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Wall Painting Conservation at Dayr Anba Bishay, Sohag 2002-2007

Pan of church

Red Monastery Church Sanctuary. Drawing by Nicholas Warner.

 

The Church
The church of the Red Monastery (Dayr Anba Bishay) dates to about 500-525 A.D. In form it is a basilica with a long nave, terminating in an elaborate trilobed sanctuary. The church is one of the best preserved examples of this type of religious architecture, which is known in Egypt and elsewhere in the Byzantine empire. Each of the three half circles that form the trefoil sanctuary consists of two ornamented tiers topped by a semidome. This intricate array of niches and columns comprises the most complete ensemble of architectural sculpture in any church in Egypt. Originally, the church probably had a pitched wooden roof. Today, the sanctuary is covered with a modern dome, and the nave is open to the sky. The building still functions as a church, in a living Coptic Monastery.

Photo of niches

Niches, north lobe, middle register, showing St. Besa, St. Shenoute, an unknown saint, and St. Bishay.

 

Paintings and Sculpture
The dramatic late Roman architecture of the sanctuary interior is embellished with architectural sculpture and painting. Almost every interior surface is covered with paint, most of which dates between about the sixth and eighth centuries. Depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles, evangelists, prophets and angels create a complex series of messages about salvation. The addition of monastic saints connects the paintings to the setting of the monastery. The numerous and brightly colored designs on the architectural sculpture are the best surviving example of what were Classical and Egyptian traditions that continued into Late Antiquity. In this later period, beauty was expressed through varieties of pattern and color, exemplified here by numerous vibrant motifs and figural subjects.

Photo of wall painting

Left Virgin Mary nursing Christ, north semidome, during conservation, 2003. Middle Archbishop Dioskoros, south semidome, during conservation, November 2006. Right De Cesaris at work, April 2007.

 

Wall Painting Conservation
Before the beginning of the conservation project, the paintings in the sanctuary were almost completely obscured by centuries of soot and darkened varnish. The conservation team painstakingly consolidates, cleans, and conserves the paintings, revealing their original magnificence.

Thanks
All members of the project are grateful to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Antiquities Project and the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project of the American Research Center in Egypt, and the United States Agency for International Development. Countless people have worked very hard towards the success of this project. We extend our thanks to those unnamed, and especially to: Dr. Zahi Hawass, Magdi al-Ghandour, Farag Fadda, Dr. Abdallah Kamel, Abdallah Attar, Mohammed Abdel Rahim, Pope Shenouda III, Bishop Yohannes, Dr. Kenneth Ellis, Anthony Vance, Seifalla Hassanein, Dr. Gerry D. Scott, III, Michael Jones, and Robert K. Vincent, Jr.

Project Director and Principal Art Historian
Dr. Elizabeth S. Bolman (Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia)

Chief Conservators, 2002-early 2003
Adriano Luzi† and Luigi De Cesaris; late 2003 – present: Luigi De Cesaris

Assistant to De Cesaris
Alberto Sucato

Assistant Conservators
E. Abrusca, E. Albanese, E. Antonelli, C. Arrighi, I. Bigiaretti, C. Compostella, I. De Martinis, L. De Prezzo, C. Di Marco, A. Meschini, D. Pistone, E. Ricchi, G. Russo, G. Tancioni, and M. C. Tomassetti

Monastic Liaison & Conservation Consultant
Father Maximous El-Anthony

Abbot, Red Monastery
Father Antonius El-Shenouti

Photographer
Patrick Godeau

Additional Specialists
P. Dilley, Dr. K. Innemée, Dr. D. Kinney, Dr. C. Meurice, Dr. H.-G. Severin, N. Warner

Photographic Credits
E. Bolman

The Red Monastery Project
is being carried out in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Coptic Orthodox Church. It is being administered by the Egyptian Antiquities Project (2002-2006) and the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project (2006-2007) of the American Research Center in Egypt, with funding provided by the United States Agency for International Development.