The Spiritual Aspects of the mural-paintings in Baramous monastery – Dr. Pola Saverus

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The spiritual aspects of the.

mural paintings in Baramous Monastery ([1]).

The discovery.

In 1986 the monumental Church of St. Mary in this monastery became so collapsed that it needed an uregently restoration. Its plaster and morters were falling down during the liturgyies and ceremonies on the Holy sacraments. Its domes and vaults were about to fall at any moment. Authorties of the monastery had to restore it immediately for the sake of people s safety and to preserve our precious monuments.

During the taking of the layers of the mortars under the supervision of the monksof the monasteries - who were architects and archiologists – noticed some pieces are red coloured.

So they startedto trace these pieces to knoa the reason. A part of morter painting on the upper part of the nave then uncovered. They perceived then that te walls of the church are necessarly decorated aith wall paintings. A matter which they had ever longed to know on comparising with other monasteries.

Instantly, orders were issued to change the technique and the way of removing the layers of plasters by the workers. Monks themselves started to remove them softly and minutely until they uncovered the oldest illustrations that were of Secco type. The layers of mortars were four, about 0. 5 - 0. 75 cm. for each. The oldest paintings were on the first layer from beneath. That is the one which attach directly to the bricks of the walls. Above it a second layer, later than the first, had no paintings. On the third one, there were very faint paintings, red colored only. Ten the fourth layer, that is the latest one, was without paintings and goes back to about 70 years ago. (see: the master thesis of fr. Poula sawires, monastery of Baramous historically, archaeologically and artistically).

Of course the monastery admitted to sacrifice the faded painting that is on the third layer from beneath, in order to uncover the beautiful and oldest ones which on the first and oldest layer of plasters.

Monks could uncover scientifically and safely all - paintings of the main sanctuary. The southern one and the nave. Unfortunately the walls of the northern sanctuary were entirely removed and rebuilt at that time before discovering the paintings.

The illustrations on the southern wall of the southern chancel were too collapsed to be still fixed on the bricks, wing to the intense moisture long ago.

At the same year it happened that Fr. Paul Van Moorsel - the art historian in Leiden University, Holland - visited the monastery. On seeing the state of the wall paintings and the uncovering parts, he gratefully offered a hand to help in restoration. Soon, he contact the French institute for oriental archaeology in Cairo (IFAO) which delegated Mr. Micheal wuttmann, the French restorer who repaired the parts of the southern wall of the southern chancel and re - fixed it minutely at 1987.

The discovered secco paintings of Baramous monastery have drawn the attention very match. Therefore the French institute requested the permission of the Egyptian antiquities organization (E. A. O) to restore them.

On having the permission, a French - Netherlands mission started to work on these paintings a month per year during 1988 - 1990. They uncovered then the illustration of Archangel Michael on the western face if the middle pillar at the southern row of the nave. Unfortunately the northern row of the pillars of the nave had nothing but only a small piece of an illustration of Pentecost at the eastern part of the northern wall of the nave, and very small fragments for a forehead and a foot elsewhere on the same wall.

In 1990 Mr. Michael checked a small piece in the upper part of the painting inside the apse of the main chancel. He found traces of an oldest painting under the recent discovered one. But he claimed it is the same scene like the outer one, so he changed his mind to take off the outer scene carefully and fix it in a special frame. ([2]).

Mr. Pierre –Henry Laferriere, the French painter, has perfectly [painted all the uncovered scenes and deposited them at the French institute in Cairo. The well acquainted Mr. Hans Hondelink as an art - historian prepared the preliminary reports.


We have mentioned that the oldest and monumental pictures are situated on the first layer of the plasters from beneath. This means that these wall - paintings are necessarily the earliest.

These illustrations in fact are the most elegance, minuteness and beauty. Although the monastery had witnessed a financial improvement in the 17th. century onwards, yet the illustrations on the third layer from beneath were very poor artistically and stylistically, and too faint.

As for painters, there were in fact stylistically, tow who worked in decorating this church. The first and earlier is the one who painted the nave, the southern sanctuary, the eastern wall of the main sanctuary and the lower layer that under the recent wall painting inside the main apse of the central chancel. The second artist is, however, in my point of view, of a period prior to 16th. Century a. d. as we shall see soon.

