All Art Culture

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Monastery of Saint Pishoy

The Monastery of Saint Pishoy in Wadi El Natrun (the Nitrian Desert), Beheira Governorate, Egypt, is the most famous Coptic Orthodox monastery named after Saint Pishoy. It is the easternmost monastery among the four current monasteries of the Nitrian Desert.

Foundation and ancient history

The monastery was founded by Saint Pishoy in the fourth century AD. On 13 December 841 AD (4 Koiak) 557 AM, Pope Joseph I fulfilled the desire of Saint Pishoy and moved his body as well as that of Saint Paul of Tammah to this monastery. Up to that date, the bodies of the two saints were at the monastery of Saint Pishoy at Deir el-Bersha. Today, the two bodies lie in the main church of the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Pishoy in the Nitrian Desert.

Modern history

Today, the Monastery of Saint Pishoy contains the relics of Saint Pishoy, Saint Paul of Tammah, as well as the relics of other saints. Eyewitnesses recount that the body of Saint Pishoy remains in incorruption until the present day. It is also the resting place of The Thrice Blessed Pope Shenouda III.

The monastery has five churches, the main one being named after Saint Pishoy. The other churches are named after the Virgin Mary, Saint Iskhiron, Saint Georges, and Archangel Michael. The monastery is surrounded by a keep, which was built in the fifth century AD to protect the monastery against the attacks of the Berbers. An initial castle was built early in the twentieth century, but was later replaced by a four-storied castle built by Pope Shenouda III. In addition, the monastery contains a well known as the Well of the Martyrs. Coptic tradition says that the Berbers washed their swords in this well after having killed the Forty Nine Elder Martyrs of Scetes, and subsequently threw the bodies of the martyrs in the well before Christians buried the bodies in the nearby Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great. Under the reposed Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, the Monastery of Saint Pishoy began to expand, with new land around the monastery purchased and developed. Cattle breeding, and poultry dairy facilities were also developed. Ancient buildings and churches were also restored, and cells for monks, retreat houses, a residence for the Coptic Pope, annexes for a reception area, an auditorium, conference rooms as well as fences and gates were built.

The current abbot

The current bishop and abbot of the Monastery of Saint Pishoy is His Grace Sarapamon (Serapis Amon).

Other monasteries named after Saint Pishoy

The Monastery of Saint Pishoy at Deir El Barsha at Deir el-Bersha, near Mallawi
The Monastery of Saint Pishoy at Armant, east of Armant

Other monasteries of the Nitrian Desert

The Monastery of Saint Macarius
The Syrian Monastery
The Paromeos Monastery


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Processional Cross

Date: 14th – 15th century

Geography: Ethiopia, Lasta region

Culture: Ethiopia, Lasta region

Medium: Brass

Dimensions: H. 10 1/2 x W. 5 in. (26.7 x 12.7cm)

Classification: Metal-Sculpture

Credit Line: Purchase, Elaine Rosenberg Gift and funds from various donors, 1998

Accession Number: 1998.37

This artwork is currently on display in Gallery 351
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The history of Christianity in Ethiopia is longstanding, dating back to the fourth century a.d. At that time, King Ezana, ruler of Aksum, made it the court religion. In spite of the antiquity of Ethiopian Christian art, however, processional crosses antedating the seventeenth century are rare due to sixteenth-century Islamic incursions that devastated the region.

Crosses such as this were commonly given to important monasteries by Ethiopian monarchs; in return, the clergy would remember the donors in prayers. Like many early Ethiopian crosses, this one was cast in brass using the lost-wax method. Since lost-wax objects must be made individually and are necessarily unique, this casting technique may have encouraged the experimentation that has yielded a spectacular diversity of Ethiopian metal crosses.

This processional cross has short side arms and longer vertical arms, features it shares with related Coptic and Byzantine traditions. Later crosses would equalize the length of the arms and fill in the gaps between them, almost dissolving the cross form into a diamond shape that was punctuated with interlacing patterns. The beginnings of the latter tendency can be seen here, particularly in the negative spaces that replicate the cross form at its three terminal points and the rectangular openings within its arms. Openings like these were both practical and aesthetic; they allowed crosses to be made larger without added weight, and when used in processions made impressive silhouettes against the open sky. At the base of the metal cross, just above its point of attachment to a long staff (no longer extant), are a pair of loops that served an additional purpose. These would have provided a place to affix the colored cloths that trailed from processional crosses while they were in use. A subtle counterpoint to these open spaces, shallow engraved lines thinly trace the stepped shape of the cross and enliven its broad planes with geometric patterns.

Until more recent times, Ethiopian processional crosses favored abstract openwork patterns and images of the Virgin and Child above the depiction of the Crucifixion scene. In part this reflects the view of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which does not see the cross solely in terms of Christ's Passion but also as the "Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden" (Genesis 2:9) and a vehicle of God's blessing to man.

Processional crosses play an active role in Christian religious life in Ethiopia, where churches commonly have one or more. They are prominently featured during services and processions that honor holy days such as the Epiphany or the feast of the Finding of the True Cross. Held aloft by clergy wearing ceremonial attire and accompanied by colorful umbrellas, these crosses imbue sacred occasions with reverential majesty.


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