Posted May 8, 2008

Art historian returns ancient Egyptian church to living color

Walls paintings at the church of the Red Monastery in Sohag, Egypt
Photo by Elizabeth S. Bolman

Nine years ago, Temple art historian Elizabeth
S. Bolman stepped into a decaying, sixth-century
church at an isolated monastery near Sohag,
Egypt, walked through the nave to the sanctuary
and stared at its blackened walls. Beneath
centuries of soot and varnish, she saw the
dulled ghosts of paintings — magnificent
paintings, covering almost every surface of
the sanctuary.

"I was transfigured" she said. "I
knew it was my destiny."

Now, after nearly a decade of planning,
fundraising, diplomacy and painstaking conservation,
the fragile wall paintings of Dayr Anba Bishay — commonly
known as the Church of the Red Monastery, perhaps
the best-preserved and most complete original
late-Roman painted church interior in the Byzantine
world — are beginning to show their
true colors and deliciously complex patterns


Almost half
the church's paintings have been brought back to
life by Bolman's 12-member international conservation
team. Emerging from the sanctuary's walls and columns
are vivid motifs in pinks, greens, reds and yellows.
The faces of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles, evangelists,
prophets and angels in robes of lavender and orange
look out from the niches in the sanctuary's three

Art historians have long known that church interiors
of the late Roman period were brightly colored. Contemporary
accounts and a few surviving churches decorated with
mosaics, a more durable medium, suggest that builders
of the time used color and pattern to dazzle. Yet almost
all of the paintings from churches built in the Mediterranean
region in late antiquity have been lost.

Elizabeth Bolman
Photo courtesy Elizabeth S. Bolman
Elizabeth Bolman

"That's why I was stunned when
I first saw the Red Monastery Church," said
Bolman, an associate professor at Temple's Tyler
School of Art and an authority on Coptic
and medieval art. "I recognized we had a
missing link here."

The rebirth of the Red Monastery's wall paintings
is paralleled by a rebirth of Coptic Christianity
in Egypt, a nation that was predominantly Christian
when the monastery was built. Although Islam quickly
spread across the region after the Arab conquest
in the seventh century, Egypt still has a vibrant
Christian minority culture — a tribute, Bolman
said, to the nation's tradition of tolerance.

Virgin Mary
Photo by Elizabeth S. Bolman
The Virgin Mary peeks out from a partially conserved painting; soot and varnish cover the surrounding area.

Red Monastery is a thriving, working monastery," she
said. "The Coptic Church is in an incredible
period of renaissance. In the West, few people are
joining monasteries. Not in Egypt; they're joining
at an amazing rate."

The bustle
of the monastery and the rapid development of the
area around Sohag, a town just west of the Nile about
300 miles south of Cairo, present challenges to Bolman's
conservation team. Once a desert outpost, Sohag is
now surrounded by villages and agriculture, which
has increased the region's humidity — a conservator's


"The paint is extraordinarily fragile," said Bolman, whose work with the Red Monastery Project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the American Research Center in Egypt. "It's much more ephemeral than glass mosaics or even frescoes, which are painted on damp plaster, a process that binds the paint and the plaster."


In recognition of the Red Monastery Project's achievements, Bolman recently received her profession's highest honor in conservation, the College Art Association's Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation, at a ceremony in Texas.

She appreciates the award, but her ultimate goal is getting the Red Monastery international recognition and the protection that comes with it. In 2002, Bolman's project helped earn the Red Monastery and a related site, the White Monastery, a spot on World Monument Watch's biannual list of the world's most endangered sites. The sites also are protected by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, one of the Red Monastery Project's partners, along with the Coptic Church. Bolman hopes that the Red and White monasteries eventually will have a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Red Monastery Project chief conservator Luigi De Cesaris at work.
Photo by Elizabeth S. Bolman
Red Monastery Project chief conservator Luigi De Cesaris at work.
"I love the fact that I'm preserving something for world heritage," Bolman said, "and I love telling people in the West about the true cultural complexity of the Middle East."