Fig. 4. Angel holding a tray with elements for the Eucharist. Eastern end of the wall above the southern semidome. Photograph: author. © ARCE.

The Red Monastery Conservation Project

The Red Monastery Conservation Project – 2006 and 2007 Campaigns: Contributing to the Corpus of late antique Art


THE MASSIVE WALL painting conservation project now underway in the church at the Red Monastery near Sohag is contributing substantially to the known corpus of late antique art. Obscured under layers of soot, dust and varnish for centuries, even most specialists of Coptic art had little familiarity with these paintings.[1] The newly cleaned figural images and non-figural archi­tectural polychromy are of great significance, and even in advance of their publication have drawn considerable interest not only from Coptologists but also from specialists in Late Antiquity and the Byzantine world.[2] The results of early campaigns of conservation work are now in press, and in this article I will introduce the monument and present previously unpublished findings from work in 2006 and early 2007.[3]

The appellation “Red Monastery” is a colloquial name for the Monastery of Anba Pishay or Bishay, in the Sahidic dialect. Scholars have tradition­ally called it the Monastery of St. Bishoi, but the inscription in the recently revealed painting of this saint in the Red Monastery church spells it with the Sahidic ending, as does the current abbot. This monumental church was the heart of a sizeable community, which was itself part of a larger “federation” of monasteries, centered at the so-called White Monastery of St. Shenoute.[4] The even larger church at the White Monastery, a few kilometers away, was commissioned in the fifth century by one of the greatest early monastic leaders of Egypt, Shenoute of Atripe (346—465). While the two churches are the best surviving structures from this federation, these once extensive monastic communities have left important material traces, mostly unstud­ied as yet, and an exceptional body of texts. The existence in the outskirts of Sohag of archaeological remains from one of the formative locations of Christian monasticism, coupled with monumental architecture, high-qual­ity sculpture and rare wall paintings, is extraordinary enough. What makes this site very likely unique in the Mediterranean region is the combination of this wide range of material evidence and a substantial body of textual sources from the site. The conjunction of physical and written data furnishes a remarkable opportunity to learn more about late antique monasticism by crossing disciplinary boundaries. The project to conserve the wall paintings in the Red Monastery church is one component of a much larger project, designed to study monasticism in this area.[5]

The White and Red Monastery churches follow the same basic design with different primary building materials. Shenoute’s fifth-century church, built in white limestone, is understood to have been the model for the somewhat later Red Monastery church, principally constructed of brick. According to a recent reevaluation of the sculpture by Hans-Georg Severin, the Red Monastery church most probably dates to circa 525.[6] Both churches are enclosed by tall perimeter walls, angled slightly inward, and topped by a cavetto cornice in the manner of pharaonic architecture. The majority of the interior space in both buildings consists of a long, rectangular nave terminat­ing in a trilobed eastern end. The trefoil space functioned originally as the sanctuary. The naves now lack roofs, while the sanctuaries are enclosed, and the easternmost lobes have been screened off and function as the current sanctuaries of the churches.

The ancient sanctuary of the Red Monastery church is much better pre­served than that at the White Monastery. This complex space rises in two registers of niches, embellished with columns, pilasters and pediments. A semidome completes each of the three lobes, above which is a clerestory topped by a modern dome. Severin has observed that “the architectural sculpture of the Red Monastery church—at least in the sanctuary and its western facade—is preserved to a unique degree. Nowhere else in Egypt do we know a monument of the late antique and early Byzantine period whose architectural sculpture is in situ up to the highest level of the building and can reliably be examined and estimated.”[7] This interior space is aesthetically remarkable, with sweeping lines and dramatic contrasts of depth and mass. Almost all of the surfaces in the trilobed sanctuary and the preceding façade wall are painted with patterns and motifs belonging to the classical tradition. In contrast, the only paintings in the White Monastery church sanctuary that have survived in more than fragmentary form are medieval.

