Art history professor Betsy Bolman looks at a wall painting with two others

With a worldwide audience watching, Bolman set to reflect on two decades in Egypt—and four projects of historic significance

Elizabeth Bolman’s original end-of-semester plans called for the art historian to be in the midst of research trips: After Cyprus and Ethiopia, she was set to deliver a lecture in Egypt about her work there on landmark projects—the conservation and documentation of four holy Coptic (Egyptian Christian) sites that yielded new knowledge and international appreciation of the small Christian sect’s cultural history and influence.

Instead, Bolman, the Elsie B. Smith Professor in the Liberal Arts and chair of the Department of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University, will give the address today (June 3) from her Cleveland Heights home. An international audience of over 700 has RSVPed to hear her first-hand account of four particularly fruitful joint efforts between the United States and Egypt that have made considerable contributions to the field of art history.

Bolman, while director of the Red Monastery project

“When we started in the late 1990s,” said Bolman, a former project director with the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), “these monuments were only known within Egypt and to a small group of historians. Now, after two decades of work, each of these four sites stands alone—as distinctive, shining examples of a Christian tradition of painting entire walls with holy figures for devotional purposes.”

This tetrad of major projects—three striking Coptic churches and the earliest painted Christian tomb in Egypt—represent an improbable collaboration among international organizations: ARCE, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Together, these conservation and publication efforts are credited with capturing attention—on a global scale, for the first time—on the vitality, essence and nature of Christian Egyptian art in the early Byzantine, Medieval and Early Modern periods.

The four sites have also forced a fundamental rethinking of Egypt’s role in creating eastern Mediterranean visual culture, Bolman said.

“They’ve revealed treasures that had not been seen for centuries and were therefore unknown to scholars of the larger medieval world,” she said. “Now, they are making significant contributions to body of knowledge about medieval art—and adding four jewels of world heritage.”

The Red Monastery

As the founder and director of one of the projects—known as the Red Monastery—Bolman oversaw the meticulous cleaning and conservation of a late-fifth-century church that features early Byzantine paintings of enormous size and significance.

A priest sites outside of a church.
Father Maximous el-Anthony outside of the Red Monastery

Over 20 years, she assembled a team that represented a range of faiths, races and backgrounds to work at the Coptic holy site. Their collective efforts are chronicled in Bolman’s 2016 book The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt, as well as a 2012 short documentary by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During her over two decades with ARCE, Bolman also contributed as an art historian to three projects her lecture will cover—the Old Church at the Monastery of St. Antony, the Cave Church of Paul the Hermit (a project directed by Bolman’s now-husband) and the White Monastery, which features the earliest painted Christian tomb in Egypt.

All four sites are considered priceless and irreplaceable treasures.

Yet, what perhaps only matches the enormity of ARCE’s accomplishment during this stretch is the sheer unlikelihood of Bolman’s involvement in the first place.

In fact, it was as an ARCE pre-doctoral dissertation fellow that she essentially lucked-into her first role, on the St. Anthony project.

The church’s North Apse, after cleaning

“Normally, this role would have gone to a senior person, with some history,” she said, “but no one else had interest in Egyptian Christian material, and I did—and I was around.”

Years later, during a side trip in Egypt, Bolman unexpectedly “stumbled” onto her so-far career-defining project: the Red Monastery and experienced “a total body feeling—my life changed forever in that moment,” she said. “Part of it was dread. There was a sense of the enormity of the undertaking—all the wall paintings were black, covered for centuries with soot.”

Where the past meets the future

While the traditional work of documentation, conservation and study at the four ARCE sites is finished, Bolman is continuing, in a way—managing a 3D-mapping project of the Red Monastery that has created virtual models of the church, including an online tour.

Not only does this technologically advanced effort allow for many more people to experience the remote landmark (the site is an eight-hour train ride south of Cairo, near Souhag), but the data also help preserve the priceless monuments in minute detail—in case future restoration or rebuilding is necessary.

These data are also driving a cross-disciplinary collaboration at Case Western Reserve that includes the Interactive Commons; the goal is to craft unique teaching and learning experiences using augmented reality.

A digital rendering of the Red Monastery Church
A digital rendering of the Red Monastery Church

“Art history and technology are not often thought of together,” Bolman said. “To create new ways to teach and understand not only art history, but each other, and ourselves—this is central to our educational mission and endeavor as researchers.”

“Art is central to history—nearly every society on earth created new objects, buildings, monuments, statues—it’s a foundational part of the expression of power and culture,” said Bolman. “These visual cultures can establish social content, hierarchy, boundaries, identity, religious beliefs, the list is endless. Art is not peripheral, and the study of art should not be a marginalized activity.”

It will be a challenge, Bolman said, to sum up a 25-year succession of four substantial projects in just one lecture; it’s a worthy objective, she said, given the power of the discoveries and experiences she and her teammates have brought to the attention of the wider world.

“At this time of terrible crisis and death and struggle, I feel like having extraordinary moments focused on heritage and history is more meaningful than ever,” said Bolman. “We’re all feeling bereft and confused. Art helps us look at the splendor of creation and counterbalance the horror.”

For more information, contact Daniel Robison at