Conference paper (in proceedings)

A Sacred Space for a Holy Icon: The Shrine of Our Lady of Saydnaya

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  • Hierotopy. Studies in the Making of Sacred Spaces. Material from the International Symposium / Lidov, A. M.. - 2004, p. 132-134
English The monastery of Our Lady of Saydnaya, located 22 km east of Damascus, still proves to be one of the most important cult-centres of present-day Syria; although it is inhabited and controlled by Christian (i.e. Greek Orthodox) nuns, its church, housing a very famous icon of the Virgin Mary, is daily visited also by a great many Muslim worshippers. Its renown dates back to the late 12th century, and for a long time it was an important goal for many pilgrims from both the Christian East and Western Europe, even if, unlike other Terrasanta holy places, it was not associated with any relic nor major episode of the Gospel, as well as it couldn’t boast of being founded by any important representative of Early Christian monasticism. Saydnaya’s reputation as a holy place was an immediate consequence of the holiness of its icon, which was credited to sanctify the entire space around it; not only the church and monastery complex, built on a pinnacle of rock, but also the village which extended below it were praised as places blessed by God, where vines and other plants were blooming, plenty of water was available, and only Christians were admitted to live: if any Muslims dared to settle there, they were expected to die within a year. Saydnaya’s natural and social environment (i.e. luxuriant vegetation vs. sand and stone desert, Christian inhabitants vs. Muslims) played a distinctive role in the shaping of its sacred aura, since visitors had the impression that they were entering a kind of Eden or Eldorado, favoured by God’s grace. Its very center was the main church within the monastery walls, whose inner core was the sanctuary housing the holy icon. Although in its present state it seems to have been extensivily rebuilt and altered, we can get an idea of the church settings and furnishings from a great deal of written descriptions by Latin and Christian Arab pilgrims from the 12th through the 17th century, as well as from collections of miracles of the Virgin Mary in several languages (among them, Latin, Old French, Spanish, Arabic, and Ethiopian). Such sources provide us with a valuable bulk of information about the general layout and arrangement of the building, which were meant to convey the visitors’ gradual involvement into the sacred place by means of a sophisticated rite of approach to the holy icon. First of all, the pilgrim had to ascend the hill of Saydnaya and enter the gate of the monastery walls, then he passed through a square and covered portico and approached the door of the church. The building, being rather large, had a basilican plan and consisted of a central nave and two lateral aisles, separated by six columns; after going the whole length of the nave, he had to stop next to the templon gate, before being allowed to go further. Some of the monks or nuns would have lead him or her into the bema, where they were requested to kneel down in front of the place were the icon was said to be housed. According to sources, the image, being covered with many veils, was kept inside a recess or niche secured with an iron grille and located on the eastern wall, just behind the altar; a miraculous oil, poured out of the Virgin’s surface, ran down the wall and filled up a marble basin located below it. At that exact moment, the monks or nuns put their arms through the grating and collected some of that miraculous oil, and started anointing the pilgrims’ foreheads. By such means, visitors were emotionally and physically involved into the sacredness of that shrine. The icon enjoyed such an high reputation since it was credited to be made of human flesh. According to some local traditions, it was turned into flesh when a monk from Constantinople had refused to hand it over to the monastery abbess. The church doors had then closed by themselves and they didn’t open before the image was located in the niche behind the altar; subsequently, in order to express its wish to be held within that building by means of a miraculous sign, the icon took the form of a soft skin, and from its surface came out a breast pouring out the miraculous oil. The holy icon was a real substitute for the Virgin Mary’s body and the whole sacred space around it was imbued with such bodily presence: the church walls were damped by its holy liquid, its doors protected it, it was inserted within its apse as a child in in the womb of his mother. Admittedly, it was a quite odd location for an icon within an Eastern Christian church. Even if we know that holy icons of the Virgin Mary could be housed within the bema (among them, the ‘Panagia Kyrá’ in the Pharos Chapel of the Great Palace in Constantinople), such a setting is much more reminiscent of the arrangement of the sanctuary in Western churches, where painted images are usually associated with the altar. Painted recesses or niches housing painted panels and statues are also, though sporadically, witnessed since the 11th century; since some interesting examples may be recognized within Latin buildings in Outremer and Cyprus, we suspect that such a device may have been influenced by Crusader models. In any case, it is worth pointing out that such a setting, consciously replicating that of Saydnaya, has been singled out by scholars in some churches of the Eastern Mediterranean, such as the Panayia Chryseleousa at Lyso, Cyprus (as argued by Annemarie Weyl Carr). Other shrines, like the cave-church of Saydet-Naya at Kfar Chlaiman in Lebanon, may have been affected by a quite similar arrangement. The replication of Saydnaya’s sacred space was a consequence of its wide reknown among pilgrims from both Eastern and Western Christianity. Reliquaries of the miraculous oil spread throughout Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. According to an hypothesis, the Madonna Damascena worshipped in Rhodes and later in Malta by the Military Order of the Hospitallers, may have been reminiscent of the cult-icon in Saydnaya. Moreover, one wonders if the dissemination of the iconographic type of the Galaktotrophousa may also have been stimulated by such a phaenonomenon, since the holy icon was usually identified as a nursing Virgin. An analysis of extant illustrations of the Miracle de la Vierge de Sardenai or Sardanek (as it was usually known to Old French visitors) within Western manuscripts of the Late Middle ages may be of great help to reconstruct the image’s iconography, as well as the cult practices it was involved in; in fact, instead of simply replicating its outward appearance, they usually represented its cult-context within the Syrian shrine. The story of the ‘embodied image’ of Saydnaya is also a source for the widespread legend of the “Saracen converted by the icon of the Virgin Mary”. According to it, a Muslim appropriated a Christian image and put it within a niche in the wall of its house; he respected and also worshipped it, but he was still unable to trust the dogma of Incarnation. By means of a miracle, the icon then turned into flesh, and the Saracen, being convinced, decided to become a Christian. Such a story replicates both the connection of the icon with a wall and the embodiment topos; it was probably stimulated by the fact that local Muslims used to venerate the Saydnaya icon, and, by doing so, caused Western pilgrims to be astonished and think of all that as a consequence of the special grace given by God to that holy place
Faculté des lettres et des sciences humaines
Département d'histoire de l'art et d'archéologie
  • English
Arts, entertainment, sport
License undefined
  • RERO DOC 306150
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