THEODORE, THE COPTIC MASTER WHO PAINTED THE WALLS AT SAINT ANTONY’S CHURCH, MONASTERY OF SAINT ANTONY (THE RED SEA, EGYPT)
The recent restoration work at St. Anthony’s Monastery has revealed the extraordinarily beautiful wall paintings at the oldest church in the monastery, the Church of St. Anthony, which is believed to have dated from the times of the St. Antony (ca. 251–356). The great restoration work was undertaken by a joint Coptic/Italian/USA effort, and was carried out between 1995 and 1999. The result of the restoration was astonishing – it revealed master pieces by a Coptic painter from the thirteenth century. I have spoken about the wall paintings and their restoration in previous article, to which the reader can refer.[i]
As Jill Kamil says, “the result of professional cleaning, conservation and restoration is breathtaking. All appear as though painted yesterday”.[ii] But one has to focus less on the restoration itself than on the art work which has been revealed by it. The brilliance and genius of such work has raised the stature of Coptic art to higher levels, and added to our understanding of the thriving Coptic culture in the thirteenth century. The British art historian and critic describes it as “some of the most profoundly moving works of Christian art ever created.” “[The] cycle of frescoes [revealed by the restoration] is like nothing else in the Christian art tradition: stark but simple images of monks, priests and martyrs, with wide and staring eyes; a Madonna and Child painted in a style of such almost abstracted power and force that it resembles nothing so much as a late Picasso (who himself looked back to the art of earlier periods for inspiration, but could never have known this particular image); a depiction of the Vision of Ezekiel that might evoke comparisons with the sharp, dream-like paintings of the Dada and Surreal movements of the early twentieth century.”[iii]
The Coptic master work of art has been celebrated – it is a shame, however, that the Coptic artist who created that work is little known, and rarely mentioned by art critics and historians. This article is written specifically to bring to my readers the name of that brilliant Coptic painter, which my previous articles failed to reveal. The name of the Coptic artist is retained on the walls in an inscription – it was Theodore.[iv] [v] Sadly we don’t know his full name, or his biography. One would hope that the beautiful work at St. Antony’s Monastery would carry his name – “Theodore’s Frescos at the Monastery of St. Antony”. This way his name can be kept in the mind of Copts and lovers of Coptic and Christian art.
The inscription on the wall also reveals that the wall paintings were made by Theodore and his team in the years 1232-1233 AD.[vi] This is towards the end of the long nineteen years of patriarchate vacancy after the death of John VIII (1189 – 1216) and Cyril III (1235 – 1243). The reigning Muslim king at the time was Al-Malik Al-Kamil (1218 – 1238). These are days of trouble and division within the Coptic nation, as they were divided on the election of the next patriarch, but, paradoxically, it was a period also of extraordinary flourishing in Coptic culture in many ways.
A work on such a scale that takes almost two years in a desert monastery could not have been undertaken without sponsorship from Coptic archons (prominent, rich and influential Copts). We are fortunate that the inscription found on the walls retained the identity of the archons that funded the work – we know them as simply “the sons of Ghâlib”;[vii] yet some of the many humble Coptic heroes who left us nothing to remember them except the work they sponsored and a simple name.
– Dioscorus Boles (12 January 2012): THE BRILLIANCE AND GENIUS OF COPTIC ART AS REVEALED BY RECENT DISCOVERIES AND PRESENTED BY THE BRITISH ART HISTORIAN AND CRITIC ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/the-brilliance-and-genius-of-coptic-art-as-revealed-by-recent-discoveries-and-presented-by-the-british-art-historian-and-critic-andrew-graham-dixon/
– Dioscorus Boles (11 January 2012): STILL PICTURES OF THE BEAUTIFUL COPTIC WALL PAINTINGS AT THE MONASTERY OF SAINT ANTONY BY EVA BYRNE: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/still-pictures-of-the-beautiful-coptic-wall-paintings-at-the-monastery-of-saint-anthony-by-eva-byrne/
– Dioscorus Boles (12 January 2012): TWO IMPORTANT BOOKS ON THE BEAUTY OF COPTIC WALL PAINTINGS AT THE MONASTERY OF SAINT ANTONY AND THE MONASTERY OF SAINT PAUL AT THE RED SEA, EGYPT: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/two-important-books-on-the-beauty-of-coptic-wall-paintings-at-the-monastery-of-saint-antony-and-the-monastery-of-saint-paul-at-the-red-sea-egypt/
– Dioscorus Boles (13 Dioscorus Boles) : THE PLAN OF THE CHURCH OF SAINT ANTONY AT THE MONASTERY OF SAINT ANTONY, EGYPT, AND THE WALL PAINTINGS AT ITS DIFFERENT SECTIONS: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/the-plan-of-the-church-of-saint-antony-at-the-monastery-of-saint-antony-at-the-red-sea-egypt-and-the-wall-paintings-at-its-different-sections/
– Dioscorus Boles (22 January 2012): COPTIC ART OF ETERNITY – PAINTING PARADISE: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/coptic-art-of-eternity-painting-paradise/
– Dioscorus Boles (13 January 2012): THE RESTORATION OF SAINT ANTONY’S MONASTERY, EGYPT, UNDER FATHER MAXIMUS AL-ANTONY – A HERITAGE KEY PRODUCTION: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/the-restoration-of-saint-antonys-monastery-egypt-under-father-maximus-al-antony-a-heritage-key-production-2/
[ii] Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs, the Coptic Orthodox Church, by Jill Kamil (Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 2002); p. 264.
[iii] Dioscorus Boles (12 January 2012): THE BRILLIANCE AND GENIUS OF COPTIC ART AS REVEALED BY RECENT DISCOVERIES AND PRESENTED BY THE BRITISH ART HISTORIAN AND CRITIC ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON.
[iv] Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs, the Coptic Orthodox Church; p. 263.
[v] Theodore, after St. Theodore, is a Coptic-Greek name. The Arabised version of it is the current Tadrus and Tawadrus. See: Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, by Otto F. A. Meinardus (Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 1999); p. 269.
[vi] Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs, the Coptic Orthodox Church; p. 263. See also, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts, by Otto F. A. Meinardus (Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 1992); p. 27.
[vii] Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts; p. 27.