Agnieszka Szymanska

  • Fellowship Dates 2013-2014
  • Research Topic Vehicles of Memory: Paintings in the Red Monastery, Upper Egypt
  • Fellow or Grant Type Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
  • Affiliation Pre-doctoral candidate Temple University
Memory shapes human behavior. The ways in which we perceive the past, present and future have a considerable impact on our conceptions of time, space, history and identity. This research examines wall paintings that decorate a 6thcentury Coptic church from the perspective of memory. Located near Sohag, in Upper Egypt, the murals of the Red Monastery depict biblical subjects, monastic saints and bishops. These magnificent paintings, dating from the 6th and 7th centuries, cover the building’s trefoil sanctuary, from floor to ceiling; they constitute the most complete painted program surviving in a late antique church anywhere. Late antiquity (3rd – 7th century CE) was a time of exciting social, religious and artistic transformations, as well as strong continuities with the late Roman Empire. During this period, conceptions of memory referred to it as a craft that closely overlapped with imagination and conceived of memory as a creative thinking process. Memory and imagination were intertwined - to remember was to imagine an image imprinted on the wax tablet of the human mind. Christian ascetics, whose lifestyle became very popular in late antiquity, used memory as one of their tools. This study postulates that the Red Monastery paintings acted as vehicles of memory and shaped a ritual environment that dissolved temporal and spatial boundaries. The research seeks to answer three key questions: What were late antique conceptions of memory in the Mediterranean region? How did memory operate in the Red Monastery sanctuary? In what ways do the Red Monastery paintings contribute to our understanding of memory in the late Roman world? The research relies on an in-depth visual analysis of the paintings in situ at the Red Monastery and contributes to a vital redefinition of this region in the late Roman world, reframing Upper Egypt as integral to the early Byzantine Empire.

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