Red Monastery, Sohag Find us
Director: Elizabeth Bolman, Temple University
November 2005 - Ongoing
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.
ARCE has administered the first major campaign of conservation, art historical study, and publication of the Red Monastery church sanctuary. 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 is part of the Metropolitan Museum's exhibit, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition running through July 8th, 2012.
INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF MUSEUMS
The International Council of Museums, in an effort to fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods, compiles the Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk. This list aims to help art and heritage professionals and law enforcement officials identify Egyptian objects that are protected by national and international legislations. View the Red List for Egypt.