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Funerary Chapel: The White Monastery Project

From December 2006 to January 2007, documentation work began on a triconch funerary chapel in unit N of area 1 (Figure 1). This location has been the primary focus of YMAP excavations since then, initially under the supervision of Peter Sheehan and more recently (beginning in 2008) under the direction of Gillian Pyke. YMAP’s work in this location has involved cleaning, photographing, surveying, selected excavation in new areas, and the conservation of a fairly extensive wall painting program found in situ.1

The architecture of the tomb chapel complex is divided into two main architectural zones: the south hall and the tomb chapel proper (Figure 2).

Figure 1 and 2

Figure 1: Aerial view of the triconch funerary chapel, looking south

Figure 1-5

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).

The south hall probably served as a point of entry into the main chapel space. It features a large area of preserved limestone pavement. Below it, an earlier mortar floor survives. To the north, the tomb chapel itself is oriented on an east-west axis. There would originally have been a tri-lobed apse at the eastern end, a feature typical of late antique funerary architecture (Figures 3 and 4).

Today, the north lobe is no longer in evidence. Portions of only the south and east lobes survive. Wall paintings with geometric designs have been found on these standing walls. The presence of a stair block between the south hall and the tomb chapel indicates that the building had two stories. Slightly off-center in the chapel nave, there is an opening in the floor that provides access to a small, subterranean chamber (Figure 5).

This chamber is decorated with a stunningly well-preserved program of both figural and non-figural painted decoration. The particular visual motifs featured on the walls of this chamber and their excellent state of preservation marks the function of the space as a tomb. Over the course of its history, the chapel underwent multiple phases of construction, as well as a final phase of domestic reuse. The south hall seems to have been constructed first, followed by the tomb chapel with its triconch apse. The final phase of reuse occurred after the abandonment of the chapel sometime during the Middle Ages when the structure was converted to a domestic residence. During this period, the south hall was reused as a barn, an oven was installed in the northern part of the building, and additional mud-brick walls were constructed in both the north and the south.

Even though the funerary chapel was previously excavated and cleared by the SCA, YMAP’s work of cleaning and documentation has still yielded some additional finds of interest. Papyrus fragments were discovered in the debris left over from the demolition of mud-brick walls from the building’s first phase. These fragments were conserved by Stephen Emmel in December of 2008 (Figure 6).

Figure 6 and 7

Figure 6 (left): Stephen Emmel at work conserving the papyri fragments discovered in the tomb chapel. Figure 7: Reconstruction of painted fragments, showing the bodies of two saints holding books.

Two non-joining fragments, both written in a large cursive hand, probably belong to the same papyrus document. The mud seal still remains attached to one of the fragments. A number of other smaller fragments derive from at least two separate documents that had writing on both sides of the page. In addition to these papyrus fragments, other objects were also recovered and catalogued by Gillian Pyke in 2008. An Islamic coin and fragments of painted plaster were found during new excavations at the eastern end of the south hall. Gillian Pyke’s reconstruction of one set of plaster fragments has revealed a painting of saints holding books (Figure 7).

Another new area of excavation to the northwest of the chapel uncovered the remains of an early mud-brick structure from the first phase of the chapel construction. Indeed, some of the fine ware ceramics recovered from this area date quite early, perhaps to the fourth through sixth centuries (Figure 8). Excavators also found several Coptic ostraca in this square, including one with three lines of text preceded by a cross (Figure 9). Finally, part of a marble stele with an incised cross and Greek letters (LOUKIA) was found on the surface, clearly displaced from its original location (Figure 10).

Figure 8, 9 and 10

Figure 8 (left): Stamped sherd with bird and flower decoration (4-6th century). Figure 9 (middle): Coptic ostracon. Figure 10 (right): Greek inscription with mortar negative of the cross.

Excavators were able to match the cross to a negative on a mortar surface near the stair block, where it had apparently been reused. Each of these assorted pieces of evidence will certainly require further study. The painted plaster that survives in situ within the funerary chapel is concentrated in two main locations: (1) above ground, on the standing walls and piers of the funerary chapel proper, and (2) below ground, on the wall surfaces of the subterranean tomb chamber. While the above-ground funerary chapel walls are decorated exclusively with non-figural designs in gold, black, pink, red, green, and brown, the piers occasionally also feature fruit trees and monochrome depictions of Christ (Figure 11).

