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The Narrow Way to Heaven
Identity and Identities in the Art of Middle Eastern Christianity

Authors:  Immerzeel M.

Year: 2017
ISBN: 978-90-429-3228-9
Pages: XII-365 p.
Price: 105 EURO

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If art mirrors identity, this is particularly the case in the Christian Middle East. At first glance, the imposed minority position of the various communities and inherent feelings of peril are the driving forces behind the development of distinct artistic idioms, but on closer inspection this bias does not entirely do justice to the achievements of past generations. Churches would never have been erected and embellished without the zealous support of individuals and groups who had the means to realize such projects. This two-partite study deals with them and the tangible results of their efforts.
The first part is devoted to the considerable Christian material heritage in Egypt, from the Arab conquest in the seventh century to the downfall of the artistic production around the turn of the thirteenth/fourteenth centuries. Coptic monasteries, churches and prayer rooms were decorated according to their functional use and specific needs, thus expressing a distinct monastic identity. Another influential category was the wealthy elite of lay notables, in particular high-ranking state officials in the Fatimid and Ayyubid service. They not only instigated the renovation and decoration of urban churches, but were also committed to the refurbishing of the papal churches in Old Cairo. In this matter, specific attention is devoted to the involvement of Byzantine-trained artists in the second half of the thirteenth century. In addition, the churches and works of art of the other communities in Egypt, in particular the Syrian Orthodox, are highlighted. The second part discusses the revival of Christian art in Ottoman Egypt, Palestine, and Syria from the seventeenth century onwards. Beside the re-emergence of traditional elements, European influences are tangible all across the board. This was the result of the increasing contacts between Europe and the Middle East and the successful extension of the influences of the Church of Rome to the Ottoman realm. Finally, the epilogue is devoted to modern oriental Christian art as a means to express the identity of the different communities.

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