Iraqi iconographer honors his Syriac roots

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy of Mothana Butres

By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (CNS) — When Islamic State fighters overran
Qaraqosh, Iraq, in the summer of 2014, Mothana Butres was able to grab only a
single volume from his father’s collection of thousands of Syriac books and

The handwritten, 600-year-old book of Syriac hymns now
inspires much of Butres’ work as an iconographer.

From a modest walk-up apartment in Zahle, Lebanon, a city
not far from the Syrian border, the Syriac Catholic iconographer and refugee
creates his sacred art in a sparsely furnished living room. As he works, he
sings the hymns he has committed to memory from the sole book he managed to

Butres is the creator of the Our Lady of Aradin icon, a
centerpiece of the first Catholic shrine dedicated to persecuted Christians.
The shrine is housed in St. Michael’s Church in New York City and was dedicated
June 12.

“The inspiration when I was working on Our Lady of
Aradin was that it was the Virgin Mary who was protecting the Christians,”
Butres told Catholic News Service.

He chose to present Mary in the traditional wedding dress of
the Aradin area of Iraq “to represent that the Virgin Mary will always be
a part of the Christians in Iraq and that she is the protector of Christians in
Iraq and all the Middle East,” Butres said.

He said that when faced with an ultimatum by Islamic State fighters, Iraq’s Christians gave up their land but refused to give up their faith.

“The people who were persecuted, their blood is a
stronger message than anything I could ever convey,” he said. But the
recent persecution and the oppression suffered by his ancestors led him “to
the way I think and the way I do my work.”

Butres said he believes his icons can be an instrument for
intercessory prayer. The prayers of the people who visit the shrine in New York
and pray before the icon of Our Lady of Aradin are joined with those of the
persecuted Christians. 

“Based on what Jesus told us, that ‘if two people
are gathered in my name, I will be among them,'” he said.

The Syriac book Butres treasures from his father’s library
collection also awakened him to the lost practice of writing books by hand,
especially in the Syriac language, which is spoken by Christians in certain
areas of Syria and Iraq, including Qaraqosh. Syriac also is used in the liturgy
of some Eastern churches, including the Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and
Maronite Catholic churches. The language is related to Aramaic, the language of

“I’m trying to revive the value of the handwritten
texts. Books used to be
handwritten,” Butres said.

As part of an ongoing personal project, Butres intends to
write out the entire Bible in Syriac on a long scroll of leather just over a
foot wide. In three months of
work, the tiny, intricate text he has etched extends 16 feet in length and
comprises the first five chapters of the Old Testament.

“I believe that in writing out the Bible, we can
discover it in a new, deeper perspective, more than just reading it,” he

In his icons, Butres often incorporates streams of
handwritten text related to the image, which contributes to preserving the
Syriac language, heritage and spirituality. The icon of Our Lady of Aradin, for example, includes the
Hail Mary in Syriac.

Butres’ introduction to iconography began at age 12; a
deacon at his church in Qaraqosh taught him the ancient art as well as formulas
for producing colors and varnishes from natural products, for example, using
eggs and wine for shades of red, using beeswax for varnish and using deer musk
to give the icon a scent.

Prayer and religious formation were part of Butres’ daily
life growing up in a Syriac Catholic family as one of 16 children. 

were very close to the church,” said. “Every day at dusk, we went to
the church to pray,” he recalled, adding that for “anyone who didn’t
participate, there was no dinner.” The same went for missing Sunday Mass:
no lunch and dinner.

That pious upbringing fostered vocations, he said. One of
Butres’ sisters became a Dominican nun. His brother, Nimatullah, is a priest
serving the Syriac Catholic Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance, which is based
in Bayonne, New Jersey. Father Butres attended the dedication ceremony for the
Our Lady of Aradin shrine in New York.

The artistic Butres became a deacon at age 20 and studied
theology at Holy Spirit University in Lebanon, earning a bachelor’s degree.

Butres intended to complete his master’s degree in theology,
carrying out his research in Qaraqosh, but had to abandon all he had accomplished
there when Islamic State attacked his childhood home.

That home, overtaken, gutted and ruined by Islamic State, is
under repair now. From Lebanon, Butres created the Our Lady of Qaraqosh icon as
a gift for his family, intending it as “a protector of the house where she
was always present.”

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