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: Imitating Saints, Painting Identities

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 22: Imitating Saints, Painting Identities


Late antique monastics used the imitation of esteemed holy men as a tool to achieve higher spiritual states of being, and to increase the potential of achieving everlasting life in paradise. They also expressed and amplified the importance of celebrated ascetics through close association with more temporally distant figures. Paintings at several sites in Egypt indicate the use of visual representations to assert multiple, coexisting identities. Particularly significant monks stand in a row with the apostles, in identical garb, in paintings from the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit. Their inclusion in this illustrious group asserts the notion that they are also apostles. A depiction of St. Peter in the Red Monastery church shows him dressed in the uniform worn by Shenoute’s federation. In this case, an apostle is conflated with a monastic leader by his distinctive dress alone. These and other examples provide insights into the rich scope of mimesis in the ascetic life.

There will be a reception folowing the event.

To RSVP, please email