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February 20, 2016

Portrait of Shenoute


This is the famous portrait of Saint Shenoute of Atripe, Archimandrite of the White Monastery Confederation, which has recently been revealed. It is a secco[1] painting from which was discovered at the north lobe of the sanctuary, Red Monastery Church, near Sohag, Upper Egypt.[2]

The artist of the portrait which is titled “Abba Senouthiou the Archimandrite”[3] is unknown. It has been dated to circa the seventh-century, while Shenoute died in 466 AD. To what extent does this portrait bear the likeness to Shenoute’s looks and his monastic habit? This is what I will try to explore by returning to what came to be known as The Life of Shenoute by Besa. This is available in the Bohairic Coptic dialect and also in Arabic. The Bohairic version was translated into English by David N. Bell in 1983 under the title The Life of Shenoute by Besa.[4] Besa was the disciple of St. Shenoute and his successor as archimandrite of the confederation; modern research, however, suggest that The Life, although containing a nucleus of Besa’s contribution, was written later by another unidentified person.[5] It is not really a biography but an exposition of miracles and marvels which “God effected through our holy father the prophet Apa Shenoute;”[6] [7] but it contains a wealth of material to garner information about the appearance of St. Shenoute.

In The Life, Shenoute is often called ‘the old man’:[8] he was 118 years old when he died;[9] and he had been abbot for over eighty years.[10] He was skinny because of his ascetic life: “When the holy apa Shenoute received the angelic garment which came to him from heaven, he gave himself up to the anchoretic life with many great labours, many nocturnal vigils, and fasts without numbers. Nor would he eat each day until the sun had set at evening, and then he would not eat his fill; instead, his food was bread and salt. Because of these things, his body was dried up, and his skin was very fine and stuck to his bones.”[11] Again: “There were many times when he did not eat from Saturday to Saturday, and again, for forty days of holy easter, he would not eat bread; his food instead was edible vegetables and moistened grain, and as a result of this, there was hardly any flesh upon him.”[12] His eyes were remarkable in that they were sunken and black, possibly making his gaze penetrating: “Tears to him were sweet as honey, so that his eyes were deeply sunken, like holes in walls, and because of the great flow of tears continually streaming from his eyes like water, they had become very black.”[13] Shenoute portrait reveals a thin but strong old man with black penetrating eyes. There was no question about Shenoute’s extraordinary charisma and power of personality. He was a serious man, as the lines on his brow reveal. He was in the business of saving his soul and the salvation of the souls of his followers, and he “brought both fear and comfort to the souls of men.”[14] Shenoute was called prophet, and most probably the appearance of his deep, black, penetrating eyes enhanced that belief.

The Life tells us that Shenoute’s habit was made of goat skin,[15] which we can see in his portrait. Its colour seems to be yellow-cream. We also learn that he had a pouch in his goat skin, again evident from the portrait: in this case it looks whitish rather than yellow-cream. We are told that when Shenoute was once in Constantinople, he “was walking into the king’s palace when he found a grain of wheat which had been thrown away. He picked it up and put it in the pouch in his goat-skin habit until he returned to his monastery.”[16] Back in the monastery in Atripe, when “it was a summertime there, and as the brothers were grinding grain for bread, he took the grain of wheat he had brought with him on his return from the king’s palace, and threw it under the mill-stone; and the Lord sent so great an abundance from the mill-stone that they were quite unable to gather it all up.”[17] On another occasion, we read of an apparition in which Saint Paul appears to Shenoute, and told him: “Because you love charity and give alms to anyone that asks you and keep all the commandments in all ways because of the love of God, behold! The Lord has sent me to you to comfort you because of what you do for the poor and the destitute.”[18] Paul then presented Shenoute with a loaf of bread and gave it to him; and Shenoute took it and tied it in his scrip. Paul told him to put the loaf in the bread-store from which the brothers distribute the bread. When Shenoute arose from the vision, he found the loaf tied in his scrip; and he took it and secretly put the loaf in the store-room and closed the door. The blessed loaf was reason for miraculous heap of bread pouring forth; and “the multitudes and the brothers were supplied for six months by the abundance of bread which came forth from the door of the bread-store, and to this very day that bread-store is called ‘the Store-Room of the Blessing.”[19]

