The unique paintings decorating the walls of the Deir Al-Surian Church are being unearthed in an ongoing conservation project, reports Nevine El-Aref
In the parched desert of Wadi Al-Natroun on the Northern Coast stands the Deir Al-Surian Monastery enclosed within a large walled compound as a testimony to early Coptic monasticism.
The monastery was originally built during the sixth century CE in the aftermath of a theological dispute with the monks of the neighbouring Saint Bishoy Monastery over the incorruptibility of the body of Christ. The monks, who had refused to abide by the Julian heresy that had spread in Egypt during the papacy of Pope Timothy III of Alexandria, left the original monastery and established a new one, calling it the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Theotokos.
The so-called Julianists believed in the incorruptibility of the body of Christ, not accepted by the faith of the Orthodox Church.
From the 8th to the 16th centuries, Coptic and Syrian monks lived together inside the monastery. But, like other monasteries in the Wadi Al-Natroun desert, this monastery, now called Deir Al-Surian, was subjected to fierce external attacks that to some extent destroyed and looted it and murdered or drove away the inhabitants.
According to a Syriac inscription found on one of the monastery’s walls, two monks called Mattay and Yakoub took the initiative to rebuild the monastery in this period. The monastery flourished in the 10th century, when Syrian abbot Moses Nisibis was responsible for important renovations in the eastern part of the church.
Nisibis also travelled to Baghdad to ask the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir to grant a tax exemption to the monasteries in Egypt. He then travelled to Syria and Mesopotamia in search of manuscripts. After three years, he had succeeded in buying some 250 Syriac manuscripts, the heart of the monastery’s library which has now grown to house the largest collection of Syriac manuscripts in the Middle East.
“The monastery had become a centre of learning and cultural exchange,” said professor of early Christian art and archaeology at Leiden University and Deir Al-Surian Conservation Project Director Karel Innemée.
He went on to say that pilgrims and visitors had historically come from far away to leave testimonies of their visits in graffiti on the walls of the church. An inscription on the wall from 1165/66 CE mentions how after a period of crisis when not a single Syrian priest was left in the monastery, life was resumed and problems were overcome, for example.
The Syrian community at Deir Al-Surian died out at the beginning of the 17th century, and Coptic monks took over.
“By the end of the 18th century, the monastery was enjoying renewed interest, but this time with less constructive results,” Innemée said, adding that the rich Syriac library of the monastery was discovered at this time by western collectors. As a result, valuable manuscripts were bought for often ridiculous prices from the monks who had forgotten their value. Many of these are now in the Vatican Library, the British Library and the library of St Petersburg in Russia.
The monastery’s enclosed compound has an unusual architectural shape, which the monks describe as being like a model of Noah’s Ark. Some parts of the walls have a rectangular form, while others have a quadrilateral shape with a height ranging from between 9.5 to 11.5 metres tall.
The main gate is in the westernmost part of the monastery’s northern side, while a four-storey tower is located to the west of its northern entrance. The second floor used to house the precious library of manuscripts for centuries, and some of the niches that once held the manuscripts are still visible. The third floor consists of a corridor with six vaulted rooms, probably used to house the monks during times of danger.
Like most Egyptian monasteries, the fourth floor is a chapel, this time dedicated to the Archangel Michael with a barrel-vaulted roof. A nave and a choir separated by a traditional wooden screen are also present. The sanctuary is surmounted by a brick cupola supported by four elements adorned with stalactite motifs dating back to the 15th century.
The monastery also has a cemetery, an ancient refectory, and a tree described as the Tree of St Ephrem and a large wooden door known as the Gate of Prophecies. This gate features symbolic drawings depicting the past and the future of the Christian faith through the eyes of the monks in the 10th century. Restoration work on this gate, Innemée said, had revealed that is was made from expensive wood embellished with ivory imported from Asia and Africa.
The monastery houses a very old church called the Holy Virgin Church, dating either to 645 or 950 CE. The church is constructed in the Basilican style and originally had a wooden roof. It has a corridor and side chapel dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, a group of Roman martyrs who died in 320 CE. It is a rectangular-shaped building with an entrance on the northern side through a square court surmounted by a cupola.
The principal building of the church is clearly divided between the nave, the khurus (choir) and the triple sanctuary. The nave is roofed with a barrel vault and flanked by two small side aisles, which join on the west. There is a masonry balustrade somewhat over one-metre in height that divides the nave into two sections. Almost in the middle of the nave floor there is a laggan, a marble basin used for washing the feet on Maundy Thursday and on the feast of St Peter and St Paul.
The walls of the church are decorated with fine religious paintings.
“Although the library books were sold or stolen, the mural paintings remained like a hidden treasure covered by a layer of grey plaster that was applied after crude renovation at the end of the 18th century,” Innemée noted.
He said that the history of the monastery was rewritten in 1995 when a team of restorers from Leiden University in the Netherlands had started the Deir Al-Surian conservation project and uncovered a very old painting representing the Epiphany beneath a 13th-century mural painting of the Dormition of the Virgin, the Orthodox feast commemorating the passing of the Virgin Mary.
