Elizabeth S. Bolman, ed. The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt. Yale University Press, 2016.
With essays from several renowned scholars of Coptology, Byzantine Studies, art history, anthropology, archaeology, and history, this volume seeks to present and preserve the marvels of the early Byzantine Red Monastery Church. Located near Sohag, Egypt, the church represents the best surviving example of a triconch (three apse) basilica from this period. After years of painstaking restoration spearheaded by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquity (MoA), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), along with the aid of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the structure proved to be a font of knowledge concerning fifth-century art and architecture as the integrity of the building, a plethora of paintings, and many vividly colored mosaics remained intact. Debates over the fittingness of such monuments for ascetic communities in the fifth century rendered such edifices uncommon, and the commissioning of larger scale monuments, in general, was rare and even rarer for ascetics (p. XXXV-XXXVI).
The volume itself consists of twenty essays grouped into three parts along with a preface, prologue, introduction, conclusion, and two appendices. Each essay can be read on its own, although there is some cross-referencing. Reading the book by part may provide the best experience since each portion is thematically arranged and focuses on one aspect of the edifice. Part One contains seven chapters and is devoted to the historical context of the church and the monastic community surrounding it. The first four chapters detail the historical and religious context of the Red Monastery. Andrew Crislip begins the volume with a description of Egyptian monastic and ecclesiastical history related to the Red Monastery. He is followed by Stephen Emmel and Bentley Layton, who draw upon the literary and material evidence to discuss the earliest history of the Red Monastery, in particular its founding and governance under Pshoi, a fourth-century ascetic not to be confused with the famous Pshoi known as the defender of Orthodoxy. In the third chapter, Elizabeth S. Bolman discusses the governance and construction projects of the Red and White Monastery under Shenoute, the famed theologian and epistolarian whose tenure as abbot stretched from 385 until his death in 466 CE. Finally, Ugo Zanetti and Stephen J. Davis reconstruct a possible system of ritual practice and observance based on literary evidence, contemporary liturgical practices, and the layout and decorative motifs of the church.
The last three chapters of this section all explicate the architecture of the church. Dale Kinney writes two pieces: the first introduces modern debates surrounding the origin and development of the triconch basilica, as well as contemporary examples inside and outside of Egypt (Chapter 5) and the second discusses the design and execution of the architectural sculpture (Chapter 7). Nicholas Warner’s contribution gives a detailed architectural survey of the Red Monastery and the Church (Chapter 6).
Part Two is dedicated to a discussion of early Byzantine paintings in the Red Monastery Church and holds seven chapters as well. William Lester surveys the decorative program of the church and the methods employed in the second phase of paintings in the triconch sanctuary. The next three chapters, composed by Elizabeth S. Bolman, describe and detail the employment of the jeweled style, an aesthetic system that valued variety and color in all things from architecture to literature, throughout the sanctuary of the Red Monastery Church. Noting its use, she discusses how artisans played with light effects and the lavish ornamentation of marble with paint, various other materials, and nonfigural decorative patterns to evoke spectacular visual experiences, while explicating how the iconography and its location relayed important ritual and social meaning. Ultimately, she contends that a more nuanced model that accounts for artistic creativity is needed to understand the shared artistic elements found in buildings throughout Alexandria, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), and the rest of the Mediterranean. The fifth essay is a collaboration between Bolman and Agnieszka Szymaríska in which they relate how the church’s paintings construct both a real and imagined genealogy in a bid to create a “memory house” (p. 173) that reifies the monks legitimacy and authority. In the sixth essay, Paul C. Dilley examines dipinti or painted inscriptions throughout the structure and argues that they display a continuity with classical epigraphic culture and presume a contemporary literate culture. Lastly, Bolman analyzes the paintings in the chambers that flank the triconch and asserts that each room reinforces an economy of salvation while functioning as a prothesis, a room for preparing the wine and bread prior to Communion.
Part Three includes the last six chapters and sketches out the history of the Red Monastery Church including the death, afterlife, and revival of the church. Mark N. Swanson begins this section tackling the history and fate of the Red Monastery through historical and literary records well into the mid-fifteenth century, including al-Maqrizi’s erroneous report of its destruction. In the next essay, Bolman takes up her pen to illuminate the developments of the visual and material culture in the Red and White Monastery throughout the medieval period. Then, Dilley catalogues the dedicatory inscriptions and painter’s signatures, as a complement to Rebecca Krawiec’s Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery (2002).
The last three chapters deal with the modern period, detailing the afterlife and restoration of the Red Monastery. Nicholas Warner and Cédric Maurice author the first two articles. In the first, they outline the history of antiquarians who have provided the small record of historical descriptions from the late-seventeenth to early twentieth centuries, while the second article details how the Comité de Conservation des Monuments del’ Art Arabe, a group established in 1881 for the documentation and conservation of historic architecture, led the early twentieth century effort to conserve the Red Monastery. Finally, Luigi Decesaris, Alberto Sucato, and Emiliano Ricchi recount the cleaning and restoration of the church’s paintings. In short, they describe the decade long effort to reveal the hidden beauty of the Red Monastery Church.
On the whole, this monograph provides as much of a cohesive historical and literary narrative of the Red Monastery as possible. As Bolman makes clear in her introduction, the local monastic community decided to return the church following the restoration to its original function with the ultimate consequence of limiting access to the church and the area of the triconch to a small group of monks and clergy (p. XXXV). In light of this decision, this collected volume may very well be the only access point to the architectural and cultural marvels of the Red Monastery Church for a large swathe of people. To this end, the volume creates an immersive history of the church, seeking to tie the social, ecclesiastical, and political history of the monastic community and its surrounding areas to the church’s art and architecture.
 Roberts, Michael. 1989. The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
 Krawiec, Rebecca. 2002. Shenoute and the Women of White Monastery: Egyptian Monasticism in Late Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Candace Buckner is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ancient Mediterranean Religions with a specialization in Early Christianity at UNC-Chapel Hill.