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: Masculinity, Animals and Asceticism

Elizabeth S. Bolman (Temple University)

Shifting Narratives in Egyptian Christian Visual Cultures

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 15: Masculinity, Animals and Asceticism


Depictions of animals in the eastern apse of the Red Monastery church have more fluid relationships to meaning than other figural representations in the monument, and lack specific identities and labels. Yet, the decision to place them in the privileged eastern lobe of the church’s triconch sanctuary indicates particularly charged subject matter. The ambiguity of these images of animals suggests that their original audiences would have related to them in a special way. An examination of the paintings’ historical context, with the aid of Shenoute’s prolific writings, will enable us to consider possible spheres of significance that include the Garden of Eden and Paradise, Adam, Christ, food, greed, lust, ideas about the male body, and transformative imitation.

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