In the portrait, Shenoute wears a girdle round his waist. The Life talks of Shenoute’s leather girdles and their miraculous quality. Once the duke of Egypt passed by the monastery to receive Shenoute’s blessing before going to war with most probably the Blemmyes, and asked him: “My father, do you want me to go south and wage war on the barbarians?” Shenoute replied: “Indeed I do!” upon which, the duke said: “Let your mercy come upon me, my holy father, and give me one of your leather girdles to be a blessing for me.” Shenoute gave it to him. At war, the duke was nearly defeated, but remembering Shenoute’s girdle, he tied it round him, and won the war. We are told that the duke then “looked up into the sky and saw our father apa Shenoute in the middle of a shining cloud with a flaming sword in his hands, killing the barbarians. And the duke, too, went up into the cloud by the side of our father apa Shenoute and in this way he smote the barbarians with great ruin.”[20] On another occasion, we are told that the governor, apparently different from the above duke, went south to fight the barbarians, and on his march he visited Shenoute to take his blessing, and he asked him to give him his girdle as a blessing. He tied it round him when he was fighting the barbarian; and, “[in] this way he … smote them by means of the prayers of our holy father apa Shenoute, the man of God.”[21]

The portrait shows Shenoute holding with his left hand a thin, long and slightly bent stick. This may be the famous palm branch which Shenoute seems to have always carried with him.[22] Palm branch is a symbol of victory in the spiritual war against the flesh in Christianity. A long rachis of a palm branch from which the leaflets are removed will appear as a stick. Shenoute’s palm branch appears in the story of the grain of wheat which he picked from the royal palace in Constantinople, and was responsible for bringing about great abundance from the mill-stone when he had thrown it under the mill-stone. The monks were not able to deal gather the produce, and exhausted, they complained to Shenoute, whereupon Shenoute “went up to the mill-stone, laid his palm-branch upon it, and said: ‘Mill-stone, I say to you, cease!’ and it ceased immediately.”[23] On another occasion, when a well being dug collapsed on the labourers, Shenoute arose and took his palm branch, and went down to the well: “[H]e reached out with his palm-branch and drove it into the wall of the well. It immediately took root and sent up palm-branches and palm-leaves, and the men who were working ate its fruit. From that day to this, the well has never moved again.”[24] In other places, the palm branch was used by Shenoute as a medium to bring a blessing or a curse: once he blesses the gourd of a poor man by touching it with his palm branch so that it produces more fruit;[25] and another time he curses an island in the Nile called Paneheou that was planted with vineyards owned by pagans “who each year forced on the farmers the rotten wine of the island, extorting from them by violence what was not theirs.” On hearing the complaints by the farmers of the this oppression, Shenoute went over to the island during the night, and “struck the soil of the island a blow with the little palm branch he had in his hand and said: ‘O island of Paneheou, I say to you, go into the middle of the river and sink down for ever, so that the poor will cease to suffer because of you.’ Straightaway the island with vineyards and farms crossed over and went into the middle of the river, and before dawn had broken, the waters covered them and ships were sailing over them.”[26]

The portrait shows the schema draping round the shoulders and hangs down in front where it is somehow tied to adjust its length. It seems to have been made of the same goat-skin of which the garment is made, and has the same colour. It clearly does not have a hood and Shenoute’s head is not covered by any sort of headgear – his scalp was free and hair shown. On each side of the schema in the front, there is a sign that most probably symbolised something very significant but it is so far a mystery to me.[27] There is no mention of the schema in The Life.

On the left shoulder of Shenoute hangs a long, plain ‘stole’ that hangs down in the front and presumably down the back too: it is whitish in colour like the pouch. It is very unlikely to be the known ecclesiastical stole that usually hangs down both shoulders. I am not sure as to the nature of it, and suspect it is meant to represent or be a towel that is used in the ceremony of the washing of the feet.[28] Nothing about it is found in The Life to help in understanding its significance.

