Sacred Spectating at the Red Monastery in Late Antique Egypt
Sponsored by AIA Central Arizona (Phoenix) Society
Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 6:00pm

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Benedictine University at Mesa
225 E Main St
Mesa, AZ 85281
United States

Early Christian monks wrote about experiencing visions of God through an ascetic practice of sacred spectating. Numerous texts denote this monastic tenet with the Greek word theōria. In this talk, I propose that the implications of sacred spectating reach beyond its literary treatment. The notion of spectating divine truths contributed also to the creation of richly decorated spaces within the monastic built environments that supported the practice of theōria.

The monastic concept of divine contemplation (theōria) has Greco-Roman antecedents. Plato modeled his theory of philosophic apprehension (theōria) on the longstanding tradition of sending sacred delegations (theōriai) to religious centers to attend festivals. The reshaping of Greek pilgrimage in the Roman period involved altering the context of theōriai to theatrical spectacles performed at agonistic festivals. Greco-Roman expressions of theōria solidified the associations between theater and sacred spectating.

The theme of sacred spectating informed the production of what I term the architecture of divine, or theoric, spectacles during a formative period of Christian monasticism. The prime surviving example is the fifth-century church sanctuary at the Red Monastery in Egypt. Its interior elevation emulates the decorative façades of open-air theaters, and is fully painted with ornamental motifs and figural depictions. Unlike Greco-Roman theater buildings, the theatrical backdrop of the Red Monastery sanctuary would have been wholly visible only to a few monks. This space was meant to frame not a public spectacle, but rather the ascetic practice of divine contemplation, within the performance of the liturgy. This was part of a larger project in which the practitioners of the ascetic life cast themselves as the true philosophers, with divine insights. Thus, asceticism, liturgical action, and monumental, intensely decorated elite architecture come together to provide a new setting for theōria.

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