In this article I would like to focus the lights mainly upon the spiritual aspects of these wall paintings and whether the anonymous artist of Baramous monastery had a certain theme in the distributing of his sciences, and what is the main outlines and rules that he applied. What and why are the topics that he adopted?.... etc.

The first look at the scenes that he depicted on the walls all over the church proves that he was Coptic painter and meanwhile (1) had a deep knowledge of: the Holy Bible, (2) well - acquainted with the traditions and doctrines of the Coptic Orthodox Church. (3) well - acquainted with the patrological teaching of the Universal Church as well as his deep knowledge of the rules and manners of the Christian Egyptian art, so - called Coptic art.

His drawings, therefore, are so elegant, marvelous admirable and meanwhile coincident, substantly, with the Coptic orthodox doctrines and artistical tastes.

  1. The southern Sanctuary.

The wall - paintings of this chancel situate on the eastern and southern walls. They make in general a "tableau" raises about 167 cm. above the ground of the chancel, and its height is about 358cm.

The illustrations of the southern wall in this sanctuary depict mainly some Saints of monasticism. They are here seven figures. Three of them only are complete and well known the others are destroyed in different places.

The remained complete figures are, from west to east of the wall as follows: Aba Nopher the wanderer, i. e. the hermit of the 4th. Century A. d. Next to him St. Paphnotius – or pepnouda – a hermit of upper Egypt, also one of the 4th. Century A. d. famous men. St. Nopher had laid to rest in the era of the emperor Valens.

The third figure causes much perplexity owing to the Coptic inscription found beside his head entitling him "Barsoma". Someone claimed that this one is St. Barsoma the Syrian, one of the fifth century saints. This view, in fact, is difficult to admit, for this Saint as far as I know, did not come either to Wadi – Al - Natrun (i. e. Scete) , or even to Egypt as a whole. Meanwhile he had no relation with the Egyptian monasticism ([3]). On the other hand, it is hard to consider this figure as St. Barsoma the Egyptian, entitled "the naked" , one of 13th. / 14th. Centuries a. d. Monastically, he was a severe hermit according to his Coptic biography. Artistically, his figure is always depicted as a naked man, covers only his lions, and under his feet a twisted snake laid in calm and peace. A matter that not fulfilled entirely in this depicted shape on this wall. This depiction shows a rather stout figure with a complete dress. So, it is hard also, at the time being, to admit that this figure is the Egyptian St. Barsoma the naked, although there is a shape of an erect snake beside him.

The survived illustrations on the eastern wall of this chancel are almost complete an very marvelous. One feels at the first glance the beautiful symmetry of their distributing. Also, this group of figures depict some of monastic saints. They are from north to south as follows: St. Paula the wanderer, i. e. the first hermit. Next to him, St. Antonius the Great, father of monasticism. Then a figure of Cherub, then St. Macarius the Great, founder of the monasticism in Scete (or Scitus) , i. e. Wadi – al - Natrun nowadays. Followed to him St. John the short ( = Colobos) one of the founders of monastic communities in Scete. In the 4th. Cent. A. d. At last St. Maximous and St. Domitius the two Greek brothers who lived in the first monastic community In the 4th. Cent. A. d. and stigmatized the title of this community with their nationality so yhat it became known as "Baramous" , i. e. , the place "of the Romans" until nowadays. ([4]).

It is well clear that the illustrations of the southern sanctuary represent a "cloud of witness" as cited in Heb. ,12: 1 of the eminent saints of the monastic life. They have been selected from the litany of congregation stated in the Coptic book of Psalmody which the Egyptian monks recite it every midnight.

It is noteworthy to mention that the oral tradition of this monastery has ever called the southern sanctuary of the monumental Church of St. Mary: sanctuary of Maximous & Domitius since many centuries ago before discovering these illustrations.

Unfortunately, all the wall - paintings of the northern sanctuary had been entirely destroyed before discovering these Sacco paintings, as we have already mentioned. Yet I can claim that the illustrations of this sanctuary were depicting another group of monastic Saints and some non - Chalcedonian Patriarchs such as St. Severus the Antiochian.

