The American Research Center in Eygpt

Red Monastery, Sohag

Red Monastery, Sohag

Red Monastery, Sohag
Dr. Elizabeth Bolman, Temple University

Wall Painting Conservation
Director: Elizabeth Bolman, Temple University
November 2005 - Ongoing

Updated: August 2014

The completed conservation of the paintings and the new altar railings and altar table. Photo: Michael Jones

360 Panorama of the Church >>

The Red Monastery Church conservation project is one of ARCE’s longest and most successful endeavors in preservation. The Research Center administered the first major campaign of conservation, art historical study, and publication of the Red Monastery church sanctuary. Begun in 2002 under the USAID funded EAP grant, the important work of revealing the magnificent painted surfaces of this unique treasure from Late Antiquity has continued through the subsequent EAC grant which ended this year. During the year 2013-14, the Red Monastery church has been prepared for display to visitors and for use as a church by the Coptic community as a last, but very critical, phase of conservation. This  final stage of work has been directed and managed on site by conservation architect Nicholas Warner. The success of the project has been further assured by the efforts of Dina Bakhoum who leads a community liaison initiative aimed at integrating the conservation project into the local community. Inside the triconch sanctuary, a new limestone floor was laid, new wooden doors and metal handrails were installed, a new altar table was built, and a new system of LED lighting was designed and fitted in collaboration with Philips Egypt. The entire church was rewired and a completely new electrical system put in place to support the lighting as well as the sound and video equipment required by the church.

The church of Saints Bishai and Bigol, the "Red Monastery," was the heart of a large monastic community, in a region known as an important center for the ascetic life in the 5th century, C.E. It is an astonishingly rare example of the coloristic intensity of late antique monuments in Egypt. In this church, late antique paintings cover about eighty percent of the walls, niches, columns, pilasters, pediments and apses. The building’s elaborate figural and ornamental paintings, combined with extensive sculpture and monumental architecture, make it the most important historical church in Egypt.

Wall painting conservation by Luigi De Cesaris and Alberto Sucato has continued to reveal new and unexpected surprises. The tri-conch basilica includes four phases of Late Antique painting, and at least one from the Medieval period.

In the Spring 2010 campaign, conservators began preliminary work in the eastern semi-dome of the sanctuary. The heads of two angels, belonging to separate phases of work in the church, were selected for test cleanings. Their contrasting styles dramatically highlight the rich and varied character of the Late Antique paintings in the church. The conserved square on the right side of the apse exposes a stunningly illusionistic depiction of an angel’s head, dated to about the middle of the sixth century. It was painted as part of the first phase of figural work in the church, and its closest stylistic ties survive in Milan and Rome. The angel’s head on the left side of the apse belongs to the fourth phase of work in the church, probably dating to the seventh century. It is characterized by a recognizably Egyptian mode of rendering that artists at the monasteries of Bawit and Saqqara also employed. It uses bold outlines and strong colors. These are only two of many important discoveries in the Red Monastery church.

Earlier campaigns saw the completion of cleaning and conservation of the painted niches and architecture on the lower arcades of the southern apse of the tri-conch sanctuary, decorated with icons of saints inside the niches and with extremely elaborate and colorful architectural painting. Work has also been done on the eastern apse, where the decorative scheme differs from those on the north and south sides, including peacocks and gazelles among plant and animal motifs in the lower arcades, and illusionistic painted curtains in the upper level arcades. An intriguing discovery is a vignette showing the head of a bearded man emerging from foliage, reminiscent of the Green Man in later Gothic sculpture.

Nowhere else in Egypt do we know of a monument of the late antique and early Byzantine period whose architectural sculpture is in situ up to the highest level of the building.  Thanks to the remarkable results of this ARCE/USAID conservation project, the monastery is already being mentioned in company with other outstanding Late Antique buildings such as San Vitale (Ravenna), and the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul). The project is directed by Dr. Elizabeth Bolman of Temple University. The Coptic Church has participated substantially in this project, offering hospitality and support.

The Red Monastery Project collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to produce this video in 2012 which offers a visual tour of the work completed to date. It is narrated by ARCE Project Director, Dr. Elizabeth Bolman of Temple University. View the video >>

This video was part of the Metropolitan Museum's exhibit, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition running through July 8th, 2012.

Read about a roundtable discussion in 2012 about conservation issue at the Red Monastery >>

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