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The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt

Edited by Elizabeth S. Bolman. Pp. xl + 390. Yale University Press, New Haven 2016. $85. ISBN 978-0-300-21230-3 (cloth).

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The conservation of the Red Monastery Church spanned more than a decade and has been one of the greatest accomplishments to date of the American Research Center in Egypt. Set in Upper Egypt near the city of Sohag, the Red Monastery Church is decorated lavishly with many of the best-preserved paintings known from the fourth to fifth century C.E. Bolman’s The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt presents a glimpse into the visual landscape of early monastic life at the Red Monastery. The text offers the scholar a practical guide to the rich imagery in the monastery, illuminating the significance of these scenes in the study of ancient Christianity, while remaining accessible to the layman.

Part 1 of the book, “The Red Monastery and Its Church” (chs. 1–7), provides a detailed narrative of monastic livelihood, spiritual economy, and liturgical practice, as well as a survey of architectural aesthetics at the Red Monastery. Crislip (ch. 1) briefly presents the practice of Christian asceticism in ancient Egypt before describing depictions of bishops in the north lobe of the central structure’s triconch. Crislip details vivid histories of each character with supporting images, placing them into the context of Early Byzantine Egypt in a manner that is both thorough and accessible to those without specialized knowledge. The history of the Red Monastery is expanded in subsequent chapters. In chapter 2, Emmel and Layton present a convincing analysis regarding the northern location of Pshoi’s cenobium as described in Shenoute’s original Sahidic Canons chronicle, which suggests that the Red Monastery was its immediate successor and was likely constructed at this site.

Bolman asserts that the iconography of the Red Monastery indicates an affirmation of prestige within the monastic community, mirroring both the imagery and presentation typical of the Roman empire. She supports this conclusion by analyzing garments gracing the figures on the sanctuary facade—noting the decorative belt and purple dye that would have been expensive to produce (22–3)—and indicates a noticeable difference from the visual culture of the neighboring White Monastery (24). Bolman concludes that the incorporation of these secular luxuries denotes a deviation in authority and a transfer of power to outlying desert monasteries. The imagery is analogous to opulent Roman aesthetics, contextualizing the Red Monastery as both connected to, and fully informed by, the classical elite aesthetic found throughout the Late Roman empire.

In part 2 (chs. 8–14), Bolman discusses the Early Byzantine paintings in the church and triconch sanctuary, clarifying the ornamental significance and narrative purpose of the figures, which once again provide evidence of Roman influence. The ubiquitous polychrome motifs leave no portion of the monastery uncovered by encaustic or tempera. Bolman credits this to a penchant for the classical Roman style (120) and defines it as distinctly un-Egyptian.

Though the Red Monastery Church is decorated in Byzantine style, the text would benefit from additional commentary on its place within a shifting Egyptian religious landscape, especially considering the assertion that “Egyptian Christians participated in Byzantine visual culture only minimally” (203). Bolman suggests also, on the basis of subtle differences in the sketches of eyes, that multiple artists participated in the creation of images, particularly the preparatory underpainting in the eastern semidome (153–54). However, these variable expressions appear to this reviewer as relatively minor and might indicate instead changes executed by a single artist on a working draft rather than the presence of three or more artists’ hands.

The last portion of the book, “A Diachronic View of the Red Monastery” (part 3, chs. 15–20), provides background information on the antiquarian discovery of the Red Monastery as well as a history of conservation efforts. Dilley’s thorough prosopography of the Red and White Monasteries’ monastic communities is impressive, articulating comprehensively the figures in the Red Monastery church and the White Monastery Federation.

The Red Monastery Church incorporates numerous high-quality color photographs, which accurately capture the structure’s color, texture, and detailed decorations. They demonstrate the visual significance of the site’s painted decoration in terms of both quantity and quality. The phasing of the paintings is clearly marked, and Bolman indicates when there is a “ghost figure” behind on a previous layer. Considering that the restoration of the Red Monastery was one of the most extensive ever undertaken in Egypt, the inclusion of photographs of the conservation could have showcased more effectively the extent of the project. For instance, only a dozen of more than 150 figures show any of the accumulated soot, with most of these being test-cleaning pictures. Along similar lines, the volume includes only a single side-by-side comparison illustrating the painted decoration before and after conservation efforts (figs. 24–5). In the opinion of this reviewer, an expanded selection of images documenting the process of conservation would have been helpful for interested readers.

In conclusion, were it not for Bolman’s efforts, the interior paintings of the Red Monastery Church likely would have succumbed to the pollution that continued to build on their surface. The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt demonstrates clearly the crucial role that the church’s imagery played in the monastic liturgy, serving not only to glorify the biblical narrative but also to assert the authority of desert monasteries within the larger contexts of Byzantine Egypt and the broader Roman world.

Paige Brevick
University of Memphis

Book Review of The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt, edited by Elizabeth S. Bolman

Reviewed by Paige Brevick

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.brevick

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