From the commencement of the project in 2002 and continuing into 2006, we focused primarily on the northern lobe of the triconch. In the autumn of 2006, we completed the conservation of this area and began work on the southern lobe, on which we concentrated in early 2007. The conservators have also recently completed test cleanings on the facade wall in front of the triconch and in the small chamber to the northeast of the tre­foil space, with remarkable results. All conservation and supporting scholarly and technical studies at the Red Monastery church have been funded by the United States Agency for International Development and administered by the American Research Center in Egypt.[8] The Coptic Church has provided expansive hospitality throughout the work. We are undertaking this project in collaboration with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. I am the overall project director, and Luigi De Cesaris directs the challenging special­ized work of conservation with the assistance of Alberto Sucato.[9]

De Cesaris and his team of conservators have carefully studied the paint and plaster layers, discerning in the northern apse four phases of painting.[10] Each phase was painted on plaster using tempera or, in some cases, encaustic (a wax-based paint). When later paintings were added, the artist or his assis­tants first prepared a new plaster layer that covered the earlier phases, with the exception of the fourth stage when two coats of whitewash were applied instead of the usual plaster preparation. In areas where later layers of plaster and paint have fallen off, it is possible to observe something of the character of the earlier paintings. To date, we have a very good idea of the appearance of the first, third and fourth paint layers. While evidence of a second layer clearly exists, it is very limited.

We have found evidence of the first layer on the arches framing the three semi-domes of the triconch, within the vault of the northern semi-dome and on the northern end of the facade wall. The northern half-dome seems to have initially been colored all or mostly red. Elsewhere, the earliest paint­ings consist of very loosely applied pastel colors creating geometric patterns or generally vegetal motifs (fig. 1). This kind of simple decoration would not have taken a long time to apply, in contrast to that of the later paint lay­ers. Presumably, it was done immediately upon completion of the church in order to provide the interior of the sanctuary with a basic decorative scheme.

Fig. 1. First level of painted decoration, showing vegetal motifs against a white background, sur­rounded by paintings belonging to the fourth layer. Red Monastery church, border framing the eastern semidome, northern side. Photo­graph: author. © ARCE.
Fig. 1. First level of painted decoration, showing vegetal motifs against a white background, sur­rounded by paintings belonging to the fourth layer. Red Monastery church, border framing the eastern semidome, northern side. Photo­graph: author. © ARCE.
Fig. 2. Second level of pain­ted decoration, showing part of an eye, nostril and mouth revealed where part of the later painting of a cross (fourth layer) has fallen off. Photograph: author. © ARCE.
Fig. 2. Second level of pain­ted decoration, showing part of an eye, nostril and mouth revealed where part of the later painting of a cross (fourth layer) has fallen off. Photograph: author. © ARCE.

Based on our work to date, the second layer of painted plaster is only apparent in the northern semi-dome. Part of an eye, a nostril, and a mouth are visible in an area where the third and fourth layers of painting have fallen off (fig. 2). The second phase of painting evidently consisted of figural sub­jects that may have been restricted to this half dome. It is possible that this phase extended into the other domes as well, but it is definitely not found on the walls below or above the semi-domes.

The third phase of decoration in the church was extensive and included painting in all regions of the triconch and the enclosing facade wall. It is characterized by bright pink and green encaustic paint, and also a strong orpiment yellow. As part of this work, the team of painters covered all col­umns, capitals, niches, walls, and half-domes with architectural polychromy. These decorative motifs have close ties to paintings found in the late antique monasteries of Apa Apollo and Apa Jeremiah that are typically dated to circa the sixth to the seventh century.[11]

This means that if the building was completed and first painted circa 525, then two more phases of work were undertaken in the church within a very short period of time. Similar geo­metric panels and curtains were found in a small triconch funerary chapel at the White Monastery, which was excavated by the SCA in 2002.[12] The non-figural paintings in the Red Monastery sanctuary often imitate other media, depicting for example, green-veined marble columns and multi-colored braids. The density of contrasting pattern and color creates variety, expressing essential compo­nents used to construct beauty in the late antique Roman world.[13]

