miércoles, 14 de agosto de 2013

Deir al-Surian, a treasure chest in the desert

El Uadi Natrum, una depresión geológical situada al Oeste del delta del Nilo fue uno de los lugares más importantes del monacato copto. En el siglo IV los eremitas se dirigían a esa zona en busca de soledad , pero pronto comen<ó el desarrollo de los monasterios, convirtiendo la zona en centro de la cultura eclesiástica. Uno de ellos, Deir al-Surian (el monasterio sirio) ocupa un lugar especial entre ellos.
Reproducimos aquí un  artículo de KArel Innemee en el que nos describe los trabajos de restauración  que se están llevando a cabo
Restorers at work during the separation of the paintings of the Epiphany and the Dormition. Image: University of Leiden

The beginnings

The monastery was founded under another name: Monastery of the Holy Virgin of Anba Bishoi. This happened in the beginning of the 6th century when a group of monks from the nearby monastery of Anba Bishoi left because of a theological dispute and started their own monastic settlement. At that time we should imagine the monastery as a kind of open village, a church surrounded by the cells of the monks.

How did a Coptic monastery become Syrian?

Until recently it was believed that at the beginning of the 8th century the monastery was sold to the Syrian community after a dispute with the monks of Anba Bishoi was resolved. After the Syrian community died out in the 16th century, the Copts took over the monastery again.
Now though, we know that the story went slightly differently. Since 1994 important discoveries have been made in the church that have changed the appearance of its interior and our ideas about the history of the community.

An accident triggered the discovery

In  1987 a small fire in the western part of the church damaged 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 that was hidden underneath. Although the presence of the painting was not unknown, its state of preservation, style and iconography were a surprise. The painting discovered represented the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, flanked by four Old Testament prophets.
In the western semi-dome this Annunciation was painted in the encaustic technique (8th century). Image: University of Leiden
No such paintings had been found in Coptic churches till then and a discussion among scholars in this field has captured imaginations far afield. Was this Coptic art or was it Syrian? When was is made and by who?  Opinions about a dating ranged from 8th till 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.
In 1995 Karel Innemée, a professor of Early Christian art and archaeology at Leiden University and Ewa Parandowska, a Polish restorer, started their investigations and came to the conclusion that almost everywhere in church mural paintings were hidden under a layer of 18th century plaster, sometimes up to three superimposed layers.
In the following years a group of restorers from Poland, Portugal and Egypt, has been working on the gradual uncovering of these layers.
The results were surprising: paintings from four different periods, from the 7th till the 13th centuries, sometimes in three layers on top of each other, give us a cross-section through the development of religious painting in Egypt.
And that is not all: apart from the paintings, countless inscriptions and graffiti were 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.

