This is a well-written book with excellent photographs. This book presents the results of conservation efforts for medieval age Christian Egyptian, Coptic, wall paintings at Saint Anthony monastery, Egypt. The monastery is believed to be the first Christian monastery in the world. In the preface, the writers outlined the genesis of this conservation effort. They also provided progress photographs for some of the early and limited test cleaning work that showed the promising and extraordinary work of art that was underneath centuries of grime and over painting. The preservation and restoration efforts were funded by a grant from the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID).
As an American from Coptic ancestry, I would like to express thanks and appreciation to the American people, government and the USAID for their support for the conservation work of the Coptic cultural heritage and art.
The book outlines the history and life of Saint Anthony the great (251-356 AD). Saint Anthony is considered to be the father of or originator of monasticism. However, there is evidence that the ancient Egyptians temples included devotees, who led lives of prayer, learning and pursuit of wisdom, celibacy, and poverty, e.g. the story of Ptolemaios and Harmais the Serapeum temple devotees circa 164-158BC. It could be argued that, the Egyptian converts to Christianity continued to use of their past artistic and cultural heritage in new or modified ways compatible with Christian teaching. For example the Copts continued to use the ancient Egyptian ankh symbol in conjunction with the cross. Artifacts from the early centuries AD show the use of both the ankh and the cross. Contemporary Copts continue to use the ankh and the cross together as jewelry pieces. Similar arguments could be made about the artist rendering of Isis and baby Horus, which may have been used by early Coptic artists as a model to portray the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Saint Anthony the great led a solitary life in the desert. Accordingly the Coptic/Greek term monachos or monk in English was used. Saint Athanasius the Apostolic of Alexandria (296-373 AD) introduced monasticism to the west through his famous book the Life of Anthony. Contrary to the image painted for Anthony as an unlettered person, the book comments on letters of Anthony, of which seven are extant. The letters show Anthony to be well versed in platonic philosophy and Alexandrian theological traditions. Furthermore his letters emphasize gnosis or knowledge, and echoes the Greek philosophical tradition," Know thyself".
The book is written by several authors from different disciplines art history, history, archaeology, anthropology, and art conservation. The contributors to the book are mostly Americans and Copts from Egypt. The conservation team was led by Adriano Luzi and Luigi De Cesaris from Italy. Luzi and De Cesaris participated prior to this effort in the conservation of the paintings in the tomb of Nefertari. The main wall paintings in the monastery were originally the work of a team Coptic artists led by a master artist, Theodore Zographos, the painter, or the writer of life in Greek, circa 1232-1233 AD. The book indicates that the Coptic Church did not enjoy any royal patronage that could have helped funding churches or monasteries. The temporal rulers of Egypt from about 640AD were Muslims, and far from donating funds for churches, they actually taxed monks and forbade them from building churches without permission. The high-quality paintings in the Church of Saint Anthony were painted on dry plaster, in a technique called secco. Neither the pigments nor the plaster were of more than modest cost. About 33-40 Copts are believed to have been the patrons of the 13th century artwork. In addition to paying for the project, one or more of these 13th century Coptic patrons are likely the designers of the painting program. The style of Theodore is thoroughly Coptic, however the 13th century art is different from the first centuries of Christian art in Egypt. It is possible to discern the influence of Islamic, Byzantine and even Romanesque arts on the Coptic art of that era. The conservation work shows 6 layers of paintings, some of which date back the 5th-7th century. The results of the conservation work further indicate that the newly visible early 13th century paintings are so greatly at odds with art historical expectations that they mandate a near total reevaluation of the Coptic art after the Arabs conquest of Egypt.
This is a book that provides both entertainment and information. It would be a good addition for art, art history, and conservation aficionados.