The artists of the third phase also painted figural subjects on the backs of the niches found in the two tiers of each lobe, in the semi-domes, and on the walls above them. Many of these figures are visible because the whitewash of the later, fourth phase that originally covered them has flaked off due to its poor adhesion to the wax-based pinks and greens, or the destructive character of the orpiment. The recently conserved figure of the Patriarch Cyril, on the ground floor level of the northern lobe, demonstrates this point. As part of the third phase of painting, the artist depicted a full figure of the saint standing, with a black inscription stating his name and title. During the fourth phase this composition was covered by a bust-length figure, again of Cyril, that now survives primarily as an outline (fig. 3). Today, one can discern both figures at the same time.

Remnants of two books can be seen, one smaller, higher up and held by the standing representation of the third phase, and a bigger one lower down, held by the larger scale portrait of the fourth and final phase of work. Besides the flaking of the whitewash and the resulting loss of pigment, this area has also suffered considerable additional damage because it is much more accessible than the paintings in the higher zones of the triconch, where paintings from the fourth phase survive in better condition.

Fig. 3. Patriarch Cyril, fra­med by a niche covered with architectural polychromy. The wall below the niche is enlivened with a pain­ted geometric panel. North lobe, western niche. Photo­graph: author. © ARCE.
Fig. 3. Patriarch Cyril, fra­med by a niche covered with architectural polychromy. The wall below the niche is enlivened with a pain­ted geometric panel. North lobe, western niche. Photo­graph: author. © ARCE.

The two levels of niches in the northern lobe demonstrate the construc­tion of an Egyptian identity, established first during the third phase of work in the church, and repeated again in the fourth. The middle register includes four monastic saints, three of which can be readily identified by inscriptions. At the furthest left (west) is Besa, followed by Shenoute, an unknown saint, and Pishay, at the far right. These three, and presumably their colleague, all helped shape monasticism in the immediate area.[14] The ground-floor level, as mentioned above, includes portraits of Athanasios, Cyril, and Theophilos, all patriarchs of the Egyptian Church. They broaden the scope of the state­ment to include the papacy, and with it the country of Egypt.

Prior to the 2006 campaign, we could discern something of the iconog­raphy of the third phase of painting under the fourth layer owing to the thinness of the whitewash upon which it was applied. We were not, however, confident that we could distinguish the stylistic features of this third period. After conservation, we now have two figural paintings clearly visible on the third plaster layer, and they are in very different styles.

The apostle or evange­list in the region of the clerestory on the northern side of the church, which was uncovered in November of 2004, is consistent with other works of art dated to the sixth century in the Mediterranean region.[15] He fills the frame between two windows, staring out at us in a frontal position, and holds a gemmed codex in his covered left hand. The artist has used soft brushstrokes, and rendered a well-modeled, bulky figure with a very large halo. While the hand and wrist are outlined, otherwise the painter has not employed lines or other schematic devices, preferring a primarily illusionistic rendering.

Painted on the same (third) plaster layer, above the eastern side of the southern semi-dome, is a newly uncovered figure presented in a very dif­ferent style. Facing west, an angel holds a tray with a vessel filled with a red liquid, presumably wine, and a spoon for giving it to the faithful during the eucharist (fig. 4).[16] The artist created the figure using both outlines and some passages of modeling. The dark lines around the angel’s body and dress cre­ate a dynamic stylized pattern, and are far removed from the impression of the naturalistic solidity of the clerestory figure on the opposite wall. Lines and not contrasts of light and shadow are the dominant tools used to make the figure recognizable.

While both paintings include purple, white, gray, and brown, and what is perhaps a similar red, the depiction of the angel does not, at least in its current con­dition, have the green and golden orange-yellow used in the clerestory figure. The yellow employed for the halos is different as well, the angel having a harsher, brighter hue. Both images have remnants of the fourth phase’s geometric motifs painted over them, making it very clear that neither was created during the last phase of work.

