Below is a well-preserved painting of Luke and John from Church of the Forty Martyrs, Mardin, 37. The previous folio has the other two evangelists, and there are still more paintings in the book. Jules Leroy describes them all exactly in his Manuscrits syriaques à peintures (Paris, 1964), p. 386 of the text, so I won’t repeat everything he has written, but I will highlight a few things in the picture. The evangelists’ names, with the respective epithets of “evangelist” and “apostle,” are written in Syriac, and then, in Greek, “Saint Luke” and “Saint John the theologian.” On the writing surface before each writer is the beginning of his own Gospel in Syriac, but while Luke’s (and also Matthew’s and Mark’s on the other page) is in black ink, John’s alone is in red. Luke is made to be younger than John, and as for their seats, they’re ornate and cushioned.
CFMM 37, f. 6r
This image’s color and texture make for a stunning example of what quality photography can do for looking at manuscripts. (I should point out, too, that the image here is not of the highest quality that we have of it.) By contrast, here’s the bitonal image from Leroy’s aforementioned book, p. 137 of the Album.
We might well assume that the production that went into Leroy’s Album was well nigh state-of-the-art, at least within the parameter of making the book mildly affordable, but in any case, it was over half a century ago. In fifty years (or less?), as hard as it is to imagine, we — or our successors, depending on how old we are now! — might look back on the technological means and method that went into making the color image above as quaint, old-fashioned, and very imperfect. Even so, we’re now in a place for the present, at least, to make a vast improvement on Leroy’s excellent assemblage of images from Syriac manuscripts, in terms not only of the potential quality of the visual outcomes, but also of the content of the image collection itself, this latter aspect naturally requiring the cooperation of the owning libraries. Any such revision and improvement of Leroy’s work would allow an ebb in the detail of commentary on each image: when Leroy described his images, he was careful to point out the colors involved, his readers hardly able to get that knowledge from the bitonal images in his Album, and that would no longer be the case with the rich, almost textured, images we can now have at our disposal.
I’ve talked here occasionally about typography in various scripts. A recently published volume dedicated to the typographic work of Hermann Zapf recently appeared on HMML’s doorstep: Jerry Kelly, About more alphabets: The types of Hermann Zapf, Typophile Chap Book, New Series no. 3 (New York, 2011). The foreword is by Robert Bringhurst, author of the delightful (and affordable) Elements of Typographic Style, and I share a few lines of it here (p. 7).
Letterforms are things that nearly all of us in the Western world have learned to take for granted. We treat them much like door knobs, water taps, thermostats, and hinges. We evidently think (in defiance of all logic) that what we read or write matters far more than how it’s read or written, and that letterforms are just a way to get there, as a door knob is a way to open a door. At their best, though, letterforms are more like sailboats and cellos. They are works of art that beg to be used as well as admired. They make demands on those who use them; in return, they lend their beauty, strength, and character to the work for which they are used.
The recent transit of Venus has been in the news for the past few days, so it’s a fine time to have another look at something astronomical-astrological (see here for a previous post on the theme). Below is an image from Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo (SOAA) ms 148, a manuscript from, at the earliest, the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, this terminus from the fact that, in addition to some of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s poems (mušḥātā, see Takahashi 2005: 313-346), it also contains texts from David Puniqāyā (d. ca. 1500) and Sergius of Ḥāḥ (d. 1508). The selection below is the beginning of a poem, Bar ʿEbrāyā’s “On the nature of the seven planets” in the heptasyllabic meter with rhyming lines, the seven planets being the “wandering — as opposed to fixed — stars” known in antiquity: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the moon.
SOAA 148, f. 58v
As you can see, someone has penciled the planet names in Arabic (Garšūnī) in the margins. The poem was published, without the use of this manuscript, in Dolabani’s edition of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s poetry (1929: 77-78, no. 6.3), but it’s not in Scebabi’s edition (Rome, 1877). Bar ʿEbrāyā lists those things or people associated with each planet in the order given above. A comparison between the printed edition, based on manuscripts in Jerusalem and Mosul, and the Aleppo manuscript yields a notable difference: Dolabani has only given the domiciles (baytā here in Syriac, as also οἶκος in Greek with this meaning) for Mercury and the moon, the last two planets, but the Aleppo manuscript gives domiciles for all seven of the planets, which means that the manuscript has ten more heptasyllabic lines than the printed text. In addition, the two-part little poem printed in Dolabani separately as 6.4 is clearly taken by the scribe of this manuscript as part of the poem on the planets, and the subject matter and phraseology indeed fits.
A review of Takahashi’s bibliography for the poems will show that much work remains to be done on them, including not least a proper edition, which would be no small task given the plethora of known manuscripts. Till then, let this little notice stand as a harbinger of what else might be discovered.
Dolabani, Y., ed. 1929. Mušḥātā d-Mār Grigorios Yoḥannān Bar ʿEbrāyā mapryānā qaddišā d-madnḥā. Jerusalem. Reprint, Glane, 1983.
Takahashi, H. 2005. Barhebraeus: A Bio-Bibliography. Piscataway.
Some time ago I wrote a post on the fun and value of translating (and composing) into foreign languages, and I also offered as an example my Syriac translation of a famous paragraph from Darwin. I decided recently that something from Bob Dylan’s huge catalog of lyrics would be worth a try, and so here is a start — and only that! — of the first verse of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” along with the chorus; the varied imagery of the song makes it a good choice for practice at the lexical selection of phrases and individual words. This attempt is really just the basic structure and vocabulary. I’d like, of course, if for no other than technical practice, to arrange it in a proper Syriac meter, which would naturally entail re-ordering the words and selecting certain synonyms for the words now chosen, but I’ve not yet decided which meter would best fit the song, nor even whether it should be a mēmrā or a madrāšā, though my leaning is toward the latter. I will gladly be corrected, but I have no illusions for now that the song would find any near counterparts in originally composed Syriac verse! Incidentally, on Syriac meter the following resources may be mentioned:
- G. Cardahi (Al-Qardāḥī), Kitāb al-kanz al-ṯamīn fī ṣināʿat šiʿr al-suryān (Liber thesauri de arte poetica Syrorum; Rome, 1875) pp. 2-6
- S.P. Brock and G.A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems (Provo, 2006), pp. xiii-xvi
- S.P. Brock’s article on Syriac poetry in the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, pp. 661-662, and his entry “Poetry” in the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of Syriac Heritage (GEDSH), which has further sources indicated
So then, without further ado, here’s my thus far unmetrical foray into Syriacking some Dylan: hard_rain_syriac. As always, comments are welcome.