In 1987, Innemée explained, a fire in the western part of the church had taken place, damaging the painting in the western semi-dome. In 1991, a French-Dutch team undertook a rescue campaign and separated the 13th-century painting from an earlier painting hidden underneath. “Although the presence of the painting was not unknown, its state of preservation, style and iconography were a surprise,” Innemée said, adding that the painting represented the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, flanked by four Old Testament prophets.
“No such paintings had been found in Coptic churches until then,” Innemée said, adding that discussion among scholars in the field has captured imaginations far away. Opinions about dating ranged from the 8th to the 12th centuries. “The only way of finding out more about this mural would be to look for more hidden paintings under the plaster elsewhere in the church,” he said.
According to investigations carried out since then, Innemée concludes that almost everywhere in the church mural paintings have been hidden under a layer of 18th-century plaster, sometimes up to three superimposed layers.
Following this early discovery, in following years the team worked under the responsibility of Leiden University and the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC), with the cooperation of free-lance restorers from Poland, Portugal, Greece and Egypt. Important and surprising discoveries were found.
Innemée told Al-Ahram Weekly that four layers of paintings dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries had been found, giving a unique cross-section of the religious painting of the time. “There is not only Coptic painting, but also Syrian,” he added, explaining that the paintings showed a development in style and technique. Some of the subjects depicted do not occur anywhere else and are thus unique in their iconography. Many paintings are done in the so-called encaustic technique, where bee's wax is used to bind the pigments.
“This technique was used in the famous Fayoum Portraits [dating from the Graeco-Roman period and found in the Fayoum], but so far it was not known from mural paintings in the 8th century on such a scale,” Innemée said, adding that in other monasteries the paintings were mostly done in tempera.
Apart from the paintings, countless inscriptions and graffiti have been found on the walls in Coptic, Syriac, Greek and Arabic. “These texts give us valuable information about the paintings, the history of the monastery and its inhabitants,” he said. He said that the paintings on ground floor level of the khurus were all representations of saints, some famous, others less well-known. One scene, on the southern wall, Innemée said, drew attention because of its unusual iconography. It shows a saint seated on a decorated chair performing an eye-operation on a patient standing in front of him. In the background, a second patient awaits treatment next to a medicine chest. “Most probably it is Saint Collouthos, a Coptic saint venerated for healing eye-diseases,” Innemée commented.
In the 10th century, a third layer of paintings was added, partly covering the second one but mainly meant as an addition to the decoration. A particularly interesting painting from this layer, Innemée pointed out, was that of the death of the Virgin Mary, where the Archangel Michael stands behind the bier to receive her soul, while seven virgins are burning incense.
The most recent discovery is of a painting in the northern half-dome also representing the death of the Virgin Mary. This painting was detached and moved to the museum next to the church, and underneath there appeared an 8th-century encaustic painting of the Epiphany, the presentation of Christ to the Magi and the shepherds, which is probably a copy of the painting in the apse of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that was destroyed in the 7th century.
The painting in the Deir Al-Surian Monastery, Innemée said, was probably made after copies of the famous one in Palestine. “Although it has been badly damaged, the unmistakable quality is apparent from the face of the Virgin, which has the appearance of a Byzantine icon,” he said.
Field director and leader of the conservation team Cristobal Calaforra told the Weekly that about 30 per cent of the paintings have now been uncovered and consolidated but that the preservation state of the rest is unknown. The surface of the paintings after their uncovering was very fragile and dirty, he said, and the church has five layers of decoration one on top of the other.
“Some iconographical compositions are not found anywhere else than in this church,” asserted Calaforra, adding that major parts of the paintings were done in the encaustic technique. “So there are not frescoes,” he said, adding that the general belief had previously been that this technique had already been forgotten when the paintings were made between the 7th and 9th centuries.
The newly discovered paintings showed that this was not true, he said, and that “there was a group of skilled painters performing this technique in that period.”
Calaforra said the paintings were very fragile, that their restoration was a time-consuming process and that highly skilled professionals were needed to do the work. He added that the conservation project was interested in the wall paintings inside the church, but that the repair of the roof and the exterior of the building for the time being was more important. “Up to now, the work has concentrated on the khurus and the southern nave of the church,” he said, adding that the goal for this season, starting in May, was to complete the conservation of the painting of the Epiphany on the northern half-dome of the church.
“The mission depends on external sponsorship, and each year fund-raising is needed to collect money for the next campaign. The goals and the range of the work depend on the budget available in each season,” Calaforra said. Innemée told the Weekly that in order to complete the project an amount of at least €600,000 was required.
“We are always trying to raise funds, and so far foundations and private individuals from Egypt and abroad have contributed,” he said. He added that the Ministry of Antiquities inspects the work, but does not pay for it. “If we work for four months per year with five restorers, we will need another five years to complete the project,” Innemée pointed out.