09.11.16, Lyster, The Cave Church of Paul the Hermit

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Jim Bugslag

The Medieval Review 09.11.16

Lyster, William (ed.). The Cave Church of Paul the Hermit at the Monastery of St. Paul, Egypt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Reviewed by:
Jim Bugslag
University of Manitoba

Although St Paul the Hermit is familiar enough among the Christian pantheon of saints, the monastery that developed on the site of his hermitage is not well known to Western scholarship, despite the very recent burgeoning of Coptic scholarship. Its relative isolation from Western consciousness is matched, as well, by its isolation in the eastern desert of Egypt near the Red Sea. The Monastery of St Paul is far more remote than the better known monasteries of Egypt in the region of the Nile delta. It lies at the very heart of Egyptian monasticism, having been formed around the cave in which Paul reputedly became the first Christian ascetic to seek a life of isolation in intense spiritual communion with God. That cave was gradually transformed into a subterranean church around which a monastic community developed. In the course of its development and enlargement, the cave church of St Paul was decorated with a programme of wall paintings. After an initial campaign of painting in the early 13th century, a second campaign has been identified in the later 13th century, and both were renewed and supplemented in the early 18th century. The cave church and its wall paintings are more than just the subject of this book: they rather form the starting point for a thorough, multi-disciplinary investigation of Coptic religion, history and culture, as they are powerfully anchored in this sacred site.

The origins of this project lie in recent conservation activities which have opened up new possibilities in the study of monastery, church and wall paintings. This programme of conservation was initiated in 1992 when the U.S. Congress committed itself to support conservation efforts in Egypt through the agency of the American Research Center in Egypt. Three sites were chosen for conservation and subsequent publication. The work at the Ottoman fort at Quseir has yet to be published. With the appearance of this book, however, the other two sites, intimately related to one another, have both been very thoroughly documented. These sites are the Monastery of St Anthony and the Monastery of St Paul, whose histories closely intertwine with each other. Like Paul the Hermit, Anthony abandoned life in the city, back in the late 3rd century, to become a hermit in the eastern desert. He thought he was alone until a dream vision informed him that another hermit had preceded him, and divinely guided, he set out to discover him. This led him to St. Paul's cave, a story that became widely known through St. Jerome's late 4th-century Life of Paul. This encounter is central to the beginning of the Christian monastic enterprise and, since a group of like-minded souls eventually joined St. Anthony, initiated both the eremitical and coenobitical strains of Christian monasticism.

Conservation work began first at the Monastery of St Anthony, the results of which were published, along with many new perspectives enabled by the work, in Elizabeth S. Bolman, ed., Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the American Research Center in Egypt, Inc., 2002). For this publication, a team of historians, art historians, conservators and other specialists was assembled to deal with every aspect of the project and its manifold implications, and the same approach has been adopted for this second publication; many of the same specialists, in fact, participated in this second project, making the two books broadly coordinated with each other. This second book is organized in two principal sections: Part I provides historical context to the site, its monastery, and the cave. Part II is a more focused study of the conservation work carried out at the monastery, related archaeological analysis carried out in conjunction with it, and a thorough art historical analysis of the wall paintings. Preceding these sections is an introduction to the monastery by the editor, William Lyster, which provides an overview of all the themes treated in the book. Together they present a wide-ranging coverage that is useful to both general and specialist audiences.

Part I opens with a chapter by Stephen J. Davis on "St. Jerome's Life of Paul and the Promotion of Egyptian Monasticism in the West". A life of St Anthony had already been written in the mid-4th century by Athanasius of Alexandria. Much of Jerome's account also focuses on St Anthony, but besides expanding the scope of his story to include St Paul, Davis shows how Jerome aimed his work at a very particular audience. Although the subject involves the desert landscapes of southern Egypt as an arena for sacred encounters between ascetics who had abandoned the city, it was written for the wealthy, cultured elites of Rome and other urban centres in the heartlands of the Roman Empire. Jerome's aim was the promotion of the monastic enterprise, but so many aspects of it were ideologically incomprehensible to this audience that he knew it would be a hard sell. The tone was thus polemical, and the success of his venture can be measured by its lasting influence. Davis analyses the work in terms of intertextuality: Jerome appropriated established literary topoi in order to integrate his challenging subject into accepted tradition. The landscape itself takes on an epic quality.