Stylistically, we notice that all the figures depicted on the walls of the southern sanctuary were of moderate size, nor too thin or too stout but handsome, elegant and nice looking. All of them raise their forearms to the shoulders level in the position of praying (orans pose) which I like to call it "pose of self - sufficiency where the palms of hands are exposed to the spectators thus reveal – artistically - the tact of the holy verse" there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee. "(ps. 73: 25) , i. e. I desire nothing from the mortal world.

Also, one can notice easily the minute proportion between heads and bodies, contrary to what is said by some art historians regarding the Coptic Art , i. e. the Egyptian Christian art, claiming that this art tends to a great abstraction, alteration and remoteness from the actual state even to an exaggerate extent!!.

One can notice also in these depictions the absence of the excessive symbolism so that they seem to be nearer to the actual paintings than to the abstract one.

Baramous artist, as we see, has distributed his characters depicted on the eastern wall of the southern sanctuary in a manner that reflects the evolution of the Egyptian hermitry and monasticism. Thus he figured first at the northern edge St. Paula who was the first known Christian hermit in Egypt, then St. Antonius the great, father of Christian monasticism all over the Christendom... then St. Macarious his disciple and founder of monasticism in Scete.. then, St. John colobos (i. e. the short) - one of the disciples of St. Macarious the Great - founder of one of the monastic communities in Scete… then , St. Maximous & Domitius the patron Saints of Baramous monastery.

I suppose here, that the other destroyed figures may be of St. Pachomius "father of cenobium" , i. e. , life of Community.. and St. Pishoy the founder of another monastic community in Scete.

II – the main Sanctuary.

The illustrations of this sanctuary are depicted by two different painters, as we have mentioned before. The earlier one depicted the figures if the eastern wall on both sides of the eastern Apse. The later one depicted the recent two zoned paintings that inside the Apse itself.

The oldest illustrations from the same period of the previous mentioned ones are depicted here on two registers or zones on the southern part of this eastern wall. We find on the upper register a scene of Melchizedek´s offertory. It is very marvelous and unique for Melchizedek, here, delivers the holy communion to the patriarch Abraham with a very clear spoon out a clear cup also held by his left hand. [See; Pl. 2].

In the lower register we find three heads, no doubt, for some apostles.

On the northern side of the same wall, we find the scene of the sacrifice of Isaac. Just the lower part of it. On the lower register there are three other heads for other apostles.

I suppose that the destroyed area under the lower register on both sides had another six heads: three on each side for the rest of apostles.

In the Apse of this sanctuary, there is two - fold scene in two registers [See pl. 1]. In the upper half of the Apse the figure of the Lord Jesus Christ - glory to Him - sitting on His throne, holding his outer garment with His left Hand, and raises His right one with a gesture of benediction whose type is not clear now. He is flanked by two flying angels.

In the lower half of the Apse, we find St. Mary as Theotokos, sitting and holding the Divine Infant in her lap. She, also flanked by two angels standing at her knees. [Pl. 1b].

Here, as elsewhere, Baramous artist has chosen his subjects carefully according to the spirit and teachings of the Orthodox Egyptian Church, and in accordance with the principles & traits of "Coptic Art" , i. e. the Christian Egyptian art. He first retained – in depicting the main Apse of the main sanctuary – on the figure of the Lord Jesus Christ, mainly and only. Choosing here His pose as "All Powerful God" , i. e. "Pantocrator". This act coincides in fact with the essence of the teaching of our church; meanwhile with the traditions of Coptic art.

In the meantime, when he painted St. Mary on the lower half of the same Apse; he did not do that haphazardly. In fact, he had a deep intention.

This is well verified by the pose he adopted for St. Mary here. He painted her, as we mentioned above, carrying the Divine Infant on her knees, in her lap. This pose is a genuine Coptic one, and reveals the deep knowledge of this artist with the doctrines an teachings of the orthodox Coptic church.

The deep spiritual and theological significance of this depicting could be easily revealed on remembering the melody which the congregation sing in the Coptic liturgy of St. Basil, which says: "Rejoice, O Mary, the attendant and Mother. For the angels worship the Child on thy lap" ([5]).