Figure 11 and 12

Figure 11 (left): Wall paintings in the southern lobe of the triconch funerary chapel. Figure 12: Wall paintings in the tomb chamber.

Below ground, the walls of the barrel-vaulted passageway and burial chamber are graced with an original program featuring images of gemmed crosses, gazelles, eagles, and peacocks, in ocher, light yellow, rose, cream, pale green, and black (Figures 12–14).

Figure 13 and 14

Figure 13 (left): Painting of a gemmed cross with antelopes in the tomb chamber. Figure 14: Italian team of conservators at work in the tomb chamber.

On the north wall of the burial chamber, two standing figures were painted later by an untutored hand. One of the figures is accompanied by a partially surviving dipinto identifying him as “Abba Shenoute the Archimandrite” (Figures 15–16).

Figure 15 and 16

Figure 15 (left): Image of St. Shenoute in the subterranean tomb chamber. Figure 16: Detailed photo of dipinto identifying the figure as St. Shenoute.

Standing in a full frontal posture and adorned with a square-shaped halo, the saint raises both arms in the posture of an orans. In his left hand, he holds a circular object, perhaps a crown or wreath. His clothing consists of a mantle over a belted tunic, a leather bag or apron with its strap over his right shoulder, and a long stole with two crosses over his left.2

In January of 2007, all of these paintings surviving in situ became the subject of an ongoing, intensive campaign of stabilization and conservation under the direction of Elizabeth Bolman.3 A team of Italian conservators led by Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato, and Emiliano Ricchi reattached areas of plaster that had begun to become detached from the walls, using infiltrations of acrylic resin and micronized calcium carbonate, sometimes with strips of Japanese paper, to anchor edges. The conservators filled cracks and missing areas with material subtly distinguishable from the original wall plaster. They also built temporary brick walls 10cm away from the above-ground painted surfaces and filled the gap with sand as a way of protecting the paintings from the elements, as well as from damage caused by human touch. More recently, the entrance to the below-ground chamber has been securely sealed. In February of 2009, Father Maximous of the St. Anthony’s Monastery supervised the construction of a plastered brick superstructure with a padlocked door that will help control access to that space.

According to Elizabeth Bolman’s art historical analysis, the original program of paintings within the tomb itself, as well as the earliest plaster layer in the above-ground chapel, date securely to late antiquity (probably as early as the fourth or fifth century). Bolman has drawn comparisons with a fourth-century tomb in Bithynia, a fifth-century Roman catacomb, and a fifth-century sarcophagus from Ravenna. In style and substance, the early paintings in the funerary chapel participate in Mediterranean-wide trends characteristic of this period.

Figure 17Later phases of wall decoration are also in evidence. Some of the non-figural designs preserved on the walls of the funerary chapel, as well as fragments featuring faces rendered in bold, dark outlines suggest parallels to paintings from the Red Monastery, the Monastery of Apollo at Bawit, and the Monastery of Apa Jeremias at Saqqara, and therefore probably date to the sixth or seventh century (Figure 17, left, showing painted fragment of a face from the funerary chapel).

Unfortunately, with regard to the painting of St. Shenoute in the tomb chamber, the less-formalized style of the image makes dating it a little more difficult, although Bolman has posited a range starting as early as the late fifth century and ending no later than the seventh.4

1. Alberto Sucato and Emiliano Ricchi played an instrumental role in the conservation of these paintings.

2. Elizabeth S. Bolman, “Painting Monastic Identity in the Shenoutian Federation,” paper presented at the International Congress for Coptic Studies, Cairo, Egypt, September 2008.

3. See the article by Elizabeth Bolman, Louise Blanke, Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, Mohammed Khalifa, Cédric Meurice, Saad Mohammed, Gillian Pyke, and Peter Sheehan, “Late Antique and Medieval Painted Decoration at the White Monastery (Dayr al-Abiad), Sohag,” Bulletin of the American Research Center in Egypt 192 (Fall-Winter 2007), 5–11.

4. Elizabeth S. Bolman, “Painting Monastic Identity in the Shenoutian Federation,” paper presented at the International Congress for Coptic Studies, Cairo, Egypt, September 2008.