In this literary culture, caves, in particular, often served as the settings for heroic action and epic storytelling (in the Aeneid, for example), and actual caves, as well, had an established place in Greco-Roman religion. Jerome made use of these traditions to construct a sanctified image of the caves of St Paul and St Anthony and their desert setting, and indeed, despite their extreme isolation, they had already begun to draw pilgrims during the 4th century. Jerome's legacy is also evident, as Davis shows, in later traditions of Christian art in which the desert encounter of Anthony and Paul was constantly recontextualized to reflect various cultural conceptions of monasticism and of "the desert". Neither this chapter nor any other in the book, however, takes up the challenge of contextualizing caves and grottoes in early Christian tradition, which is still largely terra incognita. It would have been useful to outline the place of caves both as eremitical refuges and as sacred sites. Constantine built his Holy Land churches on the sites, as Eusebius tells us, of "mystical caves" marking the sites of Christ's birth, resurrection and ascension. And in the monastic cultures that spread from Egypt through the eastern Mediterranean, in Syria and more famously in Cappadocia, cave churches were well established. Part of the problem in providing such an overview is that monographic treatments of such cave churches are, Cappadocia apart, not common, a situation which this publication concretely helps to rectify.

Pilgrims, and later scholars interested in Coptic antiquities, have continued to brave the hardships of the desert to visit St Paul's cave throughout its history. A chapter by Alistair Hamilton analyses the accounts of these visitors for what they can tell us about the nature of the site. Nevertheless, its history remains shrouded in vagueness, much more so than for the more accessible site of St. Anthony's cave hermitage, about 45 kilometres distant. Monks are known to have been living in the vicinity of Anthony's cave by the 6th century, gradually forming an organized monastic community. There is literary evidence for a church incorporating St. Paul's cave by the mid-7th century, but physical evidence of either the church or an accompanying monastery is lacking until the early 13th century, when the cave church was substantially developed by excavating the soft deposits around the cave. The earliest monastic structures on the site also date from this formative period.

What is known about the history of the monastery is analysed by Mark N. Swanson in another chapter. That history was not smooth or homogeneous. Under the Mamluks, repressive measures were taken against the Coptic populace of Egypt, and under those conditions, the fragile life of the monastic community at the Monastery of St. Paul, which has always been dependent to some extent on outside support, could no longer be maintained. The monastery was abandoned, apparently c. 1485, and was only repopulated at the beginning of the 18th century. This renewal of monastic life involved much architectural and artistic attention during the 18th century, largely due to the spiritual support of the Coptic patriarch in Cairo and the financial support of the archons, the wealthy and politically connected elite of Coptic society, who patronized the redevelopment of many Coptic churches and monasteries at this time. These broader Coptic connections are so important to the revival of the Monastery of St Paul, that a chapter by Febe Armanios has been included outlining the rise of the archons, the revival of the patriarchate, and their implications for the renewal of Coptic culture and art. Rounding out the first section of the book is a short chapter on newly discovered historical documentation by Gawdat Gabra, who was allowed limited access to the monastic library which proved invaluable to both historical and art historical analyses.

