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The ARCE Restoration Projects in Coptic Monasteries

Michael Jones studied archaeology, anthropology and Egyptology at Cambridge University, England, and made his first trip to Egypt in the 1970s when he worked at Malqata, followed by work at Tel el-Amarna. In the 1980s he worked at Giza, Karnak, Qasr Ibrim, Siwa Oasis and Wadi Firan in the Sinai. Since 1996 Michael has worked at ARCE in Cairo, directing USAID funded conservation projects.

Michael Jones opened by noting that he would concentrate his remarks on the major conservation projects he has directed at St. Anthony’s and St. Paul’s Monasteries, and several ongoing projects in Middle Egypt and at Luxor.

St. Anthony’s monastery is a site renowned as the first monastery established in the Christian world. Anthony, an ascetic monk, lived in the cliffs above where the church which is named for him is located. When conservation of the wall paintings in the monastery was begun, the walls were almost completely blackened by centuries of smoke, oily residue from lamps, and accumulated dirt. As St. Anthony’s was the first monastery in which such conservation work was attempted, it was uncharted territory when work began.

The project was the first collaboration between ARCE and the Coptic Church in Egypt. Father Maximus at St. Anthony’s helped smooth the way. He went to Luxor to visit the conservators who had worked in the tomb of Nefertari, Paolo and Laura Mora, and asked them if they would come to St. Anthony’s and do a cleaning test on the monastery’s painted walls. Four and a half years later the Moras came back and established a project to conserve the church’s wall paintings under the auspices of the Antiquities Development Project administered by ARCE using funding provided by USAID. Work continued at the monastery until December 1999.

Many of the paintings had been disfigured through repeated over-painting through the centuries, which had obscured the original medieval paintings. Michael delighted the audience with many before and after pictures of the paintings before conservation work began, as the original painting emerged and finally with the spectacular originals.

He noted that one of the most important aspects of the conservation work has been the inscriptions which have emerged from beneath the grime. Some were left by the original painter, a monk named Theodore, the co-workers who helped with the painting, and the donors who paid for the original work, which can now be definitively dated to AD 1232-1233. Many other Coptic churches in Egypt have been re-dated based on the accurate dating which has been possible as a result of the conservation work done at St. Anthony’s.

The plain white plaster which surrounds the paintings is an integral part of the composition and is very important to the way the paintings are presented. Light was also integral to the way the decoration was originally conceived. In several locations in the church there had originally been groups or rows of small windows filled with colored glass which were reinstated during the conservation project, allowing light to pass through them once again, and illuminate the decoration as was originally intended.

Another important result of the conservation was that it was possible to see clearly the influences which played into the designs. For example, the paintings of the Easter scene are different from the work of Theodore’s team. They show influence in style and technique derived from contacts with the contemporary Byzantine and Western Christian art. The painters were probably Egyptians trained in Cyprus, where Eastern and Western Christians collaborated at this period.

Once cleaned the vault of the church proved to have beautiful patterns of arabesques that are similar to metal work and book decorations of the period. Some include Coptic inscriptions that have been translated into Arabic. Clearly this monastery was very cosmopolitan in the 13th century!

Sometime before January 1626, when it was inscribed by a Sicilian Franciscan monk named Bernadus, a screen was installed in the church and during this work the adjacent painting of St. Anthony was damaged by removing his right arm. Though conservation does not normally restore damaged pieces to their original form, the monastery asked the conservators to restore St. Anthony’s arm. Thus a process was incorporated in which an exact mirror image of the left arm was applied to the wall, and very fine black lines were applied on top of the painted area to make clear which portion had been restored. From a distance the lines are invisible, but close to the wall the lines distinguish the new work from the original.

St. Athanasios, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote The Life of St. Anthony, which became the model for living an acetic life. About the same time, St. Jerome wrote a Life of St. Paul. In the biographies, we learn that when Anthony arrived in the desert near the Red Sea, he had a vision telling him that one even more holy than he lived near by. Anthony went to visit St. Paul and ultimately the lives of these two men had a profound impact on the development of monastic life throughout the Christian world. We find high crosses in both Ireland and Scotland dating from the 700s with references to Saints Anthony and Paul. In the 7th century, St. Columba established a monastery on the island of Iona in Scotland and around him grew up other monasteries. St. Cuthbert established a monastery at Lindisfarne following the same pattern. His monastery was a victim of Viking and Danish raids so St. Cuthbert’s relics were transferred to Durham. At some time in the 15th century, someone at Durham sponsored the painting of panels related to the lives of saints, among them Saints Anthony, Paul, Columba and Cuthbert. These paintings, with the exception of the Life of Cuthbert which is lost, are now in Carlisle Cathedral.