We do not know if the stylistic differences between the apostle and the angel exist because the same team had one or more artists working in different modes, or if they were executed at different times. All we can say with certainty is that both images are painted on the third phase of plaster. Additional figures on either side of the north­ern and southern semi-domes, while much less well preserved, demonstrate that the dominant figural style of the third phase of painting, at least in this area, is that of the angel and not the apostle in the clerestory.

The artist or artists of the fourth phase, as stated above, did not apply the typical preparatory layer of plaster, but instead used whitewash. They con­centrated their attention on the semi-domes and the backs of the niches. In addition, precise geometric patterns were used to cover the figural sub­jects in the walls framing the semi-domes that belong to the third period of work. These designs were executed with precise, dark outlines. Much of the non-figural architectural decoration of the third phase was left undisturbed, while in some areas it was lightly retouched, generally in white. This means that the viewer today sees primarily figural subjects from the last period, and architectural polychromy belonging to the third phase of work.

Fig. 4. Angel holding a tray with elements for the Eucharist. Eastern end of the wall above the southern semidome. Photograph: author. © ARCE.
Fig. 4. Angel holding a tray with elements for the Eucharist. Eastern end of the wall above the southern semidome. Photograph: author. © ARCE.

The northern semi-dome depicts a monumental, enthroned nursing Virgin Mary (the Galaktotrophousa), flanked by standing prophets holding open scrolls, in a complex, but shallow, architectural space. This composition was conserved between 2002 and 2004. Balancing the monumental Virgin and Christ Child, the southern apse includes an even larger Christ seated on a jeweled throne set against a similar two-tiered arcade hung with numer­ous lamps and censers (fig. 5).

Whereas the Virgin’s head is well below the central arch of the lower arcade, Christ’s obscures it and rises above it. The figure of Christ is not as well preserved as that of the Virgin, and may have been somewhat repainted. He holds a huge closed codex in his left hand and raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing. Two angels lean out from behind the arcade, with one hand raised, palm facing outward, and the other hold­ing a bunch of fabric from their robes. The four evangelists flank him, two on either side, each holding a closed codex.

The halo now visible around the head of Christ actually belongs to the third phase of painting, which appar­ently included the same subject, but positioned slightly higher. The pigment of the halo of the Christ belonging to the fourth phase has fallen off, once again owing to problems created by the thinness of the whitewash and the corrosive character of the orpiment used by the third painter.

What appears to be the remains of a crown on top of Christ’s head is actually a capital. Considerable evidence exists in both semi-domes that the artist of the fourth phase painted the architectural framework, lamps, censers, and furni­ture before adding the figures. When the pigment of the figural subjects falls off, the architecture and other elements are revealed. In March of 2007, the cleaning and conservation of the southern apse was completed.

Fig. 5. Christ Enthroned between Evangelists, south semi-dome. View showing Christ and the right half of the apse only. Photograph: author. © ARCE.
Fig. 5. Christ Enthroned between Evangelists, south semi-dome. View showing Christ and the right half of the apse only. Photograph: author. © ARCE.

The subjects of the two semi-domes interact with each other. The Old Testament prophets presenting their scrolls to the Virgin Mary demonstrate that they foretold the incarnation of Christ, establishing what is a standard typological relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The authors of the four Gospels appear opposite, with the massive adult Christ, balancing the depiction of Christ as a child with his appearance in heaven, and includ­ing the dominance of his new Word, the Gospels, in the form of the books that all of them hold. These two half-domes constitute only two of the three monumental compositions, the most important of which is the central, east­ern semi-dome. This area has not yet been conserved, and so will not be discussed here.

The style of the fourth and final phase of painting in the triconch has ties to paintings uncovered at Saqqara and generally dated to the sixth or seventh century, and also to a painted panel found at Edfu and now in the Musee du Louvre, from the first half of the seventh century.[17] Strong, dark outlin­ing and also the restrained use of modeling characterize these paintings. The outlines are sharper, more saturated, and often wider than those of the third- period angel. The palette is different, with lavender, apricot, burgundy, pale brownish-orange and mauve predominating. The yellow is the warmer color of an egg yolk, less golden than the halo of the clerestory figure, and not as harsh as that used by the painters of the third phase. Precisely defined pat­terns cover textiles and architectural elements, in a manner not seen earlier.

