Funerary Chapel

Northwest of the Church of St. Shenoute are the remains of a small funerary chapel.

The Funerary Chapel is located in the northwestern part of the monastery and was partially excavated by the Supreme Council for Antiquities between 2002 and 2004 under the direction of Mohamad Abd al-Rassul. A programme of cleaning and recording of the above-ground elements of the Funerary Chapel was begun by Darlene Brooks Hedstrom and Peter Sheehan in the winter of 2006-2007 and was continued and expanded to include excavation by YMAP in 2008-2009. Cleaning and conservation of the tomb, under the direction of Elizabeth Bolman, took place 2007-2013.  Analysis of painted plaster, pottery, papyri, and objects was conducted by various specialists between 2008 and 2015.

Figure 1. Aerial view of the funerary chapel.

The funerary chapel comprises several elements, both above and below ground.[1] The main chapel is three-aisled with a tri-lobed sanctuary similar to that in the Church of St Shenoute, but at a much smaller scale. Only the south and part of the east lobes of the sanctuary, the piers forming the aisles of the nave and its south wall, which forms part of a stair-block, remain standing.

Figure 2. Floor plan of the triconch funerary chapel (by Nicholas Warner). Figure 3. Reconstruction of the triconch funerary chapel floor plan (by Nicholas Warner). Figure 4. Isometric reconstruction of the triconch funerary chapel. Figure 5. Isometric reconstruction of the tomb chamber (by Nicholas Warner).

Elements of the in situ painted visual programme belong to its lower register, and include a curtain representing the Veil of Heaven in the east lobe a floral motif in the south lobe and geometric designs on the piers. Scant traces show that the floor of the nave originally included marble slabs, some of which were reused tombstones. This was later replaced with a plaster floor, probably at the same time as the insertion of a low step or seat around the perimeter.

Figure 6 (left). Wall paintings in the southern lobe of the triconch funerary chapel. Figure 7 (right). Wall paintings in the tomb chamber.

Below the floor in the centre of the nave is a tomb, the cleaning and conservation of which (2007-2013) was carried out under the direction of Elizabeth Bolman.[2] The tomb consists of a square antechamber and barrel-vaulted burial chamber, all exquisitely painted. The lower frieze throughout the visual programme comprises panels imitating marble with scattered rosettes. The lambs, deer, gazelles, peacocks and eagles on the upper walls of the vestibule are associated with salvation and rebirth. 

Figure 8 (left). Painting of a gemmed cross with antelopes in the tomb chamber. Figure 9 (right). Italian team of conservators at work in the tomb chamber.

More animals appear in the burial chamber, but here the program is dominated by three jewelled crosses, and by an image of St Shenoute flanked by angels who bestow on him a wreath or crown. A dipinto immediately above the image of Shenoute suggests that the underground space was designed as his tomb. Architectural, art historical and epigraphic data place its construction and primary decoration in the mid fifth century CE.[3]

Figure 10 (left). Image of St. Shenoute in the subterranean tomb chamber. Figure 11 (right). Detailed photo of dipinto identifying the figure as St. Shenoute.The shared alignment of above-ground architectural elements adjacent to the main chapel show that they were in use at the same time. To the north, a series of at least four long rooms ranged against the east end of the north wall of the main chapel are likely to be tombs built at the same time as the chapel. To the south, doorways on either side of the stair-block forming the south wall of the nave allow access between the main chapel and a large pillared hall with a paved floor. Modifications to the walls and piers attest to considerable changes to this space over time and three major building phases associated with the primary use of the Funerary Chapel were identified by Peter Sheehan.

