SAINT ANTONY, THE FATHER OF MONKS, found his final place of refuge in a cave in Mount Colzim (Qulzum) in the Wadi al-‘Araba near the Red Sea. A spring at the foot of the mountain supplied water and he planted a small garden. After his death in 356, his disciples founded a monastic community that bears his name. The history of the Monastery of St. Antony repeats the ups and downs of many desert settlements: Bedouin attacks, renovation and rebuilding, fortification, and periods of abandonment and revival. The fame and stature of its patron saint has made it one of the most important monasteries of Egypt, both past and present.
The heart of the monastery is the Church of St. Antony, often simply called ‘The Old Church’ where St. Antony is believed to be buried. It is a small building with a nave divided into two domed bays, a khurus, and three altar rooms. To the south of the western bay of the nave is a small chapel, dedicated to the Four Living Creatures.
This church not only houses one of the few rare, nearly complete decorative programs known but inscriptions also mention the painter, Theodore, and date this cycle of paintings to the years 1232-1233. Late thirteenth century paintings in the khurus and on the soffit of the arches to the khurus and the entrance to the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures complete the program as it is seen today.
Theodore and his team were not only active in the church proper. In the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures, they painted an impressive Christ enthroned in mandorla, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, forming a deesis. The deesis was enlarged by the full-bodied images of the Four Living Creatures who, praying continuously, also mediate for mankind. In this case, angels carry the mandorla of Christ. The small niche below shows a draped cross with censing angels.
These paintings were not the first to be executed in the chapel or the church (although not in the altar rooms). During the recent restoration, conservators have found evidence of two earlier layers of painting. The fragments are small and badly preserved, with the exception of one example from the oldest layer, on the soffit of the sanctuary arch of the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures.
With the restoration of the church and the paintings, an important monument has been preserved. Moreover, it has greatly enriched and complemented the history of the Monastery of St. Antony. However, the monks and the numerous pilgrims traveling to the monastery, visiting his church and the cave in the mountains, do not need tangible evidence. St. Antony’s presence and spirit are palpable everywhere.
The Christ enthroned and busts of his apostles in medallions may be dated to the sixth to seventh century. The absence of older fragments in the haykals may be an indication of the later addition of this section.