In The Life there is mention of two clothing items that are understandably not reflected in the portrait. The first is the mantle that Pjol (or Pcol), uncle of Shenoute, put on the boy Shenoute when he first joined monasticism, for, as the angle had said to Pjol, “it is the mantle of Elijah the Tishbite which the Lord Jesus has sent to you to put upon him. Truly, he will be a righteous and illustrious man, and after him, no-one like him will arise in any country.”[29] The second is the stole of Saint Cyril[30] which was around his neck that he took off and placed round the neck of Shenoude, after kissing his head, when, at the Ephesus Council in 431 AD, Nestorius[31] protested at the presence of Shenoute in the council, saying: “What business do you have in this synod? You yourself are certainly not a bishop, nor are you an archimandrite or a superior, but only a monk!”[32] Additionally, The Life tells us that Cyril put in Shenoute’s hand his own staff, and made him an archimandrite.[33]

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This article attempted to show that the portrait of St. Shenoute that has recently been discovered at north lobe of the sanctuary in Red Monastery Church was largely authentic in its representation of the saint as far as could be judged by The Life of Shenoute. The extraordinary Copt had a formidable holy physiognomy; and his monkish garment was simple made of goat-skin, and included a schema, a pouch, a girdle and a towel. He held a stick that could be the famous palm-branch The Life describes. The garment was mainly yellow-cream in colour; his head was not covered. In this sense, St. Shenoute’s garment was completely different from that of the Coptic monks of our age, who are clad in black garment made of wool and their heads covered with a black cap. A quick look at the rest of portraits found at the at the sanctuary in Red Monastery Church, that include the three other famous archimandrites of the White Monastery Federation, Pshoi, Pjol and Besa,[34] confirm that that attire was not unique to Shenoute.

It is an interesting question asking how and when Coptic monastic garment changed to be predominantly black. This must wait for another time.


[1] Painting on dry plaster with pigments mixed in water.

[2] Photograph by Elizabeth Bolman, Director of the Red Monastery Project that is funded by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE)/USAID.

[3] Senouthiou or Sinouthios are Greek forms of the Egyptian form, Shenoute; and Shenoute himself used to use these forms.

[4] The Life of Shenoute by Besa. Introduction, translation, and notes by David N. Bell (Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1983).

[5] See: Nina Lubomierski, The Coptic Life of Shenoute, in Christianity and Monasticism in Upper Egypt, Volume I, Akhmim and Sohag, ed. Gawdat Gabra and Hany N. Takla (Cairo and New York, The American University in Cairo Press, 2008), pp. 91-98.

[6] The Life, p. 41.

[7] See: Stephen Emmel, Shenoute’s Place in the History of Monasticism, in Christianity and Monasticism in Upper Egypt, Volume I, Akhmim and Sohag, ed. Gawdat Gabra and Hany N. Takla (Cairo and New York, The American University in Cairo Press, 2008), pp. 31-46.

[8] See, for instance, The Life, p. 62.

[9] Ibid, p. 89.

[10] Stephen Emmel, Shenoute’s Place in the History of Monasticism.

[11] The Life, p. 45.

[12] Ibid, pp. 45-6.

[13] Ibid, p. 46.

[14] Ibid, p. 45

[15] Ibid, p. 47.

[16] Ibid, p. 47.

[17] Ibid, p. 48.

[18] Ibid, p. 81.

[19] Ibid, p. 82.

[20] Ibid, pp. 73-4.

[21] Ibid, p. 80.

[22] Ibid, pp. 48, 49, 67, 88.

[23] Ibid, p. 48.

[24] Ibid, pp. 48-9.

[25] Ibid, p. 88.

[26] Ibid, pp. 66-7.

[27] For more on this, go here.

[28] John 13: 1-20.

[29] The Life, p. 44.

[30] Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria (412 – 444 AD).

[31] Archbishop of Constantinople (428 – 431 AD).

[32] The Life, p. 78.

[33] Ibid, pp. 78-9.

[34] Read the relevant article, here.

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