Saving the Past

Elizabeth S. Bolman, Ph.D. '97

At the edge of the Egyptian desert stands a monastic church founded in the early days of Christian monasticism. 

Originally home to a small group of hermits, the monastery later came under the formal rule of a cenobitic religious order. The church itself was built around the year 500 for that community of ascetics, who had renounced the world and devoted themselves to God. 

Considered to be among the richest surviving Christian Egyptian archaeological sites, the Red Monastery joins its better-known contemporaries—the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and Ravenna’s San Vitale—in exhibiting breathtaking early Byzantine architecture. 

What sets it apart is its magnificent and remarkably preserved paintings. Scenes of early Byzantine iconography and elaborate ornament cover the walls and massive semidomes of its monumental triconch. (A triconch is a three-lobed structure, in this case the sanctuary of the church.) The paintings, executed in the polychromatic “jeweled style” characteristic of the period, depict biblical scenes, saints, patriarchs, and monks. 

But today the Red Monastery church is endangered by rising groundwater levels that threaten to destabilize the building’s foundations. 

Enter Elizabeth Bolman, Ph.D. ’97, the founder and director of the Red Monastery Project. Since its inception in 2002, the project has cleaned and conserved the murals of the sanctuary and used a sophisticated laser-scanning technique to produce a high-resolution, three-dimensional scan of the complete church. 

For that work, Bolman, now a professor at Case Western Reserve University, received the 2018 Digital Humanities and Multimedia Studies Prize, awarded by the Medieval Academy of America. 

Her book, The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt (Yale University Press, 2016), includes essays on late antique aesthetics, early monastic concepts of ascetic identity, and connections across the early Byzantine world, as well as two chapters on architecture and sculpture by Dale Kinney, Eugenia Chase Guild Professor Emeritus of the Humanities.


Elizabeth Bolman, Ph.D. ’97, is the founder and director of the Red Monastery Project. Since its inception in 2002, the project has cleaned and conserved the murals of the sanctuary and used a sophisticated laser-scanning technique to produce a high-resolution, three-dimensional scan of the complete church. For that work, Bolman, now a professor at Case Western Reserve University, received the 2018 Digital Humanities and Multimedia Studies Prize, awarded by the Medieval Academy of America. The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt includes essays on late antique aesthetics, early monastic concepts of ascetic identity, and connections across the early Byzantine world, as well as two chapters on architecture and sculpture by Dale Kinney, Eugenia Chase Guild Professor Emeritus of the Humanities. (Yale University Press, 2016).

The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt edited by Elizabeth S. Bolman, Ph.D. '97