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Red Monastery

In conjunction with the exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (on view March 14 through July 8, 2012), art historian Elizabeth Bolman introduces the Red Monastery project.

Elizabeth Bolman: My name's Elizabeth Bolman and I'm an art historian and I'm the director of the Red Monastery project, a conservation project at a monastic church dating to about the year 500. The best-preserved part of it is the sanctuary that rises up in two levels of niches, topped by three enormous semi-domes, above which is a modern, twentieth-century dome covering the center. It's a late antique church, originally named after a holy monk named Pshoi. What makes it so completely extraordinary is that it has an original painted skin that stretches from the floor all the way up to the clerestory above the semi-domes. And it was built for an intentionally formed ascetic community of men who chose to renounce the world, devoting themselves to God and hopefully improving themselves to the point where they would, after death, receive admission to paradise and eternal life.

I first saw the Red Monastery church in the mid-nineties, and I immediately recognized that it was unparalleled. This is the only survival of the aesthetic that has been called the "Jeweled Style" anywhere in the Mediterranean that is created in paint. And there would have been thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of these painted churches in Egypt and elsewhere. One actually interesting episode in its history that helped protect the wall paintings—that at some point in the medieval period, the monks built mud-brick walls against the painted surfaces up to the base of the semi-domes. And that wall was removed about a century ago, but for five hundred years, those paintings were protected by this mud-brick wall.

The church was in use for centuries and centuries. When I first walked into it, it was totally blackened. Huge clouds of incense and smoke from lamps and candles all coated the surfaces of the paintings, in addition, of course, to the dust of the desert of Egypt. One of the dramatic things about the monument, watching it being conserved, was the contrast between the cleaned and uncleaned parts of the walls. The people who did the extraordinary site work of conserving these paintings all come from Italy. These extraordinary conservators, Adriano Luzi and Luigi De Cesaris, I had had the privledge of working with them at a medieval church in Egypt, at the Monastery of Saint Anthony, where they were able to reveal extraordinarily bright and fabulous medieval paintings. And so I learned from them to actually see through the grime, in a way, and see the potential. It is with them that I began this decade-long period of site work.

The entire monument was constructed and decorated four times, probably within a two-hundred-year period. And what we're seeing is primarily from the third phase and the fourth phase. Third phase includes all the bright colors, creating this vibrant, kaleidoscopic kind of place. Many of their paints were in an encaustic base, which means that they're wax, so they have a kind of shiny effect, the pink and green, especially. And they were interested in creating a riotous effect that encouraged your eye to jump from one part of the church to another. And the fourth phase, which is all the figural paintings, that dates to, at most, a century later.

Lots of other figural paintings survive from the fourth phase in the niches. Some of those compelling faces are monks from the monastic federation that this church belonged to. There are also some of the patriarchs or popes of the Egyptian Orthodox Church. There are evangelists and saints, as well. This is the most important historical monument in the entire country of Egypt from the late antique period. It's an enormous endeavor; we could not possibly have done it without the absolute engagement of the Coptic Church and the full collaboration of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The funding comes from the United States Agency for International Development, with the support of the American people. The USAID money is being administered by the American Research Center in Egypt. There's a wide-ranging program to support the development of monuments and preservation of monuments for tourism. The Red Monastery is an enormous project that involves people of many nationalities from many different kinds of backgrounds. There's a huge team of scholars working with me—we're preparing a book right now—so it's a fantastic international team and working with them has been such a great privilege.

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