The White Monastery (SOHAG)
SHENUTE OF ATRIPE (d. ca. 465) was five or seven years old when his father entrusted him to his maternal uncle, the monk St. Bigul. After a vision that the boy would be a great leader of men, St. Bigul made him a monk and kept him with him. Shenute became head of a monastic federation comprising several monasteries for men and women, where the Pachomian Rule of shared work and prayer was strictly interpreted. He was the first prolific writer in Coptic, the language of the common people. Much of his work survives and is an endless source of information on various aspects of fifth- and sixth-century monastic life in the region.100
In the twelfth century, the Monastery of St. Shenute was still functioning, but al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) reported that it was in ruins.101 The church, built in the middle of the fifth century, survives. It was constructed of large limestone blocks (hence its name) on a basilican plan with a trilobed sanctuary, a baptistery, and a narthex. Along the south wall of the church runs a long narrow hall with a square room at the east end, probably a library. The high outer walls of the complex include a cornice such as was often used in the construction of pharaonic temples.
In the sanctuary, two registers of elaborately decorated niches are built in the walls. Columns set between the niches carry the architraves for the upper register and the semi-dome. Undoubtedly, the architectural system was once completely painted, as still evident in the church of the Monastery of St. Pshai. Similar niches were set in the walls of the side aisles. The sculpture consisted of reused elements from older buildings and sculpture that was made to order.
Fire heavily damaged the church in the seventh century. It was renovated faithfully to the old plan and columns and capitals were reused. Akhurus was inserted in front of the trilobed sanctuary, although the existing khurus was most likely built in the eleventh or twelfth century. Father Vansleb’s description of the church in 1673 is still accurate: the sanctuary is functioning as a church while the nave and side aisles are unroofed and ruined.102
Paintings survive in the central and southern semi-domes, and on the ground floor. The eastern semi-dome shows Christ enthroned with the Four Living Creatures surrounded by four medallions with the Evangelists working on their Gospels. Bilingual inscriptions (Coptic and Armenian) date the painting to the twelfth century and are witness to the presence of Armenians in the monastery at that time. In the southern semi-dome, angels are carrying a triumphal cross in mandorla, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. Together, they form a deesis. The Virgin and Child and St. Michael flank the central semi-dome, while an unidentified patriarch was painted on a pillar. Further study will have to prove whether all paintings belong to the same phase of decoration.
Excavations of the monastic settlement surrounding the church are in progress. In conjunction with the results of an extensive study of Shenute’s writings, a new history of the monastery will be written.
100 Shenute’s literary corpus is being edited and studied by an international group of scholars under the direction of Prof. Stephen Emmel (University of Munster, Germany). This project is part of the Consortium for Research and Conservation in the Monasteries of the Sohag Region (dir. E.S. Bolman), including work in the Monastery of St. Pshai, and survey and excavations around the Church of St. Shenute.
101 Evetts and Butler 1895, 235-40 and 317.
102 Vansleb 1677,372-76.