Sunday, January 27, 2019


Elizabeth S. Bolman (ed.), The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. xxxix, 390. ISBN 9780300212303. $85.00.

Reviewed by David Brakke, The Ohio State University (

Version at BMCR home site


A landmark in multiple fields in the study of late antiquity, The Red Monastery: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt documents the surviving church of the Red Monastery near Sohag in Egypt following the conservation of the wall paintings in its triconch apse and adjacent rooms. Elizabeth S. Bolman, the book's editor, directed the conservation project, which was funded by the United States Agency for International Development through a grant administered by the American Research Center in Egypt. Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato, and Emiliano Ricchi led the team that conserved the wall paintings, an astonishing collection of polychromatic figural and decorative works that were made in multiple phases beginning in the late fifth century. In this lavishly illustrated book, Bolman and other scholars describe the conservation effort and interpret and contextualize its results. Although interested scholars should try to see the church for themselves, the volume represents the best possible substitute for such a visit. Thanks to the efforts of Bolman and her collaborators, the Red Monastery church contributes transformative new evidence for historians of art and architecture, of Christian monasticism and worship, and of late ancient and early Byzantine Egypt.

Bolman's Introduction provides an orientation to the monastery, its church, and the painting program. The so-called Red Monastery was one of three monasteries (two for men and one for women) in a federation that was based at the larger White Monastery to its south. Pcol founded the federation in the fourth century, but its most famous and consequential leader was its third, Shenoute, who guided the federation for approximately eighty years until his death in 465. The triconch church at the Red Monastery was modelled on the larger such church that Shenoute built at the White Monastery in the 440s. The painting of the apse and its adjacent rooms took place over several phases, the first four of which are dated from the late fifth century to the turn of the seventh. In some phases new painting covered previous work, with the first phase almost completely no longer visible. Much of the striking ornamental work belongs to the second phase (ca. 500–525), while most of the visible images belong to the third and fourth phases. Appendix II provides key drawings of the walls, with differing colors indicating to which phase elements belong. A numbering system enables abbreviated reference to specific areas of the walls.

The seven chapters of Part I ("The Red Monastery and its Church") provide the historical, liturgical, and architectural context for the paintings. Andrew Crislip (Chapter 1, "The Red Monastery in Early Byzantine Egypt") places the monastery and its federation within the social, ecclesiastical, and monastic history of early Byzantine Egypt. Stephen Emmel and Bentley Layton (Chapter 2, "Pshoi and the Early History of the Red Monastery") reconstruct the monastery's early years, when its founder Pshoi, originally a hermit with disciples, facilitated the transition to a cenobitic institution under the auspices of Pcol of the White Monastery. Bolman (Chapter 3, "'The Possessions of Our Poverty': Beauty, Wealth, and Asceticism in the Shenoutean Federation") contextualizes the construction of the church within, on the one hand, the late antique trend of constructing monumental buildings to create and express power and prestige and, on the other hand, monastic ambivalence about beauty and wealth; she identifies a figure depicted on a wall just outside the apse as a lay patron of the monastery. Ugo Zanetti and Stephen J. Davis (Chapter 4, "Liturgy and Ritual Practice in the Shenoutean Federation") reconstruct the liturgical activities that would have taken place within the church with sources from the federation and the regional context, and they consider how worshiping monks may have interacted with the images in the apse. Dale Kinney (Chapter 5, "The Type of the Triconch Basilica") considers the church's triconch apse in comparison with other examples both within and outside Egypt, and she discusses the vexed question of the type's origin. Nicholas Warner (Chapter 6, "Architectural Survey") describes all the architectural remains, which date from the original construction in the late fifth century into the medieval and modern periods. Kinney (Chapter 7, "Architectural Sculpture") analyzes such elements as columns, niches, and portals; considers their dating in some detail; and finds connections, possibly even shared workers, with the basilica at Hermopolis Magna.

Part II ("Early Byzantine Paintings in the Red Monastery Church") devotes seven chapters more directly to the paintings themselves, including the dipinti. William Lyster (Chapter 8, "Artistic Working Practice and the Second-Phase Ornamental Program") studies the ornamental painting that belongs to the second phase (sixth century), with attention to the materials, methods, and training of the painters. Bolman wrote the next three chapters. Chapter 9 ("A Staggering Spectacle: Early Byzantine Aesthetics in the Triconch") interprets the second-phase ornamental painting in terms of the "jeweled style" of late ancient cultural production, setting it beside examples from Constantinople and Ravenna as well as literary descriptions of multi-colored church interiors. In Chapter 10 ("The Iconography of Salvation") Bolman reads the paintings in the semi-domes theologically, emphasizing their resonances with the Eucharist that was celebrated beneath them. She rightly argues that, although the semi-domes' monumental images of the Mother of God and of Jesus as the Word cohered with either pro- or anti-Chalcedonian theologies, the inclusion of the patriarch Diaskoros among the authoritative figures depicted in the niches below signaled that they were to be understood in an anti-Chalcedonian way (149). Chapter 11 ("Figural Styles, Egypt, and the Early Byzantine World") traces changes in figural styles from the naturalism and illusionism of the first phase to the greater abstraction of later phases. Bolman resists interpreting this shift as representative of a linear stylistic development within Egypt; rather, Egyptian painters drew on a range of stylistic options available in the early Byzantine world, in which they fully participated as cultural producers. Bolman and Agnieszka Szymańka (Chapter 12, "Ascetic Ancestors: Identity and Genealogy") then turn to the monks, martyrs, bishops, and prophets that were painted in niches and other locations during the third phase; the authors chart several genealogical relationships among the figures but find that these ancestors are not necessarily deployed in a clear hierarchical family tree. Paul C. Dilley (Chapter 13, "Textual Aesthetics: Dipinti and the Early Byzantine Epigraphic Habit") studies the numerous dipinti in the church within the context of late Roman and early Byzantine epigraphy and analyzes their forms and functions within the church's aesthetic and religious programs. Bolman (Chapter 14, "Preparation for the Eucharist: Paintings in the Side Chambers") argues, as the chapter's title indicates, that the paintings in the side chambers indicate that these rooms were used to prepare for the Eucharist.

