silver eyes, heads, hands, and legs tacked to an icon of the Virgin Mary. “They say ‘I ask you, Mary Virgin, to help us,’ let’s say, ‘for the cure of the eyes of my son.’” And when the son gets cured, Mary gets a symbolic token of thanks – a set of silver eyes tacked firmly onto her portrait.

Some icons had become totally unrecognizable because of all the “limbs of gratitude.” “When I took off the nails, the picture was destroyed,” the priest says dejectedly.

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Tags: Syria Christianity Art Icons Damascus