photo of Elizabeth Bolman, PhD '97

Monks and a Mawrter

Elizabeth Bolman, PhD '97, history of art, participated in the restoration of the most complete single program of medieval Coptic (Egyptian Christian) paintings surviving today: wall paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea.

In the early fourth century, St. Antony retreated to this still-remote area of Egypt, where he and other ascetics pursued monastic life. The wall paintings date to 1232 C.E. Bolman has chronicled their restoration in a book, Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea, published by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) and Yale University Press. She spoke about the book and the wall paintings at a Visual Culture Colloquium at Bryn Mawr on April 24.

Bolman, assistant professor of history of art at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, said that despite the isolation of the site, the wall paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony reveal surprisingly strong ties to contemporary as well as previous art in the region-both art which we consider to be Christian and that which we call Islamic. "These connections challenge our definitions of the visual culture of the Eastern Mediterranean in the period of the Crusades," said Bolman.

Art historians often dismiss Coptic art as primitive and largely have ignored Coptic examples in their consideration of Mediterranean Christian art. The reason, suggested Bolman, might be that much Coptic art has been lost over the years. "One of the biggest shocks I faced when I first went to Egypt to undertake dissertation research was the realization that paintings I knew from excavation photographs, and which I expected to find in the Coptic Museum, had never been removed from their archaeological find sites," she said. "They have almost certainly been completely destroyed through exposure to the elements. Others exist in fragmentary form and can only be appreciated with a considerable exercise of the imagination."

In fact, before their restoration, the wall paintings in St. Antony's were practically invisible because of centuries of unskilled over-painting and layers of soot and dust. They had deteriorated from rainwater seeping in from windows, rendering the colors muddy and the outlines blurred. Plus, previous scholars used the abrasive method of "sponging"-wetting the paintings to make them momentarily brighter-which eventually damaged their water-soluble pigments. ARCE, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, undertook to restore the paintings and approached Bolman to write a book documenting their restoration and analyzing their art historical significance. Bolman asked historians, an anthropologist, an archaeologist and a Coptic monk to contribute various accounts contextualizing the 13th-century art. The contributors also discuss the centuries since then, examining post-13th-century graffiti, modern Coptic pilgrimage, Western interests in Coptic culture, and current monastic images.

The wall paintings depict martyrs, mostly on horseback, in addition to standing monks, who are the spiritual descendents of martyrs. The book discusses the paintings as a large-scale narrative about monastic life and the individual events implied within each framed scene.

Bolman pointed out the "Arabization" that Coptic art underwent while still maintaining its distinct Coptic character. An example is a scene of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in paradise. The trio is always mentioned in the same order in Coptic texts, yet in the wall painting they are positioned right to left, following the direction of written Arabic. All three figures wear "tiraz" bands and turbans, which were fashionable in medieval Arab cultures. "These traces from daily life show that the Coptic painters were participating in the broader visual culture of the Arab world and were integrating aspects of it into the long-standing Coptic painting tradition," she said.

In addition to the Coptic wall paintings, other figural paintings represent the Byzantine form, and influence from the visual tradition that we think of as Islamic is evidenced in the ornamental motifs on the ceiling. These three distinctive and powerful modes of painting, all dating to the 13th century, allowed Bolman to conclude that pictorial modes in Egypt at this time were diverse, and not exclusively tied to religious, political or cultural boundaries. Bolman also noted the omission of female martyrs and saints from the paintings, but said that this was understandable: St. Antony and his followers left society in order to avoid being tempted by women.

Because St. Antony's is still a Coptic monastery, Bolman was permitted inside the church only after it was "deconsecrated." The deconsecration involved removing a wooden board from the altar, she said.

Bolman's next project concerns the conservation and study of two monasteries in the region of Sohag in Middle Egypt. They are colloquially called the Red and White Monasteries, and they date to the fifth century C.E. "I have been successful at getting them included on the World Monuments Watch 2002 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites," said Bolman, "and also have plans to begin wall painting conservation at the Red Monastery in 2003. With the help of other interested scholars from a wide range of fields, we hope to undertake interdisciplinary work on these two sites, which are important for their archaeological remains, architecture, sculpture, wall paintings, and documents."

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