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

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Coptic Iconography.


Orthodox Theology.

Of the mural paintings in Baramous Monastery.


Dr. Pola Saverus.

D. of Coptic archaeologicaly & Arts.

The Spiritual Aspects of the mural - paintings.

in Baramous monastery.

The Discovery:

In the eighteen's of 20th century some wall - paintings have been discovered on the walls of the monumental church "al adra" in Baramous monastery (1). They are of secco type. The layers of mortars of this church were at that time four in number, each of them about o. 5 – o. 75 cm. The oldest paintings which under discussion were on the first layer from beneath, that is the one attached directly to the bricks of the walls. The monastery admitted sacrificing the faded paintings that on the third layer in order to uncover these oldest ones. Monks could successfully uncover on scientific method the wall 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 sancatury were too collapsed to be still fixed on the bricks owing to the intense moisture long ago. On hearing of this discovering the IFAO delegated a restorer to repair and fix the collapsed part.


We have just mentioned that the oldest and monumental drawings are situated on the first layer of the four plasters from beneath It means that these paintings are of earlier date.

These illustrations, in fact, are the most elegance, minuteness, and beauty. For although the monastery had witnessed a financial improvement during the seventeenth century, yet the illustrations on the third layer that go back to that time were artistically and stylistically very poor and too faint. As for the painters, there were in fact stylistically two artists who worked who worked in decorating this church: The first and earlier is the one who painted the first layer from beneath of the walls of the nave, the southern sanctuary, the eastern wall of the main chancel and the lower layer that under the recent wall - painting inside the main apse of this sanctuary. The second artist, a later one, is the painter of the two - zoned wall - painting inside the apse of the central sanctuary. However, this second artist , in my view, of a period prior to the sixteenth century AD, 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 there in distributing his scenes, and what are the main outlines and rules that he applied. What and why are the topics that he adopted?.

The first look at the scenes he selected to depict them on the walls all over the church proves in fact that the Coptic artist had a deep knowledge of the Holy Bible, and was well acquainted with the Tradition & Doctrines of the. Patrological teachings of the universal church as well as his deep knowledge of the rules and manners of the Christian Egyptian art; i. e. , the so - called Coptic art His drawing therefore so elegant, marvellous, admirable and meanwhile coincident substantially with the Coptic Orthodox doctrine and artistical tastes.

A - The Southern Sanctuary:

The wall - paintings of this sanctuary Situate on the eastern and southern walls. They make in general a tableau raises about 167 cm. above the ground of the Chancel. Its length is about 358 c. m.

The illustrations of the southern wall 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 complete remained figures are from west to east as follows: Abba Nopher the wanderer, one of the fourth century hermits who laid to rest in the era of the Emperor Valens. Next to him, St. Paphnotious Or Pipnouda - one of the saints in the fourth century AD. The third figure causes much perplexity owing to the Coptic inscription that had been found beside the head that entitles him as "Barsoma." Some claimed that this one is but St. Barsoma the Syrian. One of the fifth century's men. In fact, admitting this view is difficult, for this saint as far as I know had never come to either Wadi al - Natroun (i. e. Scete) or even o as a whole. Meanwhile, he has no relation with the Egyptian monasticisms. (2).

On the other hand, it is also hard to say that this figure represents St. Barsoma the Egyptian, entitled as "the naked" , one of the 13 / 14 Th AD, for he was monastically a sever hermit according to the C optic biography of him and covers only his lions So his figure is always depicted artistically as a naked emaciated man cover but only his lions, and under his feet or beside of them a twisted (or coiled) snake lain in calm and peace. A matter that is not fulfilled entirely in the shape that represents him on this wall. The depiction of this Barsoma here shows him as - a rather stout and complete dressed one. So it is hard to - consider this figure as St Barsorma the Egyptian, although there is a shape of an erect snake beside him. At time being, deciding what this figure represents is difficult.

The survived illustrations of this chancel are almost complete, and very marvellous. One feels at the first glance the beautiful symmetry of their distributing. This group of figures depicts also some 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, and St. Makarious the great the founder of monasticism in Scete ( = Wadi al - Natroun now) followed to him St. John the short (Colobos) one of the founders of the monastic communities in Scete, in the fourth century A. d, at last the two saints Maximous and Domadious the two Greek brothers who lived in this area in the fourth century, and stigmatized the title of this community with their original nationality. So, it became known as Baramous, i. e. the place "of Baramous" until nowadays.

