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The Monks at the Theater

Agnieszka Szymańska Discusses the Unlikely Design of the Red Monastery

Agnieszka Szymańska, a PhD candidate in art history at Temple University, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research report, “Divine Spectacle: The Early Byzantine Triconch at the Red Monastery in Egypt,” focused on the titular monastery and its extensive and well-preserved wall paintings. While many early Byzantine religious authorities condemned theatrical performances, as Szymańska argued, the Red Monastery actually emulates the decorative facades of open-air theaters. Attempting to determine why a monastic environment would contain such theatrical structural elements, her talk analyzed the church sanctuary as a vivid backdrop for a spiritual performance known, in literary sources, as divine contemplation.

Brief Q&A with Agnieszka Szymańska

How did you get into studying this particular subject matter? How did you narrow your focus both to the Red Monastery as a site, and then to theatricality as an approach?

Well, I was studying Byzantine art history when I went to Egypt and started doing fieldwork. Egypt didn’t feature prominently in my studies, so I actually wasn’t thinking of it in terms of Byzantium before I went there. My first visit involved archaeological fieldwork, which I had no prior experience with, and that’s when I realized there are actually so many archaeological records for the early Byzantine period that have survived in good condition in Egypt. So it hit me at that moment, there in the desert, that I’d been partially blind to this art-historical paradise!

In Egypt, I was working a lot with ceramics and painted plaster fragments, and the process of reconstructing images with these fragments—handling them, being surrounded by trays filled with hundreds of fragments—really drew my attention to the materiality of wall paintings. And of course, it then made me look at wall paintings in situ from a completely different perspective. I began to look for details that I hadn’t even thought of looking for before.

Eventually I went to the Red Monastery for a visit. I’d heard about this monument before I went, but nothing can prepare you for an in-person visit. So I got there, I saw this building that looks like an ancient Egyptian temple on the outside, and then I entered the sanctuary and—it just blew my mind, the richness of color. And it’s hard to see at first what’s underneath the paint, because it really is astounding. You think, as an art historian, “This is a fifth-century monument, the paintings are sixth century, and they’re virtually intact,” and you just can’t get past that realization for many visits. After a while I became interested in the architectural sculpture underneath the paint, and I began to pay attention to the three-dimensionality of the space. One day I was reading a fourth-century monastic text and I started to ask myself why the monks would have wanted that space to look this particular way. And, for me, the idea of theater—of theatricality and performance—was the way to resolve that question.

 

Another fellow here, Hendrik Dey, recently gave a research report that mentioned the influence of theatrical structures on the Via Triumphalis in Rome. I’m wondering if this theatrical approach is new in the field?

I think so. Especially for the early Byzantine period, when you don’t have a lot of surviving architectural interiors in which you can immerse yourself and see the intended visual impact of the space and experience it. It’s hard to think about theatricality when you interact with a museum object, or with a painting that’s been removed from its site. But when you find yourself actually inside this unique specimen, this site that looks like a theater covered with paintings that represent theatrical elements, it makes you reevaluate your approach.

For the early Byzantine period, people weren’t looking for this for the simple reason that there was no place to look, not enough had survived. But, generally speaking, I think it’s an exciting line of inquiry that’s garnered more attention in recent years because the larger question is how images functioned within visual culture. In the past, a lot of the academic emphasis has been on visuality, that is, the historical construction of sight. That was focused on the way we see, and the way we’re conditioned to see. But that’s only part of the story. The idea of theatricality and performance includes and encompasses visuality, but it’s also about the body moving in and through the space, about the rituals being performed there, and about the sounds, which we can’t hear now, that were part of the experience. So I think it’s a more comprehensive reconstruction that reintegrates the images with the experiences they intended to create.

 

Dumbarton Oaks recently held a colloquium on Byzantine monumental painting that touched on many of the same issues as your talk. Did you have any thoughts on the colloquium?

It was very interesting. The first two talks I think were very relevant to my work. I recall that Robert Ousterhout talked about how, with a lot of Byzantine monumental painting, the artists worked separately from the architects. And not only that, but he could also find painters painting over the architecturally sculpted details inside these churches; in fact, they sometimes concealed carved surfaces by smoothing them over with paintings. But with my work, in the Red Monastery triconch, painters actually enhanced the architectural sculpture by outlining it with red bands. And this richly painted sculpture is so vivid that it sometimes overwhelms other aspects of the design. For example, with any of the niches inside the Red Monastery, there’s a figure, a portrait, painted in the back of them, that disappears, partly because they’re surrounded by an explosion of colors and shapes and partly because, from the back of the niche to the colonnade in front of it, there’s a significant distance.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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