So, the artist reflected, artistically, the mystery of the Divine Incarnation in the two - fold scene. He says, by colors and figures, that the one Who is All - powerful, sitting on His Heavenly throne, surround by Seraphim & Cherubim, whom the angels an principalities worship an praise Him for ever and ever.. is the same one Who in the lap of st. Mary.

In other words, the artist exposed, artistically the sacrament of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Incarnated Logos of God. A matter which means that the Coptic church was never "monophysite" ([6]) , for she believes that our Lord Jesus Christ is of two natures Divinity & Humanity.

When we remember that a similar wall - panting also two fold scene had been discovered in Bawit, chapel III, in which Christ is depicted in the upper register and the Virgin Mary with the Divine Child in the lower register… that scene which dates back to the 6th. Century A. d. , we perceive immediately how the Coptic art reflected since the beginning the doctrines of the Coptic orthodox church, where we find the same topic t both 6th. Cen. Artist and the latest one. Doubtless both of them were Copts.

Is there a main theme in choosing these subjects that depicted in the two sanctuaries?. Yes, there is. Once the sanctuary is the most holy place in the Coptic church, and it is the sacred place which dedicated for offering the Holy Sacraments, that is the Divine Sacrifice; therefore the scenes which depicted here have been intently and carefully chosen. Here in Baramous monastery the artist has chosen from the Old Testament the episodes that refers to the Sacrifice of Christ. Such as the offertory of Melchizedek and the sacrifice of Isaac. By this manner, he stresses, artistically, on the dogma of the Divine Incarnation and Redemption which is the main axis of both the Old and the New Testaments. Also, as Jesus Christ on His throne as King of kings and Lord of lords is accompanied by His angels, disciples, saints, martyrs and righteous.. etc; the artist here figured Him sitting on His throne accompanied by the angels, then His disciples on both sides of the eastern Apse of the main sanctuary. And if we supposed for a moment that the partition walls between the three sanctuaries have been removed, then he whole illustrations will be but one scene where our Lord Jesus Christ sitting on His Divine Throne accompanied also by patriarchs represented here by Abraham, saints and righteous as if we have become in the fellowship of the heavenly ones.

III - the Nave.

Illustrations of the nave are found mainly on the southern wall of it. We have also one secco for the archangel Michael on one of the pillars, besides some small fragments elsewhere on the northern wall. On the southern part of the eastern wall of this nave, there are two crosses one above the other on two layers of the old plasters.

Spiritual examination reveals that the scenes which refer to the life cycle of our Lord Jesus Christ on the earth have been chosen intent ally here, and not were a haphazard business. The artist wanted to make the illustrations of the nave an open book, easy to be read by all the uneducated men, and meanwhile stir the souls of the educated.

The illustrations on the southern wall of the nave run from eastward to the westward successively as follows: (1) Annunciation [See; Pl. 3] , where St. Mary is sitting in doorway, in right position while the Angel Gabriel approaches from the left. (2) Visitation of St. Mary to Elizabeth. (3) A small lower fragment of Nativity. (4) A part of the baptism of Jesus Christ. (5) A part shows a depiction of some jars, which refers clearly to the first miracle of our Lord Jesus Christ in the wedding of Cana of Galilee. (6) Then the triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.

On the northern wall of the same nave, there is only a remained part of the scene of Pentecost at the further eastern edge of this northern wall. But is not hard to guess the other destroyed scenes, depending on the same symmetry of the artist, as follow, from westward of the northern wall of this nave to eastward: (1) trial of Jesus Christ (or raising of Lazarus) (2) crucifixion (3) Burial of Jesus Christ (i. e. the descending of His Body from the Cross) (4) Glorious Resurrection (5) Ascension (6) Pentecost.

It is noteworthy that the same number of scenes, have been found on a bronze censer dates back to the 13th. Cen. (kept in Coptic Museum) as Dr. Hishmat Messiha has reported.

Also, it is not hard to detect that the other pillars like the one that decorated with Archangel Michael [See; Pl. 5] , were decorated with other angels. For angels has a spiritual meaning at the Coptic artist. They support the believers such as the pillars of the church.