It is well cleared that the illustrations of the southern chancel represent "a cloud of witnesses" 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 book of the psalmody that the monks recite it in every midnight prayer in the Egyptian monasteries. It is noteworthy to mention that the oral tradition of Baramous monastery has ever called the southern chancel of the monumental church of the Virgin St. Mary as the chancel "" of Maximous & Domadious "since long time before the discovering of these illustrations.

Unfortunately, all the wall - paintings of the northern chancel had been entirely destroyed before discovering these secco as we have already mentioned. Yet, I can allege that the illustrations of that chancel were but another group of monastic saints, and patriarchs such as St. Severus the Antiochian.

Stylistically, we notice that all the depicted figures on the walls of the southern chancel 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 "Ornate" (i. e. praying) , which I like to call it "the pose of self - sufficing" whereas the palms of hands are exposed to the spectators. Thus reveal artistically the tacit of the holy verse "there is none upon the earth that I desire beside Thee" (Ps. 73: 25). That is I desire nothing from the mortal world. Also, one can notice easily the minute proportion between heads & bodies in contrary to what is said by some art historian regarding the Coptic art (3) (i. e. The Christian Egyptian one). They claimed that this art tends to a great abstraction and the remoteness from the actual state. Even to an exaggerated extent. We can notice also in this depiction the absence of the excessive symbolism so that they seem nearer to the actual painting than to the abstract one.

Baramous artist as we see has distributed his characters that depicted on the eastern wall of the southern chancel in a way that reflects the evolution of the Egyptian hermitry and monasticism.

Thus he figured first at the northern edge, St. Paula who was the first hermit in Egypt; then St. Antonious the great father of the Christian monasticism all over the Christendom; then St. Makarious his disciple and founder of Sect's monasticism; then St. John the short (colobos) founder of one of the monastic settlements in the same Scete and a disciple of St. Makarious the Great. Then the two saints Maximous & Domadious the patron saints of Baramous monastery.

I suppose here that the other destroyed figures in this chancel may be of St. Pachornious Father of Coenobium (i. e. , the Rule of Community) ; and St. Bishoy the founder of another monastery still exist in Scete.

B - The main Sanctuary:

The illustrations of this chancel are depicted by two different painters, as we have mentioned before. The earlier one has depicted the figures of the eastern wall on both sides of the eastern apse. The later one depicted the recent two - zoned painting that inside the apse itself.

The oldest illustrations are from the same period of the previous mentioned ones. They are depicted here on two registers or zones. On the southern part of this eastern wall, we find in the upper register a scene of the offertory of Melchizedek (see pI. 2). It is very marvellous and unique, for Melchizedek is depicted here delivering the Holy Communion to father Abraham with A very clear spoon (master) out of a cup held it by his left hand, contrary to the other known paintings depicting this scene. In the lower register we find three heads, no doubt, for some of the apostles (see: p1. 3).

On the northern side of the same wall, we find in the upper register the scene of the sacrifice of Isaac, just the lower part of it. In 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 once another six heads, three one each side for the rest of apostles.

In the apse of this chancel there is a two fold scene in two registers (see: pl. A). In the upper half, Jesus Christ setting on His throne holding His outer garment with His left hand and raises His right one with a gesture of the benediction whose types 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 on her knees, flanked also by two standing angels.

Here as elsewhere the Baramous artist, although later he was, has chosen his subjects carefully according to the spirit and teaching of the Orthodox Egyptian Church, and in accordance with the principles and traits of the Coptic art, i. e. the Egyptian Christian art. He first retained in the main apse the depiction of the Lord Jesus Christ only and mainly. He has chosen here the scene of "pantokrator" ( = all powerful God). This act coincides in fact with the essence of the teaching of our church and meanwhile with the traditions of Coptic art.

Meantime, when he painted St. Mary in the lower half of the apse, he did not do that haphazardly. He had in fact a deep intention. This is well verified by the pose of St. Mary that he adopted here. He draws her as we have said above sitting and carrying the Divine Infant on her knees in her lap. This position is a genuine Coptic one and reveals the deep knowledge of this artist with the doctrines and teachings of the Orthodox Coptic Church.