The history of the monastery re-written

Since the first painting appeared, the interior of the church has not only become more colourful, but we know considerably more about the history of the building and the community that used it. We know now, for instance, that the first Syrians probably arrived in the monastery around 800 AD, a hundred years later than was presumed so far. They did not buy the monastery, but lived here together with Coptic monks, forming a mixed community, based on the common theological ideas of the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches.
At some moment in the early 9th century the region of Wadi al-Natrun was invaded by nomads from the Libyan desert, who ransacked the monasteries and either murdered or drove away their inhabitants. After a few years, monks returned and started rebuilding their monasteries. A Syriac inscription on one of the walls mentions how two brothers, Mattay and Yakoub, took the initiative of rebuilding the monastery, probably adding a defensive wall around it. The text is dated to the year 818/819 AD and it must have been the beginning of a period in which Syrian monks from the region of Mosul and Tikrit (present-day Iraq) not only re-populated the monastery together with the Copts, but also invested considerable sums of money in the monastery and its library.
In the first half of the 10th century the monastery had its most flourishing period under the Syrian abbot Moses of Nisibis. He was responsible for important renovations in the eastern part of the church and probably commissioned important additions to the painted decoration. The famous wooden doors that separate the nave from the transept and the transept from the sanctuary, were also ordered by him. Recent restoration of the sanctuary doors has shown that expensive wood and ivory were imported from Asia and Africa to construct these doors. In the sanctuary decorative stucco work was made by workmen who must have been brought from the region of Samarra in Syria.
Meanwhile the library of the monastery had grown to become the largest collection of Syriac manuscripts in the Near East. In other words, the monastery had become a centre of learning and cultural exchange. Pilgrims and visitors came from far away and left the testimonies of their visits in graffiti on the walls of the church. There must have been less fortunate episodes as well: an inscription on the wall from 1165/66 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 (unfortunately the cause of the crisis is unknown).
A cohabitation of Syrian and Coptic monks lasted probably until the end of the 16th or the beginning of the 17th century, when the Syrian community probably died out. By that time the glory days of Coptic monasticism were over. By the end of the 18th century the monastery enjoyed a renewed interest, but this time with less constructive results: the rich Syriac library of the monastery was discovered by western libraries and collectors. As a result the most valuable manuscripts were bought for often ridiculous prices from the monks who had forgotten their value. Many of them are now in the Vatican Library,  the British Library and the library of St. Petersburg.
The monumental doors leading to the sanctuary were commissioned by Moses of Nisibis and finished in 913/14 AD. They were made of cypress and paduk wood, inlaid with ivory. In 2010 they were restored. Image: University of Leiden

The paintings

The days of glory seemed past, but where 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 a crude renovation at the end of the 18th century. Since 1994 they are gradually being woken up from their slumber.
The church must have been built around 645 and soon afterwards the first, preliminary decoration was applied, consisting of decorative patterns and crosses, painted in simple red ochre paint. Probably before the beginning of the 8th century a more monumental layer of paintings was begun. This second layer was apparently not planned as one consistent decorative programme, but one by one paintings were added over the 8th century. The first painting uncovered entirely was that of the breastfeeding Virgin, an impressive image that must have been painted as one of the first of the second layer, the Virgin being the patroness of the church. It is not a coincidence that the face of Mary reminds of Fayum portraits, especially when seen from nearby. This painting, like most of the other 8th murals in the church, was done in the so-called encaustic technique, using bee’s wax as a medium for the pigment. This was another interesting discovery. It was generally thought that this painting technique was forgotten by the 8th century, but these paintings, done by different masters over a span of several decades, prove the opposite.
St . Collouthos performing an eye operation, encaustic painting on south wall of the khurus (8th century). Image: University of Leiden
The paintings on ground floor level in the khurus (transept) are all representations of saints, some famous, others less well-known. One scene, on the southern wall, draws the attention for its unusual iconography. We see a saint, seated on a decorated chair, performing an eye-operation to 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.
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. These paintings show clear Syrian influence in their iconography, not surprising if we realise that Moses of Nisibis must have commissioned them. A particularly interesting painting from this layer is that of the deathbed 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 that of a painting in the northern half-dome. There used to be a 13th century painting here, also representing then death of the Virgin Mary. This painting was detached and moved to the museum next to the church and underneath appeared an 8th century encaustic painting of the Epiphany, the presentation of Christ to the Magi and the shepherds. Although it was badly damaged, the unmistakable quality is apparent from the face of the Virgin, which has the appearance of a Byzantine icon.
Work is still in progress and during the winter months, when the church is not in use, the conservation team continues uncovering the artistic heritage of this treasure chest in the desert.

 The breastfeeding Virgin, encaustic painting in the khurus (around 700 AD). Image: University of Leiden

 Deathbed of the Virgin Mary, tempera painting on the upper east wall of the khurus (10th century). Image: University of Leiden
Epiphany (presentation of Christ to shepherds and Magi), encaustic painting in the northern semi-dome (8th century) (+ 2 details). Image: University of Leiden

Fuente y más información en http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/06/2013/deir-al-surian-a-treasure-chest-in-the-desert?goback=%2Eamf_2938384_186044198#%21

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