As for the depiction of the cross on the southern part of the eastern wall of the nave, it has a theological significance. The Coptic artist wished here to express, artistically, what we recite always in our psalmody that "through the holy cross, one be glorified … [one] could enter to the life of the Divine community … partakes the Holy Communion … etc." therefore he depicted the Triumphal Cross, i. e. the one which Jesus Christ is not hanging on it, on the right frontal side of the doorway to the first division of the church, as if he says that through this cross, and only through it, one can join the membership of the believers and can partake of the Holy Communion.

Artists of Baramous laid so great stress on this point, so that when the older depiction of the cross was decayed, they repainted it again, later on the third layer of the plasters, nearly with the same dimensions.

In brief, the depicting art in Baramous monastery had entirely agreed with essence of Coptic Traditions either in distributing the scenes between the sanctuaries and the nave; or in style and manner. It preserved depiction of the Apse of the main sanctuary for the Lord Jesus Christ in His Majesty and meanwhile in His Humanity. The life cycle of our Lord on the earth was depicted on the walls of the nave, for this place is the convenient one for teaching the illiterates the main doctrines of Christianity.

Date of paintings.

Depending upon the archeological and architectural information belonging to the monumental church of St. Virgin Mary in Baramous monastery which state briefly that walls of the nave dates back to the period from 7th. to 12th. Cen. A. d. ; and on comparison with other fixed dates mural - paintings, either earlier or later, elsewhere; and in the lights of the view which sees that the Coptic depiction declined from 16th. Onwards as A. Butler stated ([7]).. I have estimated the date of the oldest ones, that is on the first layer of plasters from beneath that attached directly to the bricks of the wall, prior to the first half of the 13th. Cent. A. D. This is on one side.

On the other side, one can feel that these ancient paintings have been probably depicted during a rather peaceful and tolerated era. Such as the age of the Fatimid Caliphate Al - Mo ez li - din –allah.. or even the last days of the Fatimid Caliphate Al - Hakem - bi - amr - allah. A matter which enables us to suppose the date then as the end of the 10th, or at least the 11th. Cen. A. D. So, in my view, the mural paintings of Baramous monastery, which by no means are more elegant and minute than those of Abu - Sefin church at misr - al - kadimah (i. e. old Cairo) which some art historian dates them from 12 / 13th. Cent. Go back to 11th. / 12th. Cent. A. D.

For further details concerning the architectural & archeological aspects, one can see:

  • Fr. Paula Al - Baramousy (later dr. Paula sawires): "Baramous monastery: historically, archeologically and artistically". A master degree thesis, presented to the institute of Coptic studies, Anba rewis, Abassya, Cairo, Egypt. 1991 A. D. (in Arabic with English summery).
  • E. White: monasteries of Wadi - N - Natrun, V. III, N. Y. , 1932 A. D.
  • P. Grossmann: An Excavation in church of Al - adra, Baramous monastery, a report 1979.


[Pl. 1].

[Pl. 1a] the upper half.

The lower part of Pl. 1.

[Pl. - 1b].


[Pl. 2] Melchizedek´s offertory.

[Pl. 3].

[Pl. 4].

Vistation of St. Mary To St. Elizabeth.

[Pl. 5].

Archangel Michael.

The upper part of Pl. 5.

[1] - article published first in arabic,1991.

[2] - that technique, he used it latter in the restoration 0f the mural paintings in Deir al - Surian, Wadi Al - Natrun.

[3] - see his biography in the Coptic Synxarium, 9th. Of Amshir.

[4] - Baramous is a Coptic - Greek word means the place "of the Greek". See in detail, the first chapter in our easy for Magister.

[5] - See, Coptic liturgy of St. Basil. Tr. By dr. Fayek Ishak. Lakehead university, Canada.

[6] - this word was a title for Eutichean heresy. So th chalcedonians were using it on speaking about non - Chalcedonians churches to stigmatize them as heretics'. The proper doctrinal word now for the non - chalcedonian churches is "miaphysis". On this term, see a book of Fr. Tadros Yacoub, "monophysite & miaphysite". In Eng.

[7] - see, ancient Coptic churches, v. II, p. 91.