Occupying the upper Egyptian city of Sohag, this Coptic, conservative, and conformist monastery follows the footsteps of the Egyptian saint Pishay or Pshoi. The red monastery, the name imitated from the color of the construction material of the peripheral walls reposing red, burnt bricks, spectacles many of the earliest phases of Christian monasticism. The red monastery boasts chunky walls at the bottom that tapers to the top and are crowned by concave Cavetto moldings with a regular circular pathed curved profile. Primitively, the red monastery was a closely weaved group of hermits that came under the coenobitic rule. This rule was initiated by Shenoute’s predecessor Pcol and backed by Shenoute. This monastery presents a fine blend of Pharaonic, Roman civic, and Christian architectural styles.

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The Red Monastery, The last of Egypt’s Byzantine jewel. ©nomad4nowdotcom.files.wordpress.com
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The wall section showing tapered walls. ©Pietro Gasparri, Nicholas Warner

The Significance:

The decapod conservation trail has divulged amazingly phenomenal yet extant paintings of the Byzantine period. This conservation has exposed the quadra painting efforts of various artists of the 5th and 6th centuries. Though blooming with a comprehensive painted adornment, the church’s particularized architectural style resounds the aesthetics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

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The panoramic view of the red monastery’s church. ©cloudflare1.360gigapixels.com

The red monastery project:

Endowed in 2002 with the sole purpose of conservation and the research of wall paintings and architectural elements, the red monastery project, directed by Elizabeth S. Bolman, ran in parallel collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Coptic Orthodox Church. Administered by the Egyptian Antiquities project and the Egyptian antiquities conservation project of the American Research center in Egypt and funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the red monastery project concluded in 2014 with revived paintings and decorations and the church reusable for a Coptic monastic community. Bolman noticed the capability of a breathtaking restoration project priorly in the mid-1990s on perceiving the scintillating paintings and details concealed below centuries of desert dirt, incense, and candle smoke.

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The three deep curves surmounted by a huge semi dome. ©cloudflare1.360gigapixels.com

Paintings and Sculpture:

Almost every interior surface reveals paint and art dating back to about the 6th and the 8th centuries. The subtle portrayal of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles, evangelists, prophets, and angels boosts an intricate chain of messages of salvation, sketching its delicacy through patterns and with colors with dynamic motifs and estimated concepts. The conservation cycle never reposed repainting. The impaired, lost, and mislaid features of the red monastery, chunked with a freshly prepared plaster, had the same constituent proportions as the pioneered. These repairs, as bright and white as the snow, carried the vision plane of the viewer away from the celebrated and memorable historical paintings. Hence the creative conservators had to use the aqua sporca (dirty muddy water) technique to reverse the visuals and divert the focus of the human eye.

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The actual mapping of the conservation process phases. ©Patrick Godeau

Visionary conservators camouflaged the areas of a deficit with watercolors to recede them visually and created muted, elegant backgrounds. These backgrounds, in return, spanned the tonal variation of the paintings around the areas of paint damage, and hence the concluding effect makes it look like repainting, but it is not. Of the trio group of the domes in the sanctuary, the eastern semi-dome was the least preserved one of the group. Though the red monastery fractionally guarded the earlier ascent, the conservators accentuated more on the latter year’s paintings as the red monastery already flaunted an excavated set of four-layered art done in different periods.

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Image 6 – The niches in the middle register of the north lobe, showing St.Besa, St.Shenoute and St.Bishay. ©Patrick Godeau

The imaginative conservators adopted a series of reconstruction using the Tratteggio technique of revival and recreation with wispy colored lines to recreate the eyes of the significant traditional figurative. However, the encroachment of vehicles close to the historic church, the increased volume of groundwater, and the increased termite attacks coupled with unfathomable layers of soot and smoke from incense used during prayers posed a threat to the visuals of the paintings and, hence the conservators had to be on their knees. Though the eastern end was the limelight of the project, the jewel aesthetics provoked the human eye to jump from place to place and avoids the focus on one particular area of the three-phased paintings, none of them frescos.

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The newly restored “suckling virgin” apse within the red monastery. ©Caroline T. Schroeder

Lighting:

The restoration necessitated paramount light output to feature the intimate design elements and architecture with nominal light sources and fixtures to cover-up the impingement of renovation on the ancient structure. Thus, designer Ramez Youssef recommended color palettes with LED lighting solutions to gingerly apply a transition to lighting. To irradiate the interior of the church, EW burst powercore luminaries, placed on customized chandeliers dousing warm white over the domed ceiling, and upper plains, were elected. EW Cove QLX Powercore luminaries essayed at concealed locations illuminated the singular niches at the lower levels. These warm white 2700K luminaries are capable of lighting the entire two phases of the church complex of the red monastery.

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The laser scanned visualized monastery section. ©Nicholas Warner

The diversity and contrast:

The trio set of profound parabolas, crowned by a colossal semi-dome, attract the niches and columns that entertain a dramatic play of lights and shadows inside. The squared light shafts, descending from the soaring high clerestory windows, approach the sanctuary slowly and thus weave a visually complex net in the habitat. These trappings of variety and contrast were intensified further by the artists by adding crusts of colored paints. In a single niche itself, artists justified voluminous and complex 20 designs of the architectural polychromy.

As the red monastery was thoroughly cleaned in the whole of the conservation process, many significant art developments began to surface-up. The most recent one of them includes the revelation of medieval paintings on the front walls. In a joint effort with painting treatment, the team is also cleaning and conserving all surfaces within the wall church to create a visually synchronized environment and establish the red monastery as the cultural landmark of Egypt and the world. This conservation cycle has advanced the tourism and economic prosperity of the surrounding areas and has helped the rural locals on the west bank of the Nile River.

Author

An architecture student by profession, a curious empath by choice, Ruchika’s perceptive hearing has always unfolded the esoteric and stupendous tales of folklore and tradition in architecture. With a piercing interest in art, history and architecture, she holds strong to her poetic conclusions whilst analyzing human perception of the same.

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