The door on the fifth floor is kept tightly locked. There is one key and it belongs to Father Lammens. It opens on to a small, well-lit room, dominated by an immense table. Brown pharmaceutical bottles full of chemicals sit in two neat rows against the back wall. The near end of the table is strewn with scalpels, cotton swabs, delicate looking pincers and x-rays. At the far end, a microscope and a comically large magnifying glass are clamped to the tabletop. In between lie several large, shrouded objects.

In this small room at the Lebanese Academy for Fine Arts (ALBA) in Sin el-Fil, Father minor miracles take place as Antoine Lammens and his team of trainees bring the dying back to life. Bent over the table for hours on end, they stroke, swab and scrape away at the brittle brown crust which lies like a cracked, leathery skin over the faces of angels and saints, the accumulated grime of centuries of smoke from incense and candles and centuries of grease from lips and fingers, that robs lithe limbs of their grace and luminous eyes of their liquidity.

Since November last year, Father Lammens has been teaching his seven acolytes the skills they will need to bring centuries-old religious icons back to an approximation of their former glory. For a country with as many icons as Lebanon, this group is the first to be trained at home. Before the center opened its doors, prospective plastic arts surgeons to the saints had to learn their trade abroad. And it’s come not a moment too soon.

“The icons of Lebanon need to be taken care of,” Father Lammens says emphatically “they are often disintegrating and always very dirty.”

It’s a painstaking process and even the smallest icons can take several months to complete. The trainees must work with precision, a single slip of the scalpel or a drop too much alcohol on the swab and a timeless beauty might be badly disfigured, perhaps even damaged beyond repair.

“A painter is not a restorer,” the Father explains, “a restorer must know about painting but they must only intervene when it is absolutely necessary.”

Times have changed. Until the end of the 19th century, restoring an icon meant repainting it. Sometimes the restorer was less concerned about remaining faithful to the original creation than they were about creating something wholly original. The result according to Lammens is that entire schools of iconography were obliterated.

Here, at the tail end of the 20th century, restoration has become a science. Today’s would-be restorers need to understand the basics of painting and chemistry as well as art history and iconology. Their job is to remain faithful to the original creation, not impose their own vision upon it, a process that requires a tremendous degree of skill and patience.

Before restoration can begin, the icon is carefully examined. A series of close-up photographs are taken of certain sections, especially of any inscriptions and the details of the hands and face. It is vital that nothing be changed, particularly the position of the hands because each gesture has a specific meaning. Then, a further series of photographs are taken using different light sources. Ranging from UV and infrared to sodium light, each light reveals details that due to the grime, may be impossible for the naked eye to perceive.

Finally, the icon is x-rayed. This makes it possible to see if the uppermost layer is the original or if it has been repainted in the past. Often the x-rays reveal inscriptions or background details that have been obscured, both by the ravages of time and by previous ‘restorations’.

Sometimes the results are startling and the x-rays reveal the ghostly outline of an older icon beneath. Until recently, such a discovery would have required some tough decision-making. Should the older image remain hidden or was it sufficiently valuable in spiritual and artistic terms to warrant erasing the newer image? Modern technology has resolved this conundrum. Today’s experts are able to remove the ‘new’ layer of the icon and transfer it intact onto a fresh canvas, once again exposing the original image to the light of day, perhaps for the first time in centuries.

Once the icon has been photographed, it must be carefully documented. Often its owner, and this includes both churches and private individuals, know little or nothing about the icon’s history beyond conjecture. This is where the restorer becomes a detective.

The inscriptions, sometimes Greek, sometimes Russian and sometimes Arabic, are translated. This usually reveals a lot of information about the icon and its origins. By examining its style, colour scheme and composition, as well as the kind of paint used, an expert can usually - but not always - determine where, if not when, the icon was painted. The who, however, is less easy to determine.

“Most icons are anonymous,” explains Lammens. “The painters worked for God, not themselves.”

Additionally, icons were often painted in batches in workshops and could be the work of several painters. It wasn’t until the 19th century that iconographers began to date and sign their work and even then, the person named on the icon may only have been peripherally involved in its painting.

With a few notable exceptions, iconography can befound in most religions. It was introduced to Christianity through the Orthodox Church sometime around the Fourth Century, probably from Mount Sinai. It is believed that the art form grew out of mosaic and fresco tradition of early Byzantine art but it is also likely to have been strongly influenced by the Graeco-Egyptian funerary art of cities such as Fayoum in Middle Egypt.

The subject of a recent international exhibition, the Greek inhabitants of Fayoum combined Egyptian burial techniques with Greek traditions of painting. The mummies and sarcophagi that resulted resemble those of ancient Egypt, but in place of the stylised death masques of the Pharaonic era, the portraits painted on them, which gaze out from the shrouds, expectantly awaiting a return from the dead are vivid and life-like, so much so that it is possible to imagine running into many of them on the street today.

Most of the Orthodox icons that exist today were painted after the Tenth Century. Although the tradition is much older, countless early examples were destroyed during the artistic holocaust of the Eighth and Ninth centuries when the Byzantine Empire came under the control of the Iconoclasts (literally, ‘likness breakers’), Christian radicals who believed that religious imagery was being misued and that to many, icons had become idols. In a massive wave of destruction, the Iconoclasts promptly set about smashing and effacing as many icons and religious mosaics and murals as they could. While parts of Greece and the Balkans resisted, the movement was particularly effective in the eastern Mediterranean, where it is possible that the growing cultural influence of Islam was also a contributing factor.

From the 10th Century onwards the furore abated and iconography came to enjoy a renewed popularity. Byzantine icons in particular were produced in large numbers and this continued until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the practice was transplanted to Russia, inheritor of the Orthodox mantle.

“The value of an icon is not just artistic, it’s spiritual,” Lammens says, explaining why some ecclesiastical authorities object to icons being displayed outside of holy places. “We mustn’t forget that this is a cult object, it is full of theology and symbolism, it can’t just be put anywhere.”

His blue eyes sparkle and as he warms to his topic, his hands begin to trace fleeting arabesques in the air, a single finger is raised for emphasis, an open palm is an entreaty to listen.

“The icon represents a theology of light,” he explains. “God created with light so the iconographer paints with light.”

He gestures at the images around him.

“Look, the light comes from within the painting, from inside the figure,” he says pointing to a Madonna and child“this is not created light, it’s a spiritual light.”

It is the desire to capture this inner light that fuelled the development of the icon. It is why so much gold was used and it’s why the eyes are usually so unnaturally large.

“That allows the soul to shine through,” the Father continues. “The eyes contain life. When they no longer see the light, we are dead.”

This is why, as in Buddhist and Hindu iconography, the eyes are the last part of an image to be painted, for once they are added, the icon is believed to have been given life. And life is what Lammens and his team are giving to the murky and poorly researched history of iconography in Lebanon.

“We used to think that there were no icons created here before the 17th century but now we have found one in Kaftoun from the 11th Century as well a Cretan-style icon in Tripoli from the 15th Century,” he tells me, as the interview comes to an end.

He bids me goodbye and returns to his students. As I walk back to the newspaper, I realise that Lammens and his team are more than plastic arts surgeons to the saints, they are helping to (re)write Lebanon's history, as old becomes new and an ancient heritage forgotten in plain sight, emerges from beneath the grime of centuries of devotion.


Article originally published in The Daily Star, 1999.