Part II begins with a chapter by Peter Sheehan on new archeological evidence for the architectural development of the cave church. Although systematic excavations were not carried out, the conservation work conducted at the site enabled new observations to be made. The quite irregular form of the 13th-century cave church, which had to accommodate the initial cave and the geology of the site, is now much better known. So, consequently, are the 18th-century enlargements, which added three domed chambers to the nave. A related chapter by Michael Jones on the conservation of the mill building, refectory and cave church follows. Together, they give a very complete picture of these parts of the monastery, but the other architectural elements of the site are not given systematic treatment, since no conservation work was accorded them. Of these other buildings, some are mentioned enough in passing to form a fair idea of their nature. The keep, possibly dating from the 13th century, was a ubiquitous element of Egyptian desert monasteries, and with the walls, provided security in an isolated region inhabited by roving bands of Bedouin. Until the mid-20th century, there was not even a gate to the monastic compound, and goods and people both gained access by being hauled up to the top of the walls on a rope, operated by a windlass. This device, and its related storage area, are fascinatingly described, and the 18th-century block of monastic cells, along with several other individual structures and the monastery gardens, also receive some treatment. Since they did not form a part of the conservation project, however, the two other 18th-century monastic churches, one dedicated to St Mercurius, the other to St Michael and St John the Baptist, are neither described nor documented in any but general exterior photographs; they remain tantalizingly absent from the book.

The next chapter, written by conservators Luigi De Cesaris and Alberto Sucato, along with art historian William Lyster, gives a detailed account of the conservation of the wall paintings in the cave church, which not only revealed the paintings adequately for the first time in living memory, but also revealed a wealth of archaeological and technical information about the paintings that prepares for the following art historical chapters on the wall paintings themselves. Gawdat Gabra also contributes a chapter to this section on the Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in the paintings.

Art historical analysis is organized according to the three principal campaigns of work. The two medieval campaigns of wall painting are analysed by Elizabeth S. Bolman, who was also a major contributor to the earlier volume on the Monastery of St Anthony. Only fragments are left of the first campaign from the early 13th century. They decorate the Haykal (a Coptic sanctuary) of St Anthony, which was added to the original two chambers at this time. Remains of an image of the Virgin and Child, of the Byzantine type known as the Virgin Nikopoios, decorate a niche in the altar wall, while an Annunciation flanks it in the spandrels above. Some heads of standing Evangelists survive to one side on the north wall. Evidence was uncovered during conservation of more standing saints in the main nave space, but these were largely plastered over and repainted in the 18th century. These paintings can be dated to the early 13th century by stylistic comparison with the firmly dated frescoes of 1232/33 in the nearby Monastery of St Anthony. In both their style and the Byzantine-inflected iconography, these paintings are fully in line with a vibrant period of Coptic painting that finds echoes at other sites throughout Egypt, some of them quite recently discovered. The newly conserved paintings thus fit into an exciting new vision of Coptic painting that is still in process of formulation.

In this campaign of painting, the dome of the Haykal of St Anthony was plastered, but it had to await the later 13th century to receive a programme of figural imagery. Although coordinated with the earlier campaign, however, the nature of the painting in this second campaign is distinctly different. Thanks to Gawdat Gabra's rereading of the newly cleaned inscriptions, this campaign can be dated quite precisely to 1291/92. Once again, the principal remains of this campaign now occupy the Haykal of St Anthony, although it is clear that extensive work must once have been apparent in the nave, as well. To supplement the earlier paintings on the lower walls of the haykal, this painter decorated the dome above with a huge image of an enthroned Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the four Living Creatures and flanked by angels in Byzantine court vestments. Six-winged angels were also placed in the squinches below. One of the peculiarities of this work is that it was painted on existing plaster that had not been intended for wall painting. The rough surface was not even smoothed beforehand. Such technical considerations, and distinctive stylistic traits, have led Bolman to insist that the painter was not trained to paint murals. She convincingly suggests that he was possibly an icon painter or more probably a manuscript illuminator. As well, she situates this lack of a trained mural painter within a period of increased repression of the Copts by the Mamluks and other disasters that would, by the 14th century, signal the complete collapse of the once-thriving tradition of Coptic wall painting.