Paul van Moorsel dated these paintings, when obscured by dirt, soot and varnish, to 1301, based on an inscription elsewhere in the church.[18] In earlier publications, I attributed this phase to circa the eighth century, a slightly later date than the stylistic comparanda warranted. At present, I would suggest a span of the seventh to the eighth century, although we know so little of the chronology of Egyptian Christian art in this period that this is still only a guess.

The paintings in the trilobed area of the eastern end itself all date to Late Antiquity. Test cleanings in the small room to the northeast of the trefoil show at least two layers of paint, the uppermost of which was painted as part of the fourth phase of work in the church, and so is also part of this early period. Additional test cleanings on the facade wall in front of the trefoil indicate that most of these paintings belong to the third phase of work, although one small fragment of a medieval figure’s head has survived.[19] The extent of this phase of medieval painting, and its fate, are unknown to us at present, but after conservation of the facade wall has been completed, we hope to have more information.[20]

The northern end of the church wall, closest to the facade wall in front of the sanctuary, includes a faint but legible painting of a medieval equestrian saint (fig. 6). Paul Dilley has demonstrated that its long donor inscrip­tion credits the work to Paul the Deacon, the son of the blessed Klate, and

identifies the saint as an obscure martyr named Aganistos. Dilley does not believe that the painter, Mercurios, is the same artist as the Mercurios who wrote his name with a date corresponding to A.D. 1301 in the Red Monastery, but has observed that the hand­-writing has closer ties to the Armenian inscription in the White Monastery eastern semi­dome, dated to A.D. 1124 Dilley is still working on deciphering the fragmentary date written at the end of Paul the Deacon’s dedicatory inscription next to the figure of Aganistos.[21] The test cleaning of the inscription and the horse’s head show that this painting will be impressive again, after conservation.

Fig. 6. Donor inscription belonging to the painting of the equestrian martyr Aganis- tos. Test cleaning. Photograph: author. © ARCE.
Fig. 6. Donor inscription belonging to the painting of the equestrian martyr Aganis- tos. Test cleaning. Photograph: author. © ARCE.

By the end of 2007, almost half of the paintings in the enclosed eastern end of the church will be cleaned and conserved. The results to date demonstrate that this church includes the most complete example of non-figural painted architectural polychromy dat­ing to Late Antiquity anywhere in Egypt, and very likely the Mediterranean region. While the marbles and mosaics of Istanbul and Ravenna convey the taste for variety and color, in the Red Monastery church sanctuary we see what must have been a common medium for its production, paint. The four phases of painting were undertaken within a short period of time—perhaps not much more than a century. These endeavors almost certainly required more than one artist for at least the first, third, and fourth phases, as well as a large amount of scaffold­ing, plaster, and pigments. The size of the task, and the fact it was carried out repeatedly, attest to the wealth and energy of the monastery in this period.[22] While the full magnitude of the iconographic program of the fourth, and to some extent also the third, phase of work will not be apparent until the end of conservation, we can already discern something of its complexity.

Elizabeth S. Bolman

[1] As recently as 1970, one of the most prolific writers about Coptic art and culture could, mystifyingly, write the following: “For obvious reasons, however, the White Monastery has attracted considerably more ecclesiastical and scholarly attention than its sister monastery, the Red Monastery, which is situated three kilometers north of it” Meinardus 1969—1970: 111—17. For a demonstration of preference for the White Monastery over the Red, compare the attention paid to the two in the Coptic Encyclopedia. Five pages are devoted to the Red Monastery, and ten to the White Monastery. Atiya 1991a: 736—40, 761—70. The endeavor to document and publish both churches as part of the Peinture murale chez les would certainly have raised the profile of the Red Monastery church even without conservation, but I doubt it would have attracted attention outside of the relatively small community of Coptologists.

