August 2011 Archways

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Uncovering Layers of History

Elizabeth Bolman, M.A. ’92, Ph.D. ’97 (GSAS), Exposes the Red Monastery

By Margaret Ernst ’11

When she first visited the Red Monastery in Upper Egypt in the 1990s, art historian Elizabeth Bolman, M.A. ’92, Ph.D. ’97, spied what lay behind layers of soot that covered the interior walls of the Red Monastery, a late antique church in Upper Egypt: stunning, painted designs from floor to ceiling, some dating as far back as the fifth century.

“I was immediately overcome by the building’s magnificence,” says Bolman, a professor at Temple University.

It took more than a decade, but thanks to the work of Bolman and her team of conservators the soot is almost entirely gone. Now Bolman has been awarded a competitive fellowship from The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation that will allow her to publish a book on the Red Monastery, a site scholars are calling the most important historical church surviving in Egypt today and one of the top 10 late antique churches extant anywhere.

The church is located in a remote desert region, closest to the modern city of Sohag, which Bolman says is a “backwater” today. But the sanctuary has all the trappings of a Roman basilica, proving that the monks and their founder, Saint Shenoute of Atripe, were far from cut off from the influence of the Roman cultural world of their time.

However later modifications to the sanctuary show that by the medieval period the monks were looking to increasingly cosmopolitan Cairo and Baghdad for inspiration. That shift is why Bolman says the Red Monastery enriches our knowledge of two distinct historical periods.

“They were two periods with very different characters and centers of power,” she says.

What also makes the site stand out is simply the breadth of painting—80 percent of the original— that survives today. While ornamental designs in more durable material, like mosaic and marble, are found in late antique monuments in other areas, Bolman says that nowhere else has a painted surface survived as well as in the Red Monastery. The condition of the painting in the monastery plus the voluminous writings of Shenoute housed there make the church important for fields well beyond the realm of art history, including architecture, religion, and classical studies.

More than anything, news of the Guggenheim fellowship has made Bolman feel relieved; the fellowship will allow her to devote her full attention to the book project for the upcoming year.

She’s also relieved that a new airport opened last year in Sohag—the Red Monastery used to be accessible only by a tedious eight-hour drive from Cairo.

On her last trip, Bolman noticed a cultural shift of a more modern tenor. The new airport had taken “Hosni Mubarak” out of its title—“that’s historical erasure in action!” she says.

Elizabeth Bolman, M.A. ‘92, Ph.D. '97, visits the eastern apse of the Red Monastery Church sanctuary in Egypt with husband and art historian William Lyster (far right) and directors of conservation Luigi De Cesaris (right) and Alberto Sucato (left). Left and below: figural work in the church, circa 6th century, much of which has been recently cleaned and conserved. Photos courtesy of Bolman and the American Research Center in Egypt.

Mixing Science and Business

GSAS Chemist Chooses Career in Biotech

George Morrow, M.A. ’77, is living proof that science and business can make for a natural fusion. He has studied chemistry and biochemistry, earned an M.B.A., and run the commercial operations for major biotech companies around the world. Recently he was appointed to the Board of Directors of Human Genome Sciences, Inc. (HGS). Morrow comes to the HGS board as the former executive vice president of global commercial operations for Amgen, a large biotech company based in California. After completing his master’s degree in biochemistry at Bryn Mawr, Morrow worked for more than 20 years directing commercial and marketing activities at Merck and GlaxoSmithKline.