Medieval wall paintings in the Church of St Sergius and Bacchus in Kaftoun, Lebanon – conservation and archaeology
Type of site:
Church located next to the Greek Orthodox monastery in Kaftoun
Lebanon, Batroun District
County of Tripoli during the Crusades and the Kingdom of Jerusalem period
– 13th century
Most interesting finds:
– wall paintings from the second half of the 13th century depicting, among others, Maiestas Domini, the Communion of the Apostles, and warrior saints
– architectural evolution of the Church of St Sergius and Bacchus in the medieval and Ottoman periods
– relics of the early monastic phase of the site discovered under the present-day buildings of the monastery
History of research:
Dates of PCMA mission’s work:
Type of research:
Archaeological and architectural research, conservation work
– Faculty of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw
– Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw
– Association pour l’Etude et la Restauration des Peintures Médiévales au Liban (Université Saint-Joseph)
– Directorate General of Antiquities of Lebanon
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, grant for the years 2009–2010: “Forgotten Heritage I. Recording and Publication of the Church of Mar Sarkis and Bakhos in Kaftûn (Lebanon) and its Wall Paintings”; grant holder Tomasz Waliszewski
Description of the site and research:
The Greek Orthodox monastery in Kaftoun lies at the bottom of a picturesque valley of the River Jawz. Nuns inhabit a monastery building that clings to the side of a high cliff. Despite its modern present-day appearance, its oldest preserved parts date back to the early medieval period. The chapel of the monastery houses the oldest icon in Lebanon – a 13th-century painting on wood depicting the Virgin Mary and Child on the obverse and the Baptism of Christ on the reverse. Next to the monastery stands a small stone church with adjacent outbuildings where remains of mill installations that had been powered by the mountain river were discovered. The three-aisled church with a narthex and a presbytery closed off by an apse was erected in the Crusader period and shows signs of being partly inspired by Western medieval architecture.
With time, the Church of St Sergius and Bacchus fell into ruin, ceased to be used for liturgical purposes, and was abandoned. The north aisle was destroyed, and the weakened outer walls became overgrown. When in 2002 the nuns decided to renovate the church and make it again a place of worship, small fragments of poorly-preserved wall paintings were found during building works. Polish conservators undertook the task of securing this find and examining the interior of the church to see whether there were any other fragments of decoration under the plaster. During the first conservation mission in 2004, damaged but very valuable medieval wall paintings were found in the upper part of the apse. They were uncovered and secured during subsequent seasons and then underwent careful conservation.
Ultimately, of the original decoration of the church, which undoubtedly covered all walls, survived only: a Deesis scene depicting Christ sitting on a throne with the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist standing on either side of him, a scene of the Annunciation above the apse, two small fragments of a scene of the Communion of the Apostles, a figure of St Lawrence with an angel, and a bust of an archangel in an oval medallion on the walls of the nave, and standing figures of saints in the arcades between the aisles, including the church’s patrons – Sergius and Bacchus. The wall paintings were executed in the fresco technique by applying dry pigments onto wet plaster. They were created in the 13th century in a Byzantine style with local influences. Fragments of preserved inscriptions in three languages – Greek, Old Syriac, and Arabic – attest to this.
Work in the church was conducted until 2009. During that time, the north aisle was rebuilt, the interior was replastered, and the surrounding grounds were tidied up. Today, the church is once again open to worshippers and pilgrims, and the salvaged wall paintings belong to the most valuable ones in the whole region.
Waliszewski, T., Chmielewski, K., Immerzeel, M., and Hélou, N. (2013). The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Kaftun (Northern Lebanon) and Its Wall Paintings. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 67, 291–322
Waliszewski, T. and Chmielewski, K. (2012). From Byzantine Mosaics to Medieval Paintings. Fifteen Years of Polish-Lebanese Cooperation in Archaeology and Conservation 1996–2011. Beirut: Ambasada RP w Bejrucie
Hélou, N. (2009). Les fresques de Kaftoun au Liban: la cohabitation des deux traditions byzantine et orientale. Chronos, 20, 7–32
Immerzeel, M. (2009). Identity Puzzles. Medieval Christian Art in Syria and Lebanon (=OLA 184) (pp. 94–99, 125–142). Leuven: Peeters
Immerzeel, M. with the co-operation of Nada Hélou (2007). Icon Painting in the County of Tripoli of the Thirteenth Century. In C. Hourihane (ed.), Interactions. Artistic Interchange between the Eastern and Western Worlds in the Medieval Period (=The Index of Christian Art Occasional Papers 9) (pp. 67–83). Princeton
Waliszewski, T., Chmielewski, K. et al. (2007). The Church of Mar Sarkis and Bakhos in Kaftûn and its Wall Paintings. Preliminary Report 2003–2007. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises, 11, 277–323
Waliszewski, T. and Chmielewski, K. (2005). Kaftoun – Conservation and Restoration of the Mar Sarkis Church Murals, Interim Report. Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean, 16, 447–452