Third Annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series

Photo: Angel, Ascension, east apse, Red Monastery Church, ca. 500. Photograph: E. Bolman. Copyright: ARCE.

Third Annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series

Shifting Narratives in Egyptian Christian Visual Culture: Death, Decorum and the Making of a Saint at the White Monastery

Elizabeth S. Bolman (Temple University)

Shifting Narratives in Egyptian Christian Visual Culture

About the Series

Exciting new interpretations are now emerging about the character and role of visual culture in late Roman Egypt. The Nile valley played a major role in the empire, but Egyptian Christian art and architecture outside of Alexandria have typically been seen as backward and peripheral to the culture of the greater Mediterranean region. Recent conservation and archaeological projects at the Red and White Monasteries near Sohag, in Upper Egypt, have revealed paintings that completely overturn this traditional view. The monuments at these sites attest to the wealth and power of these two ascetic communities in the fifth and sixth centuries. The church at the Red Monastery is the most important surviving historical church in Egypt, and one of the most significant from this period anywhere. Due to the thick layers of soot that until recently obscured the interior, its lavish architectural decoration is almost completely unknown.

In four lectures (March 1, 8, 15, 22), Elizabeth Bolman will explore some of the rich material and textual evidence from late antique Egypt, with an emphasis on recent finds from the Red and White Monasteries. She will draw on new paradigms, themes and methods that scholars in religious studies and practitioners of the “new art history” have developed. These include an interest in the body, gender, identity construction, ritual performance, decorum, visuality, memory, and the agency of art and architecture.

March 8: Death, Decorum and the Making of a Saint at the White Monastery


Shenoute of Atripe (d. 465 C.E.) led a huge monastic federation near the ancient city of Panopolis in Upper Egypt, at an early moment in the creation of monastic saints. He vigorously opposed ostentatious burial and the veneration of deceased humans, even including Christian martyrs. Yet, when he died, his followers created a painted tomb for him, and placed an altar on the ground above his body in the center of a chapel. This tomb chapel, on the periphery of the White Monastery, gives material expression to a conflict between the performance of perfect asceticism, the decorum of burial and commemoration of prominent individuals in the late Roman world, and the construction of Shenoute as a saint.

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