The deep spiritual and theological significance of this depicting could be easily revealed when we remember the melody that the congregation sings it in the Coptic liturgy of St. Basil that says.

"Rejoice O. Mary the attendant and mother, for the angels worship the child on thy lap" (4). So, the artist reflected artistically the mystery of the Divine Incarnation in the two - fold scene. He says artistically that the One who is All - Powerful, the "Pantokrator" who sits on His heavenly throne and surrounded by the Seraphim and Cherubim, Whom the angels an principalities worship and praise Him is the Same One Who is in the lap of St. Mary.

In other words, the artist exposed artistically the· mystery of the Lord Jesus Christ as "the incarnated Logos" of God. (5).

On the mural painting discovered in the monastery of abba (6) Apollo in Bawit (7) ,also twofold scene, we find that Jesus Christ is depicted in the upper part and the Virgin Mary in the lower one. That scene dates back to the sixth century AD when we compare that scene with the one of Baramous, we perceive immediately how the Coptic art reflected since the beginning the doctrines of the Orthodox Church, where we find the same topic at both. the 6. th. and the 11 th. Centuries. No doubt both of them were orthodox Copts.

Now, is there a main theme in choosing these subjects that depicted in the two sanctuaries? Surely, yes. Once the chancel is the most Holy place in the Coptic Church and it is the sacred place that dedicated for offering the Holy Sacrament, i. e. the Divine Sacrifice, therefore the scenes that depicted here are intentionally and carefully chosen.

Here in Baramous monastery, the artist has chosen from the Old Testament some episodes that refer to the sacrifice of Christ such as the offertory of Melchizedek and sacrifice of Isaac. By this manner he stresses artistically on the dogma of the Divine Incarnation and redemption which is the main axes of both the Old and New Testament.

As Jesus Christ on His Divine throne, as king of kings and Lord of lords is accompanied by His angels, disciples, saints righteous and the offertory of Melchizedek and sacrifice of Isaac.

By this manner he stresses artistically on the dogma of the Divine Incarnation and redemption that is the main axes of both the Old and New Testament.

So the artist here figured him sitting on His throne accompanied by 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 of the three chancels have been removed, then the illustrations will be but a one scene where our Lord Jesus Christ will be accompanied here also by His angels, disciples, and patriarchs (represented here by Abraham) martyrs, and saints & righteous as if we have become in the fellowship of the heavenly ones.

C - The Nave:

Illustrations of the nave are found mainly on the southern wall of it. We have also one complete secco for Archangel Michael on one of the pillars, beside some 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.

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

The illustrations on the southern wall, from east to west, are as follows successively: (1) Annunciation, where St. Mary is depicted sitting in a doorway while the angel Gabriel approaches from her left side (see p1. 5) (2) The Visitation of St. Mary to Elizabeth. (see p1. 6). (3) A small fragment of. the lower part of the scene of Nativity. (4) The upper part of Baptism. (5) A pat1 shows depiction of some jars, which refer no doubt to the Wedding of Cana of Galilee. (6) Then the Triumphal Entry into.

On the northern wall of this nave there is only a part of scene of Pentecost, which has been found at the eastern edge of the wall. (pl7).

However, depending on the same symmetry of this artist, I can suggest the other destroyed scenes as follows, from west to east: (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) The glorious Resurrection (5) Ascension (6) Pentecost The total scenes of both sides will be then twelve.

It is noteworthy that the same number of scenes has been found also on a bronze censer (8) goes back to the 13th century AD (9) , and depict the life - cycle of our Lord on the earth.

Also, it is not hard to detect that the other pillars like the one decorated with Archangel Michael (see p1. 8) were decorated someday with other Angels. For angels have a spiritual meaning at the Coptic Church artists. They support the believers such as pillars of the church. AS for the depiction of the cross on the southern side of the eastern wall of the same nave, it has a theological significance. The artist wished to express here what we recite always in our psalmody, i. e. "through the Holy Cross one can glorified... could enter to the life of the divine community. Partake the Holy Communion.. etc.". Therefore, he depicted the triumphal cross that is the one on which the Lord Jesus Christ is not hanged on the right side of the frontal doorway to the division of the church. As if he says that through this cross, and only through it, one can join the membership of "believers" and, hence could partake of the Holy Sacraments.