Karel Innemee has taken over the publication of this project from Paul van Moorsel.

[2] I base this assertion on the enthusiastic reactions of numerous Byzantinists and schol­ars of Late Antiquity who have attended my presentations of this monument.

[3] Bolman 2006: 1-24; Bolman 2007; Bolman 2004b: cover-9.

[4] Layton 2002: 25-55.

[5] This larger work is the project of a multi-disciplinary “Consortium for Research and Conservation in the Monasteries of the Sohag Region.” See: http://egypt.cla.umn. edu/consortium.html.

[6] Severin 2004. Severin forthcoming.

[7] Severin 2004.

[8] Conservation of almost all of the north lobe was funded by USAID through EAP/ ARCE, under USAID Grant No. 263-G-00-93-00089-00 (formerly 263-0000- G-00-3089-00), and ongoing work is being funded and administered by the same institutions, under the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project (EAC) Cycle Two Subproject, USAID Agreement No. 263-A-00-04-00018-00. Copyright for all Red Monastery research, photography, studies, and documentation carried out during this period belongs to the American Research Center in Egypt, also the repository of the project’s reports, and photographic and graphic documentation. The members of the Red Monastery Project thank USAID and ARCE for their exceptional sup­port and assistance, particularly Gerry D.Scott, III, Robert K.Vincent, Jr., Janie Abd al-Aziz, Lara Shawky, and Madame Amira. Very special thanks goes to Michael Jones, EAC Director, for his consistent help and engagement with the project. Other proj­ect members are: Father Maximous al-Anthony, P. Dilley, P. Godeau, K. Innemee, D. Kinney, C. Meurice, H.-G. Severin, N. Warner.

[9] We began this project in 2002 with the master conservator Adriano Luzi, who sadly passed away in 2003. Assistant conservators who have worked on the project between 2002 and March 2007 are: E. Abrusca, E. Albanese, E. Antonelli, C. Arrighi, I. Bigiaretti, C. Compostella, I. De Martinis, L. De Prezzo, C.Di Marco, A.Meschini, D. Pistone, E. Ricchi, G. Russo, G. Tancioni, and M.C. Tomassetti.

[10] De Cesaris, in collaboration with Sucato, 2003. All reference to paint and plaster lay­ers is based on the work of De Cesaris and Sucato.

[11] Bolman 2006: 15-16.

[12] Bolman et al. 2007.

[13] For a much more extensive coverage of these points, see: Bolman 2006.

[14] For more on these four monastic saints and their ties to Shenoute’s federation, see Bolman 2007.

[15] For a discussion of his style and comparative material, see Bolman 2007.

[16] A third element is on the tray, which looks like a sort of stand. I have not yet found parallels for it.

[17] Busts of Angelic Virtues, Cell 709. Quibell 1909: pl. IX. Henne 1924: 10, 35-36, pls. XIX, XX. Paris, Musee du Louvre, inv. no. AF 10878-AF 10879. Rutschowscaya 1992: 60-62, cat. no. 40.

[18] Van Moorsel’s dating of the painting was published in a dissertation: Langener 1996: 163. For the inscription, see: Monneret de Villard 1925-1926, vol. 2: fig. 221. In a brief description of the paintings, written for the general public, Van Moorsel and Innemee refer to two dates, ca. 1000 and 1301, without explicitly tying either to the final phase of painting in the Red Monastery sanctuary.Van Moorsel and Innemee 1997: 70-71.

[19] My thanks to Innemee for drawing to my attention the fragment on the eastern transverse wall (north side), prior to the trefoil.

[20] Additional information about the medieval paintings may be forthcoming from Meurice’s examinations of archival photographs of the Red Monastery church.

[21] Dilley 2007.

[22] For more on the subject of the financial state of Shenoute’s federation during his life­time and afterward, and its relationship to the Red Monastery paintings, see: Bolman, in progress.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *