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GREAT GRAPHIC DRAWINGS OF COPTIC CHURCHES AND MONASTERIES IN 1887 BY THE AMERICAN ARTIST, EDWIN HOWLAND BLASHFIELD

December 16, 2013

Edwin Howland BlashfieldEdwin Howland Blashfield (1848 – 1936)

Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848 – 1936) was a famous American artist whose work adores many American churches and buildings, and who was known as the dean of American mural painters. In 1887 he visited Cairo and Upper Egypt and executed many coloured and black and white works of art, including Egyptian scenery, Pharaonic monuments and Coptic churches and monasteries. Seven of his works, all black and white graphic drawings, are kept in the Brooklyn Museum in New York under Collection: Edwin Howland Blashfield. The seven illustrations are:

  • Two from Old Cairo:

–  El Moallaga Church (Hanging Church)
–  Abu-Seifein Church

  • Two from Sohag, both from the White Monastery
  • One from Esna, of the Monastery of the Martyrs (Shuhada) at Esna
  • Two from Aswan, both from the Monastery of Saint Simeon

All drawings are graphite on paper mounted to grey paperboard. The artist’s annotations makes one think that he was using these drawings as sketches for later colour paintings.

The seven pieces of art by Blashfield may not be the only drawings of Coptic churches and monasteries he executed. It is unlikely that he missed other Coptic sites, and one hopes that with more search other drawings will be revealed.

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ppEl Moallanga [Moallaga, Hanging] Church in Old Cairo by Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1887[1]

This drawing by Edwin Howland Blashfield, which is undated but cannot be other than in 1887 when the artist visited Egypt. It is also unsigned but there is no doubt that it was executed by our artist.

The artist inscribes at lower left read: “El Moallaka /6th cent. /nave / 9th [illegible]”; in centre, “Saints (on gold)”; at right edge, partially cut off, “nav[?]  a[r?]”

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abu sefeinAbu Seifein Church in Old Cairo by Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1887[2]

This drawing is signed and dated. The inscriptions in the lower left read: “Abu Sephain / Sanctuary”.  Blashfield notes on the architectural elements, from top to bottom: “perfectly dark arch/paintings gold/angels in spandrels”; “white / [illegible]”; “[illegible]”; “tiles blue”; “apostles/blue/red [or gold?]”; “red fond[?] /+ blue + red /apostles”; and “white marble”.

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oooChurch at the White Convent, Near Sohag by Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1887[3]

Again, this drawing is signed and dated. At the bottom, the artist inscribes: “NORTH TRANSSEPT. [sic] WHITE CONVENT near Soohag / masonry covered with stucco + with defaced frescoes / Images of carved stone with granite columns. / built into the masonry. The capitals bases + portions / of the shafts emerging. Baptismal font at side of / transsept [sic] & small door at right in collateral[?] leading / to cachette where the Coptic service books are kept. / Pavement tesselated. Semi-dome frescoes have disappeared.”

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ooooSohag, White Convent by Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1887[4]

Signed and dated, the artist inscribes along bottom: “Door on north side of the White Convent at Soohag”

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oEarly Christian (Coptic) Monastery at Esna[5] by Edwin Howland Blashfield 1887[6]

This drawing is signed and dated. The exact date is known to be March 1, 1887. The inscriptions in the lower right by the artist read: “Chapels in a Coptic Dayr / out of Esneh — dating from early / Christian Centuries / Mch 1 1887”. At the top centre, the artist inscribes, “light”; on capital of pilaster at left edge, “[out?]”; on low wall between columns, “warm yellow”; and on two spots on the floor, “sun”.

The monastery which is drawn by Blashfield is the one known as the Cpnvent of Saint Ammonius and the 3,600 Martyrs of Esna or in Arabic, Dair Manaws wa-l-Shuhada. For short, it is known as Dair al-Shuhada (Monastery of the Martyrs). It is located some 5 km southwest of Esna on the edge of the desert. Saint Ammonius, who built the monastery, was the bishop of Esna during the Great Persecution under Diocletian and Maximian, and he was martyred by the notorious Roman governor, Arianus, together with all the Christians of the city during the persecution.  The monastery, which currently is a convent occupied by Coptic nuns, has two churches, one new (built in 1931) and an old one, Church of the Holy Martyrs, which has, as Otto F.A. Meinardus says, “numerous well-preserved wall paintings [that] adorn the Sanctuary of the Holy Martyes.”[7]

It is this Church of the Holy Martyrs which Bashfield drew and the figure on the right hand side is that of Saint Stephen. In my view, this is the loveliest of Bashfield’s drawings.

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oooooMonastery of San Simeon, West Bank at Assuan[8] by Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1887[9]

The drawing is signed and dated to October 16, 1887. Blashfield inscriptions read at the bottom of the sheet: “An [n overwritten by C] Chapel in the lower story of the Derr back of the Cataract / Oct 16. 1887. / walls white colored frieze of saints on three sides”. There are various artist’s color notations on architectural elements, including “red”, “yellow”, “white / purple” (on saint’s robe), “ceiling / of [illegible]”.

The Monastery of Saint Simeon, known in Arabic as Dair Anba Samaan, was built in the 7th century, rebuilt in the 10th century and destroyed by the Muslim rulers in 1173 when Saladin seized control of Egypt.

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ooooooMonastery of San Simeon by Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1887[10]

The drawing, like that of the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, is not signed or dated, but, again, it must have been done in 1887. The artist’s inscriptions read: “mountains”, “green”, and “nile”.


[1] The sheet measures 10 ¾ by 11 15/16 in. (27.3 x 30.3 cm); the mat to which the drawing is monted is 11 15/16 by 18 ½ in. (30.3 x 47 cm).

[2] Sheet: 14 1/16 by 10 ¾ in. (35.7 x 27.3 cm); mat 18 ½ by 11 15/16 in. (47 x 30.3 cm).

[3] Sheet: 10 3/8 by 6 ¼ (26.4 x 15.9 cm).

[4] Sheet: 5 ¾ by 5 5/8 in. (14.6 x 14.3 cm); mat 18 3/16 x 11 15/16 in. (46.2 x 30.3 cm).

[5] Esna or Isna or Esneh was known by the Greeks as Latopolis. It is the largest town between Luxor and aswan.

[6] Sheet: 8 ¼ by 10 3/4 in. (21 x 27.3 cm); mat 12 x 18 9/16 in. (30.5 x 47.1 cm).

[7] Otto F.A. Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (Cairo, 1999); p.244.

[8] Aswan.

[9] Sheet: 9 5/16 by 14 1/16 in. (23.7 x 35.7 cm); mat: 12 x 18 ½ in. (30.5 x 47 cm).

[10] The sheet is irregular and measures 10 ½ by 13 5/8 in. (26.7 x 34.6 cm); mat 12 x 18 9/16 in. (30.5 x 47.1 cm).

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