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Retelling the Family: Blood Ties in Egyptian Monasticism (Ⅳ–Ⅶ Centuries)

Mariachiara Giorda, University of Turin, Torino, Italy, Summer Fellow 2010/11

During these weeks of my Summer Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks, I worked on the last two chapters of my book about Egyptian monasteries and in particular about the "monastic family": within ascetic literature, it is common to read biblical quotations which imply that the path to perfection involves renouncing family ties. But this is only part of the story: at the same time there are holy couples and entire families which are attracted to the ascetic style of life.

Creating an alternative notion of family can transform blood ties and a new monastic identity may take one of a number of possible forms. So, a more attentive consideration of the ascetic families which emerged in Egypt has given me the possibility to understand the plurality of monastic strategies where family is always the focus, but forms of organization are different. The study of these family transformations also helped to define the complex relationship between asceticism as a way of life and monasticism as a form of social organization.

The first step of my research concerned the language of the family. The monastic family is no longer a biological family, but a spiritual family, which has adopted the contemporary Christian family as a model. The terms commonly used to define the roles within a family are referred to the duties of people living in the monastery: the relationships among mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons are re-used in a monastic context to define monastic links.

The use of the language of the family which helps to create a self-awareness of the family is accompanied by frequent recourse to images and metaphors of the family: for example many monastic cells in Egypt were lined with pictures of the Holy Family, the model of the family par excellence. On this premise, a second phase of my research was dedicated to analyzing the use of family imagery in monastic sources, with particular attention to the epigraphic and archaeological sources.

I had the unexpected possibility of working here with a Fellow who is a textiles expert. Therefore, I was able to spend some time researching the question of monastic identity in particular the issue of the monastic garment (habit) which, representing both the inside and outside, was a important symbol of what was individual and collective. Having analyzed iconographic sources, I came to the conclusion that the koukoullion is the most important part of the monastic vestment. For this reason, I have focused on the origins and the development of this part of the garment.

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