In Part III ("A Diachronic View of the Red Monastery") six chapters tell the story of the Red Monastery, its church, and the paintings after the late antique period of frequent painting up to the present. Mark N. Swanson (Chapter 15, "An Eclipsed History: Toward a Framework for the Medieval History of the Red Monastery") uses literary sources to trace the monastery's history through the medieval and early modern periods, finding that most references are to the White Monastery and thus that the historian must extrapolate to include the Red. In contrast to the paucity of literary sources, Bolman (Chapter 16, "A Medieval Flourishing of the White Monastery Federation: Material Culture") examines material evidence (e.g., paintings and manuscripts) that shows that both monasteries enjoyed continuing cultural production, patronage, and financial well-being into the fourteenth century. Dilley (Chapter 17, "Inscribed Identities: Prosopography of the Red and White Monasteries in the Early Byzantine and Medieval Periods") uses inscriptions and manuscript colophons as well as attestations of official titles, references to monastic houses, and the like to create a prosopography of individuals within and associated with the monastic federation. In Appendix I Dilley provides editions of the church's Greek and Coptic inscriptions. Warner and Cédric Meurice (Chapter 18, "'A Strange Jumble of Roman Detail': Western Explorers and Antiquarians at the Red Monastery, 1673–1926") provide a history of Western explorations of the Red and White Monasteries through the early twentieth century; the primary achievement of these men, who were mainly interested in monumental architecture, may have been to make the importance of these buildings clear to the local Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe. The same two authors (Chapter 19, "The Comité: Conserving the Red Monastery Church in the Early Twentieth Century") then describe the significant work that the Comité did to preserve the church. De Casaris, Sucato, and Ricchi (Chapter 20, "Wall Painting Conservation at the Red Monastery Church") explain their work clearly enough to inform the non-specialist.

Bolman's Conclusion synthesizes the results of the preceding chapters and emphasizes the integration of Upper Egypt into the wider earlier Byzantine world: the conservation of the Red Monastery paintings should indeed transform "our ideas about the involvement of this region in the cultural world of Byzantium in the fifth and sixth centuries, and its continuing importance . . . under Muslim rule" (287).

Doubtless for some time historians of art and architecture will be assessing and assimilating the evidence of the newly visible Red Monastery Church paintings and the arguments that Bolman and her colleagues make about them. For historians of ancient Christianity and Egyptian monasticism like me, the church and this book constitute something of a revelation. Better than ever before, if still only partially, we can see the setting in which some late ancient monks prayed, heard the Bible read and preached, received the Eucharist, and even carried out manual labor. It was a place alive with color, lush with plants and animals, and populated by faces. Some of those faces were small and anonymous, but others were larger and named, connecting the monks to a past filled with "fathers," which included martyrs, bishops, and their monasteries original leaders. Thanks to Bolman's inclusion of historians of monasticism and liturgy in this book, the paintings not only contribute to a revised understanding of early Byzantine art history, but they also open a door to a world of monastic wealth, aesthetics, and spirituality at which literary sources only hint. The Red Monastery Church—conserved monument and monumental book—is a great achievement.

The conservation of the church raises difficult questions about access to and responsibility for a building that is not only an important historical artifact, and not only a treasure of past cultures, but also a holy space of deep meaning to a present-day religious community. This issue runs through the foreword and preface written by Gerry D. Scott III and Michael Jones of the American Research Center in Egypt, the prologue composed by Father Maximous El-Antony, a Coptic monk and a leader in the effort to conserve Coptic heritage, Bolman's Introduction, and the chapter by the Italian conservators. To their credit these scholars do not conceal their disagreements on key questions: Should the legibility of the eastern semi-dome's original painting have been sacrificed to that of a later monumental Christ, in order to provide the living monastic community "a clearly visible devotional image in the main apse" (279)? Should the church have been returned to regular liturgical use, even at the costs of potential future damage to the conserved paintings and of limited access to the apse based on religious custom? Even if one, like Bolman, answers No to these questions, one must respect the intelligence and sensitivity that all involved brought to resolving them.

Because it touches on so many vital issues in the study of late antiquity, including the ethics of our work, The Red Monastery Church rightly will be read, debated, and admired by a variety of scholars for years to come.

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