Artists of Baramous have laid so great stress on this point that when the earlier cross was destroyed they repainted it again later on with the same dimension on the third layer of the plaster.

In brief, the depicting art of Baramous monastery had entirely agreed with the essence of the Coptic Traditions, either in distributing the scenes between the sanctuaries and the nave, or in style and manner. Coptic Artist preserved the apse for depicting the Lord Jesus.

Christ only in His Divine Majesty and meanwhile in His Humanity. In the meantime he depicted the life - cycle of our Lord Jesus Christ on the earth on the walls of the nave tor this place is the convenient one for teaching the main doctrines of Christianity to all the congregation either catechumen or believers, illiterate or educated.

Date of the Paintings:

Depending upon the archaeological and architectural information belonging to the monumental the Virgin in Baramous monastery, which states briefly that the walls of the nave date back to the period 7th - 12th. cent. AD; and on comparison with other fixed dates of some mural - paintings, whether earlier or later, elsewhere; and in the lights of the view which sees that Coptic art had declined from the sixteenth century onwards (10).

I have estimated the date of the oldest ones on the first layer of the plaster that attached directly to the bricks of the wall with a time prior to the first half of the 13th. century AD in general. This is on one side.

On the other side, one can feel that these ancient paintings had been probably depicted during a rather peaceful and tolerated era. Such an era could be the age of the Fatimide Caliphate al - Mo'ez lidin Allah, or even at the last days of the Fatimide Caliphate al - Hakem bi - arm Allah. A matter that enables us to suppose the date then as the end of the tenth century AD.

On a third side, as some estimates the date of the mural - paintings of Abu - Seifin church at "misr al - qadimah" quarter, in with the 12 / 13 th. AD. (11) ; and as the mural - paintings of Baramous monastery, in my view, are by no means more elegant and minute than those of abu - Seifin church. Even more accurate than the set of "Syrian" paintings that were known before the recent discovering of the "Coptic" (12) set beneath them. This set is estimated with the 13th. century.

For all the above mentioned remarks I estimate therefore the date of Baramous paintings with the 11 th. / 12th. century AD maximum, if not from the last of the tenth century Ad.

For all the above mentioned remarks I estimate therefore the date of Baramous paintings with the 11 th / 12th. century AD maximum, if not from the last 10th. A. d.


1 - A Coptic orthodox monastery, locates in Wadi al - Natroun, eastern desert. About 12. 0 km. from.

2 - See his biography in the Coptic Synaxarium, the ninth of Amshir.

3 - See our article "the recent discovered fresco in" Saurian "monastery.

4 - See: Euologian of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

5 - A matter that means that the Coptic Church was never a "Monophisite" in the sense of Euticha 'as some claims. For she believes that our Lord Jesus Christ is of two natures Divinity and Humanity. Still using this word by some writers is a deep misunderstanding for the beliefs of Coptic Church fault must be corrected.

6 - "abba" is the proper word and not "abu" as some write. The first is a Coptic word means "the father". The second is a colloquial Arabic word means "father of' (a child or children).

7 - A district near Dayrout in the.

8 - Kept in the Coptic museum in..

9 - As dr. Hishmat Messiha reported. See his article "A bronze censer in the , Angels A. E no. 5144" in A. S. E. , tom LVl, 1959, p. 32 &33. 410 -.

10 - See: A. Butler, "the ancient" , v. 2, p. 91.

11 - Hans Holdenlnik, A general lecture in the , 1991.

12 - See, our article "The Annunciation: a recent fresco of Sourian monastery.


1 - Paula Sawires al - Baramousy: "Baramous monastery: historically, archaeologically and artistically" , MD presented to the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, anba Riwesse, Abassya, Cairo, Egypt, 1991.

2 - Evelyn White, "monasteries of Wadi N - Natroun" , N. Y, 1932, v. 3. 3 - P. Grossmann, An excavation in the ' Adra, Baramous monastery. A report 1979 AD.