St. Paul’s Monastery is on the other side of the Galala Plateau, about 25 kilometers away from St. Anthony’s. It rests in a ravine overlooking the Gulf of Suez. The cave church of St. Paul is built around what is believed to have been the cave in which St. Paul lived as a hermit in the desert. The cave church includes the shrine of St. Paul and is a very important site for Egyptian Christians.

Father Maximus again functioned as mediator for the work at St. Paul’s, along with three monks from the monastery. Interestingly, many of the monks were quite happy with the church as it was – with blacked walls and ceilings. The church, however, needed not only cleaning, but strengthening. The paintings at St. Paul’s are more fragmentary than those at St. Anthony’s. They were painted in about the 1230s. Windows in the dome had been blocked and then the dome had been painted. When one of the window blockings fell out, it had been left as it was. Cleaning revealed that a second medieval painter can be identified at St. Paul’s by his consistent use of pale blue backgrounds.

Some of the paintings at St. Paul’s date from the 18th century when, after having been uninhabited for over two hundred years, the monastery was rehabilitated. In 1716 Claude Sicard described the new paintings done in the 18th century as “very poor”. They were probably painted by a monk who went on to become the Coptic Pope John XVII who renewed Coptic culture in the 18th century. One wall, for example has both medieval paintings and 18th century inscriptions and an adjacent wall shows traces of medieval painting under the 18th century decoration.

Another important, and much older monastery, currently undergoing conservation under the ARCE/USAID project, is the Red Monastery at Sohag. The Red Monastery was founded. The Red Monastery belongs to a group of monasteries founded by St. Shenoute in the 5th century which also includes the nearby White Monastery and the ruins of what was probably a nunnery at Athribis. The Red and White Monasteries are the only complete, standing examples of a number of churches from this early period built north of Luxor. At Hermopolis and Dendera are the remains of similar churches, and within the confines of the Medinet Habu temple on the West Bank we know there was once a 5th century church, but its remains were removed in the 1890s.

The Red Monastery had a colonnaded nave with a trefoil shaped sanctuary. The nave has lost most of its standing columns and a gallery would have been formed by a wood beamed roof, also now gone.

The interior of the church is completely painted. Conservation began with the cleaning of the semi-dome. Four layers of paint were exposed from various phases of the painting with the earliest dating the 6th century and the latest dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. Some painting had been covered over with either mud brick or painted over with abstract floral designs.

A most important aspect of the conservation project at the Red Monastery is dealing with the living heritage of contemporary Egypt. Father Antonious has produced a guide book using the photos of the paintings that have been newly revealed by the cleaning. The north side of the semi dome depicts the Old Testament, the south side the New Testament. The eastern end of the sanctuary has no figurative painting– only curtains the veil between the visible and invisible realities.

Luxor Temple became the core of a Roman Legion under the Emperor Diocletian. At the center of the temple is a room which was transformed into a Roman basilica. Located in the center beyond the sun court of Amenhotep III it includes a niche. Eight columns were installed and the walls were plastered over and decorated with paintings celebrating Diocletian’s arrival in Luxor. We have only watercolor copies of most of the paintings. That which is left has been damaged by both pollution and sun fading, so it was uncertain whether conservation might reveal much if anything. A cleaning test, however proved that a good deal of paint still remained as they were painted in fresco, thus the paint had soaked into the wet plaster. The conservation team worked from October through December on the paintings and their work has revealed some remarkable remains. Work done at the temple is in collaboration with the Chicago House, Luxor.

The results of these projects show how post-Pharaonic painting, rarely considered by art historians until recently, is a rich cultural legacy that will repay much further research.

Michael Jones closed his remarks with an acknowledgement of his outstanding team or co-workers who facilitated these incredible projects. They include Adriano Luzi, Luigi de Cesaris, Alberto Sucato and Cristina Tomasetti who led the conservation teams; Elizabeth Bolman, the art historian for the projects; William Lyster, the historian;’ Nicholas Warner, the architect; Peter Sheehan, the archaeologist; and Patrick Godeau, the project’s photographer

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