The Red Monastery (SOHAG)
THE MONASTERY OF ST. PSHAI is more commonly known as the Red Monastery (al-Dayr al-Ahmar). The historian al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) used this name, explaining that it was built of red bricks.96 Saint Pshai was a hermit and companion of St. Bigul, St. Shenute’s uncle. As a young boy, Shenute (d. ca. 465), abbot of the neighboring monastery that later carried his name (also called the White Monastery), was initiated to monastic life by his uncle and St. Pshai.
Although it is not known whether St. Pshai founded the monastery or whether it was dedicated to his memory, it is most likely situated on the place where he lived. When Shenute became head of the White Monastery, he also assumed authority of the Monastery of St. Pshai as it became a component of his monastic federation.
Historical documentation is scarce. In 1301 the painter Mercurius left a dated inscription in the sanctuary of the church. Father Vansleb visited the site in 1673, to find only the church with its high enclosure walls. He wrote that the sanctuary, where Mass was celebrated, was preserved but the nave had been ruined. The columns were still standing and he admired the beauty of the capitals.97 The evening before Vivant Denon visited Sohag in 1798, Mamluks had sacked the church complex and it was still burning.98
Scholars have mainly been interested in the larger, mid-fifth-century church of Shenute’s monastery. The Church of St. Pshai (early sixth century) was similar in outline but smaller and built with cheaper materials: brick instead of limestone blocks. High brick walls enclose a basilican type church with a trilobed sanctuary and a long narrow hall along the south wall. Reused sculptured friezes surmount the northern and southern entrances. At present, the sanctuary (the only part of a building preserved inside the walls) functions as a church.
The architectural system of the trilobed sanctuary consists of richly decorated niches in two superimposed registers. Columns between the niches are carrying architraves for the upper register and the semi-dome. Two features make this sanctuary unique: first, most of the decorative sculpture is original to the construction of the church and, second, the walls are painted throughout. Color enlivens the sculpture pieces and imitation stone patterns or decorative designs cover all architectural elements.
The semi-domes were painted with Christ enthroned with the Four Living Creatures, flanked by archangels (east); the nursing Virgin enthroned, accompanied by prophets, saints, and angels in a richly decorated framework (north), and a similar architectural framework with Christ enthroned, surrounded by St. John the Baptist and his father Zacharias, angels, evangelists, and patriarchs (south).
Through the centuries, soot and grime had been blackening the paintings, and a process of
restoration began in 2002.99 The northern lobe has been finished and shows its former splendor. New research dates the semi-dome murals (the fourth layer of wall painting) to around 800, while the architectural paintings belong to the second layer.
The wealth of details coming to light will considerably enrich our knowledge of painting in late antique Christian Egypt, as well as of the history of the monastery.