Two groups of papyrus fragments were discovered during Peter Sheehan’s archaeological recording of the pillared hall in 2006-2007 and were later conserved by Stephen Emmel and studied by Alain Delattre. One group of fragments belongs to a papyrus roll with a mud seal, perhaps recording a private sale contract. It contains a precise date of 306 AH (equivalent to 918-919 CE) within the text. The other group of fragments belongs to a second papyrus roll, this one double sided. The texts on either side ere written by different individuals but their relationship is not known. One records an inventory of goods, perhaps belonging to a church. Idiosyncrasies of the writing suggest that a date of the ninth to early tenth century is likely.[4]

Figure 12 (left). Stephen Emmel at work conserving the papyri fragments discovered in the tomb chapel. Figure 13 (right). Reconstruction of painted fragments, showing the bodies of two saints holding books.
Excavations in 2008 by Wendy Dolling at the east end of the pillared hall showed that the east wall of the main chapel was shared by both the pillared hall and a building to the east. The southwest corner of this building was revealed, as well as a doorway giving access to a paved corridor-like space at the eastern end of the pillared hall, but a large spoil-heap precluded further investigation to the east. Building collapse within the corridor space included fragments of painted plaster, some of which could be joined together, giving some insights into the visual programme. This included at least one panel of a repeating floral-geometric motif, and a scene of monastics holding books. The presence of many other fallen fragments from the SCA and YMAP excavations attests to an extensive and vibrant painted programme that included geometric, floral and figural elements, some of which can be paralleled in the sanctuary of the nearby Red Monastery. Differences between the plaster support, paint composition and painting style on these fragments and that of the tomb and some of the in situ motifs in the main chapel and pillared hall indicate that two successive programmes are present, the second incorporating some elements of the first. Stylistic details, particularly in the figural painting on the fragments, points to a date of the sixth to seventh century for the second programme, which suggests that the funerary chapel was in use for at least a century or two after the death of Shenoute.

Figure 14. Painted plaster fragment showing the face of a mustachioed man.

The reasons for the abandonment of the funerary chapel as a place of worship are now unclear, but a combination of archaeological observations, key-hole excavations (by Louise Blanke), and wide-scale excavations (by Wendy Dolling) in 2008-2009 provides evidence for activities after its primary use ended. These seem to be domestic in nature and include patching of the floor of the nave, insertion and later extraction of storage jars into the floor in the sanctuary and nave and the building and subsequent removal of an oven in the eastern corridor. Pottery (analysed by Gillian Pyke) associated with the mud brick structures to the south of the pillared hall, built in an entirely different alignment, indicates that they were in use during the early medieval period. This broadly fits with the dating of the papyri found in the pillared hall. However, the chronological relationship between these structures, the reuse activities within the funerary chapel, and the very poorly preserved mud brick building at its north-west corner (cleaned and recorded by Anna Stevens in 2008) could not be established. 


[1] A. Delattre, Deux papyrus coptes et une inscription grecque du Monastère Blanc, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 50 (2013), pp. 187-201.

[2] E. S. Bolman, L. De Cesaris, A. Sucato, E. Ricchi, M. Kacicnik, S. M. M. Osman, A. Z. Aly, S. J. Davis, Fr. M. al-Anthony, G. Pyke and A. Szymanska, The Tomb of St. Shenoute at the White Monastery: Final Conservation and Documentation, Bulletin of the American Research Center in Egypt 204 (2014), pp. 21-24.

[3] E. S. Bolman, S. J. Davis and G. Pyke, Shenoute and a Recently Discovered Tomb Chapel at the White Monastery, Journal of Early Christian Studies 18 (2010), pp. 453-462; E. S. Bolman, S. J. Davis, L. De Cesaris, Fr. M. el-Anthony, G. Pyke, E. Ricchi, A. Sucato and N. Warner, The Tomb of St. Shenoute? More Results from the White Monastery (Dayr Anba Shenouda), Sohag, Bullletin of the American Research Center in Egypt 198 (2011), pp. 31-38; S. J. Davis, Life and Death in Lower and Upper Egypt: A Brief Survey of Recent Monastic Archaeology at Yale, Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 3-4 (2012), pp. 14 -16. S. J. Davis, Completing the Race and Receiving the Crown, 2 Timothy 4:7-8 in Early Christian Monastic Epitaphs at Kellia and Pherme, in: H.-U. Weidemann (ed.), Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity, Göttingen 2013, pp. 354-355.

[4] E. S. Bolman, L. De Cesaris, G. Pyke, E. Ricchi and A. Sucato, A Late Antique Funerary Chapel at the White Monastery (Dayr Anba Shenouda), Sohag, Bulletin of the American Research Center in Egypt 195 (2009), pp. 12-18.