When Elizabeth Bolman first walked into the Red Monastery in Egypt’s Nile River valley, she said the once intricately painted walls of the church were completely blackened from smoke and incense residue. Walls of mud and sand from the surrounding desert also shrouded parts of the church’s architecture from full view.
“It sounds really corny,” said Bolman, the art history department chair. “But I really felt like this whole-body response to it. … I was hooked and I couldn’t give it up.”
The Red Monastery was established around the fifth century B.C. Bolman said it is the only monument from the this time period to have a painted interior still intact.
Bolman said she found “extraordinary significance” in the architecture and paintings uncovered by the project’s conservators — people who repair and preserve works of art or buildings of cultural interest.
With funding from the American Research Center in Egypt, Bolman and Italian conservators Alberto Sucato and the late Luigi De Cesaris began to preserve the Red Monastery in 2002. Previously, Bolman worked with De Cesaris and Sucato on St. Antony’s Monastery in the Eastern Desert of Egypt near Cairo.
Last year, Bolman’s book, “The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt,” was published by the Yale University Press. The book is about the church’s importance as told through contributions from art historians who specialize in architecture, ancient religion and conservation.
“It was a huge project and I only recently finished it,” Bolman said. “It took about five years to really get a full project going, and then it took 10 years of fine art conservation and several more years after that of other kinds of conservation and study and documentation. Then getting a book like this together takes years and years also.”
Originally, the Red Monastery was founded by a community of monks in fifth century B.C. Bolman said the Red Monastery monastic community renounced all earthly pleasures and dedicated their lives to acts of service in the name of God. The name of the monastery is derived from the color of the church’s exterior, which is composed of burnt red bricks.
The Red Monastery conservation project has revealed some of the best-known surviving paintings from the Middle Ages. Bolman said it is one of the best-preserved monuments from its time.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life,” Bolman said. “But it was also one of the most extraordinary. What a privilege to find a monument that had essentially fallen off the map, but was then able to recuperate in such an astonishing way.”
For the past 25 years, the ARCE has received funding from the United States Agency for International Development, which aids in preserving monuments like the Red Monastery. Bolman said after a conservation project is complete, there is normally an increase in tourism and economic prosperity in the area surrounding the monument. Bolman added this has been tremendously helpful for the people living near the monastery in a rural area outside the city of Sohag, located on the west bank of the Nile.
In November 2016, Bolman started an Art History Activism group at Temple for faculty and students to collaborate and mobilize art activism projects. Since then, the group has grown to include participants from Bryn Mawr College, Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania and LaSalle University.
Maeve Coudrelle, an art history doctoral candidate and university fellow, has been very involved in Bolman’s Art History Activism group.
In February, Coudrelle put together a panel and town hall event at the Institute of Contemporary Art on the corner of 36th Street and Sansom. Six speakers from Temple, LaSalle, New York University, the African American Museum of Philadelphia and Vox Populi, an artist-run gallery in Philadelphia, presented and led discussions on “the role of art history in the current political climate,” Coudrelle said.
“I’ve found the Art History Activism group to be an incredibly supportive network of engaged art historians,” Coudrelle added. “Turnout to our meetings and events has been impressive, as has the quality of the discussion. I think this speaks to the urgency of the topic.”
Agnieszka Szymanska, an art history Ph.D. candidate, joined the Red Monastery project in 2009. Szymanska, who is originally from Poland, is writing her dissertation on the Red Monastery’s richly decorated walls, which contrast with the traditional monastic idea of imageless prayer.
Szymanska joined the project to collect photographic data for a virtual reality model of the Red Monastery. In 2014, she returned to the Red Monastery during the early stages of her dissertation research. She lived inside the church for 46 days as part of a fellowship program with the ARCE while the final stages of Bolman’s conservation project were taking place.
“The timing was perfect,” Szymanska said. “I have learned so much from being exposed to [Bolman’s] decision making. She really wanted me to learn the ropes so that in the future I can ambulate her model on my projects.”
“I’ve been so fortunate and grateful for being her student,” Szymanska added. “Seeing her manage a large team of scholars, conservators, monks and administrators gave me a new appreciation for her abilities.”
Meghan Costa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Meg_costa19.