Nicola Saig, a master from Jerusalem, was a prominent iconographer and painter in the late 19th century, who today is considered one of the pioneers of modern art in Palestine. Saig was known as a skillful iconographer trained in the Byzantine tradition in the Greek Orthodox church under the notable Jerusalem-style practice of his predecessors. With Western aesthetics and influences entering the city, Saig began to experiment with new materials, techniques and pictorial images. By the turn of the century Saig distinguished his practice as he broke from the traditional Christian iconography and first introduced secular genres in his paintings; including still life compositions, landscapes and historic scenes.
Saig was a known painter to the local community and international visitors, exhibiting and selling paintings in his atelier and workshop located in the proximity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inside the old city of Jerusalem. He attracted several young apprentices to his studio, training a new generation of artists including Tawfiq Jawhariyyeh (1890-1944), Zulfa Sa’adi (1905-1988), and Daoud Zalatimo (1906-2001).
The landscape painting depicts the Monastery of Our Lady of Saidnaya in Syria, a venerated pilgrimage site housing an icon of the Virgin Mary that is traditionally believed to heal and concede miracles. Saig’s natural and realistic rendering of the scene suggests he may have attempted easel painting in nature while on a visit to Saidnaya. As a renown iconographer, Saig would often travel for church commissions from across the region. Saig’s son recalls how at an early age he had the unique opportunity to join his father on his travels and a particular memory ‘playing in the fields around the beautiful villages of Syria, especially the surrounds of Saidnaya.’ (From an interview held by Samia Halaby, (L. Jayussi (ed.), “The Pictorial Arts of Jerusalem, 1900 – 1948” in Jerusalem Interrupted: Modernity and Colonial Transformation 1917-present, 2014.)
The painting was found among eleven other signed and unsigned paintings in the home of a friend of the late Saig in Bethlehem. The gentle brushstrokes and use of radiant light and deep shades in the landscape are attributed to his style. The work is also framed with a Syrian frame which is also from the same period.