These same circumstances had a negative effect on monastic life here, as well, leading to the abandonment of the site by the later 15th century for over 200 years. The monks returned only at the very beginning of the 18th century, refurbishing existing buildings and constructing new ones. This initiated the most dynamic period in the monastery's existence. The cave church was reconsecrated in 1705 by no less a personage than Patriarch John XVI, who had formerly been a monk here. Inscriptions in various parts of the monastery testify to the patronage of a number of prestigious members of the broader Coptic community, and it seems clear that, as isolated as the site is geographically, it was the focus of considerable attention at this time. Indeed, later in the 18th century no less than three successive patriarchs were chosen from among the monks here.

The extensive wall paintings surviving in the cave church from this campaign are by far the best documented, and two chapters by William Lyster are dedicated to them. An inscription dates them to 1712/13. Only a few years later, in 1716, the Jesuit missionary Claude Sicard visited the monastery and met the monk whom he described as the "painter-author" of the programme, who informed him that he was self-taught and had collected the materials for the paintings from the surrounding desert. Thanks to his work in the monastery library, Gawdat Gabra has convincingly attributed the inscriptions in these wall paintings to the scribe 'Abd al-Sayyid al-Mallawani. In fact, a Psalmody manuscript that he wrote at the monastery was probably illuminated by the same wall painter, and Lyster speculates that both paintings and inscriptions may have been due to 'Abd al-Sayyid.

The issues raised by this campaign are complex, and Lyster provides a useful post-colonial interpretation of them that corrects the long-standing dismissal of the works as crude and barbaric. These paintings were made at the very beginning of a revival of Coptic artistic activity. Due to religious repression, there simply were no trained Coptic figural artists, and the tradition was in process of reinventing itself. Thus, judged solely in aesthetic terms, these paintings may, indeed, be crude, but Lyster also clearly demonstrates that it is not as appropriate to consider them as "art" as it is to situate them as "religious images" that, in the Coptic as in the Byzantine tradition, play an essential role in appropriately defining the church interior and in providing a setting for the liturgy within it. The programme, in fact, mirrors the liturgy in its focus on martyr and monastic saints. At the time, it was considered more imperative to restore the church's programme of images than to maintain any set level of aesthetic quality, and so far as can be judged from the contemporary reception of the monks who regularly use the church, the results of the self-taught painter-monk's efforts were entirely successful from a religious perspective. Indeed, the conservators found that their work had been complicated by the long-standing practice of people reverently touching the holy images in the cave church that were directly accessible to them.

The most spectacular elements of this campaign are the paintings decorating two of the new domical chambers added to the cave church at this time. The Dome of the Martyrs features a ring of large, impressive equestrian images circling the dome along its base, while the dome of the Haykal of the Twenty-Four Elders received a Christ in Majesty in a mandorla surrounded by the four Living Creatures and flanked by seven trumpet-blowing angels; the apocalyptic theme is continued in the squinch zone below by a continuous frieze depicting the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse to whom the sanctuary is dedicated. On the lower walls, the standard legions of standing saints were clearly a work of restoration, for the most part, although it may have been supplemented by additions. Lyster has identified sources for the imagery, and in particular makes comparisons with the illuminations of the Psalmody manuscript created at the monastery in 1715, just a few years after the wall paintings were created. He also notes some iconographic peculiarities, but rather than simply writing these off as ignorant malapropisms, as earlier writers have done, he points out that, within the developing re-establishment of Coptic painting, some of these distinctive iconographic traits become well established more generally, thus according to this programme a significant place in redefining the iconographic standards of the Coptic tradition.

This book offers a very complete dossier on and analysis of the Cave Church of St. Paul and its wall paintings. It is all the more valuable for the generous selection of illustrations included in the book. The photographer Patrick Godeau was part of the conservation team and documented the church and its wall paintings at various stages of the work. Many of his superb photographs, all in colour, provide excellent coverage of the architecture, paintings and conservation work. Also included are conservation diagrammes, plans, and a full set of architectural drawings of the monastery and cave church.

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Jim Bugslag

University of Manitoba