Resurrecting the Monastery of St. Anthony

Conservation in an ancient Coptic church reveals one of the most complete series of Coptic paintings in Egypt.

Monastery of St Anthony Exterior (2012-05) by Ahmed Yousry MahfouzAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

The Monastery of Saint Anthony, located 334 km southeast of Cairo, has housed a living community of monks continuously for almost 2,000 years. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists visit each year and the complex still buzzes with the activities of monastic life.  

St. Theodore before Conservation (1998) by Robert K. VincentAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

St. Anthony’s monastery has long been recognized as an important monument in Egypt for its historical and religious significance, as well as artistic and architectural qualities. 

Darkened from light

Unfortunately, the church's magnificent wall paintings had been damaged over time and thick layers of soot covered most of the surfaces from the many years when candles and oil lamps were used. The paintings and inscriptions were illegible and in urgent need of conservation.

Father Maximous at the entrance of the monastery (1998-04-01) by Robert K. Vincent Jr.American Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

Interview with Father Maximus el-Anthony

The pivotal figure in initiating the work at St. Anthony’s was one of its residents, Father Maximus el-Anthony. Having received conservation training himself, Father Maximus was well-aware of the potential for restoring the historic parts of the monastery.   

Father Maxiomous and the Moras (1996-03) by William RemsenAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

He was particularly concerned about the deteriorating 13th century Coptic wall paintings and initially contacted Paolo and Laura Mora, who directed the conservation project at the Tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Kings. Upon visiting the site in 1996, the Moras agreed with Father Maximous: The wall paintings needed urgent conservation, and they knew the right men for the job.  

Discussing conservation of Archangel Gabriel (1998-04-01) by Robert K. Vincent Jr.American Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

The Moras introduced Father Maximous to Adriano Luzi and Luigi De Cesaris, who had been the head conservators at the Tomb of Nefertari. They became the lead conservators and the projects was facilitated by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE).

Conservators at Work (1996-12) by Patrick GodeauAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

They worked together closely to determine how best to restore paintings while honoring their place in current monastic life. After all, the monastery and its churches were still part of living religious community of monks and pilgrims.  

Head conservator Adriano Luzi (1998-05) by Patrick GodeauAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

To figure out how to best approach the deteriorated 13th century paintings, the conservators studied the condition of the paintings and supporting architecture and compared it to older photographs.

Face of St. Mark (1997-12-10) by Jaroslaw DobrowolskiAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

They identified previous restoration attempts and performed test cleanings in areas with varying degrees of repair. These test cleanings helped determining which methods to use during restoration.   

Virgin Mary during conservation (1905-06-19) by Michael JonesAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

These initial investigations exposed major threats. In some places, the plaster supporting the paintings was destabilized due to architectural changes that had been made to the church building over the centuries.   

In other areas, insects had built their nests in the plaster. This destabilized the plaster which began falling off the walls, taking the paint layers down too.     

Andriano Luzi at work (1998-12-08) by Robert K. VincentAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

Luzi and De Cesaris, in discussion with Father Maximous, decided that they should minimize the visual distraction of the damage as much as possible in order to present the original paintings as a coherent whole.  

St. George (1997-05) by Robert K. Vincent Jr.American Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

Therefore, they made reversible repairs with paint where the plaster was missing to give viewers the same impression as the original paintings. All the interventions of the conservators were extensively documented and are available for study in the ARCE archives.   

Head conservator Adriano Luzi cleaning a wall painting (1998-05) by Patrick GodeauAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

The structure and materials of the surface dictated the materials required for its conservation. Certain areas of delicate plaster needed to be reconsolidated with an acrylic resin solution before the actual work on the paintings could commence.   

St. Theodore before Conservation, Robert K. Vincent, 1998, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)
St. Theodore after Conservation, Patrick Godeau, 1998-12, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)
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In previous conservation efforts, instead of cleaning the soot, the images were painted over to make them stand out against their dark backdrop. After conservation, the visitors' gaze meets the eye of the colorfully clothed St. Theodore, riding his white steed against the blue sky and green plain.

Virgin Mary during cleaning (1998-04-01) by Robert K. Vincent Jr.American Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

Layers of history

During the conservation, the team discovered layers of overpainting applied over the centuries that revealed alterations to the original designs. Sometimes the scenes were painted over to reinvigorate the colors, other times details like colors or even the position of facial features were changed.  

Archangel Michael during cleaning (1996-12) by Patrick GodeauAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

After cleaning the walls of the dust, soot, and later overpainting, the beauty and intensity of the original paintings was finally revealed.  

Today the incredible paintings look as if they were painted only years, not centuries ago; a testament to the talent of the original artists. 

Red Monastery Wall Paintings (2009-04-16) by Kenneth GarrettAmerican Research Center In Egypt (ARCE)

Interview with Father Maximus el-Anthony

Setting an Example

Father Maximus el-Anthony explains how this project led to further conservation work to preserve Coptic heritage across Egypt.

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Credits: Story

The project in the Monastery of St. Anthony at the Red Sea was sponsored by American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. 

Created by Tessa Litecky and Elisabeth Koch, ARCE 
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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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