Red Monastery

The Red Monastery, located north of the White Monastery, was one of the three monastic communities in Shenoute’s late ancient monastic federation. Founded in the fourth century by a monk named Pshoi, it was originally a loosely knit group of hermits but later came under the koinobitic rule established by Shenoute’s predecessor Pcol and upheld by Shenoute himself. The Church at the Red Monastery was built in the early sixth century and features the most extensive and impressive program of wall paintings found in Egypt today.

The Red Monastery Project

Established in 2002, the Red Monastery Project has had as its primary focus the conservation and study of the wall paintings and architectural elements of the Red Monastery Church. The project has been carried out under the direction of Elizabeth S. Bolman of Temple University in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Coptic Orthodox Church. It has been administered by the Egyptian Antiquities Project and the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project of the American Research Center in Egypt, with funding provided by the United States Agency for International Development.

Figure 1. Isometric plan of the Red Monastery Church sanctuary. Drawing by Nicholas Warner.

The Church

The church of the Red Monastery (Dayr Anba Bishay) dates to about 500-525 A.D. In form it is a basilica with a long nave, terminating in an elaborate trilobed sanctuary. The church is one of the best preserved examples of this type of religious architecture, which is known in Egypt and elsewhere in the Byzantine empire. Each of the three half circles that form the trefoil sanctuary consists of two ornamented tiers topped by a semidome. This intricate array of niches and columns comprises the most complete ensemble of architectural sculpture in any church in Egypt. Originally, the church probably had a pitched wooden roof. Today, the sanctuary is covered with a modern dome, and the nave is open to the sky. The building still functions as a church, in a living Coptic Monastery.

Figures 2 and 3. Niches in the middle register of the north lobe, showing St. Besa, St. Shenoute, an unknown saint, and St. Bishay.

Paintings and Sculpture

The dramatic late Roman architecture of the sanctuary interior is embellished with architectural sculpture and painting. Almost every interior surface is covered with paint, most of which dates between about the sixth and eighth centuries. Depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles, evangelists, prophets and angels create a complex series of messages about salvation. The addition of monastic saints connects the paintings to the setting of the monastery. The numerous and brightly colored designs on the architectural sculpture are the best surviving example of what were Classical and Egyptian traditions that continued into Late Antiquity. In this later period, beauty was expressed through varieties of pattern and color, exemplified here by numerous vibrant motifs and figural subjects.

Figure 4 (left). Virgin Mary nursing Christ, north semidome, during conservation, 2003. Figure 5 (middle). Archbishop Dioskoros, south semidome, during conservation, November 2006. Figure 6 (right). De Cesaris at work, April 2007.

Wall Painting Conservation

Before the beginning of the conservation project, the paintings in the sanctuary were almost completely obscured by centuries of soot and darkened varnish. The conservation team painstakingly consolidated, cleaned, and conserved the paintings, revealing their original magnificence.

All members of the project are grateful to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Antiquities Project and the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project of the American Research Center in Egypt, and the United States Agency for International Development. Countless people have worked very hard towards the success of this project. We extend our thanks to those unnamed, and especially to: Dr. Zahi Hawass, Magdi al-Ghandour, Farag Fadda, Dr. Abdallah Kamel, Abdallah Attar, Mohammed Abdel Rahim, Pope Shenouda III, Bishop Yohannes, Dr. Kenneth Ellis, Anthony Vance, Seifalla Hassanein, Dr. Gerry D. Scott, III, Michael Jones, and Robert K. Vincent, Jr.

Project Director and Principal Art Historian
Elizabeth S. Bolman (Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia)

Chief Conservators
Adriano Luzi†, Luigi De Cesaris†, Alberto Sucato

Photographer
Patrick Godeau

Architect
Nicholas Warner

Photographic Credits
Elizabeth S. Bolman

For a full documentation of the project’s conservation of the wall paintings in the Red Monastery Church, see Elizabeth S. Bolman, ed., The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the American Research Center in Egypt, 2016).