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Work St. Menas

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Peinture au saint Ménas

© 2003 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Lyon-Caen Christiane

The figure, identified by his Greek name, "Agios Menas," is depicted "orant" (kneeling in prayer). The mural was painted in distemper on the wall of a cell at the monastery of Kellia. St. Menas-the martyr for whom the basilica of Abu Mina, a major pilgrimage site in the early years of Christianity, was built-is always depicted with two camels, in reference to traditional accounts of the miraculous choice of his place of burial. The animals are missing here, due to deterioration.

St. Menas

Menas is depicted in the hieratic pose of the "orant," a figure in prayer, but his flowing robes alleviate any sense of rigidity in the drawing. The long-sleeved red tunic with narrow cuffs is belted loosely above the thighs, creating heavy, supple pleats. A light-colored cloak, or pallium, protects the saint's left shoulder, while two braids or cloak fasteners hang down to his waist. The lower part of the body is missing. The paint has flaked off the face, but the thick, short curly hair gives him a youthful appearance. A broad, fully-circular halo completes the portrait of the martyr; the two camels that are traditionally linked to his legend (usually depicted prostrate at his feet) have disappeared.

The decor of a monastic cell

The monastic cells at Kellia were modest, constructed from earth and straw, but nevertheless featured colorful murals painted in distemper: a coat of plaster and whitewash, or plaster and powdered lime, was applied and left to dry on the walls. This provided the support for the paint, a mixture of pigments with a glue or gum binder. The most commonly used pigments were ocher (for the yellows to reds), carbon black (for black), malachite (for green), and calcium carbonate (for white). At Kellia, geometric designs and Christian symbols were more common than figurative scenes such as this.

The monastery at Kellia

The monastery at Kellia was created by St. Anthony during his travels through the Scete desert, sometime around AD 330. Located in the western desert, a few kilometers south-east of the famous basilica dedicated to St. Menas, Kellia featured individual cells (from the Greek word "kellia") rather than the more familiar enclosed complex of monastic buildings. These individual hermitages were scattered, yet sufficiently close to provide a sense of community, unlike the misanthropic cave-dwellings of the early anchorites. Each "cell" (there were up to 1,500 in the seventh century) comprised a one-roomed habitation and an oratory. The cells were affiliated to a church, where the Sunday liturgy was celebrated, and a refectory, where the monks gathered after mass before dispersing until the following Sunday. At around the same time, an early form of cenobitic monasticism (from the Greek "koinos bios," or "community life") was becoming established under the rule of St. Pachomius. The first cenobite architecture produced small "houses" gathered within a boundary wall, together with a church, a hostel, and workshops.


M.H.Rutschowscaya ; la peinture copte, Paris, 1992, n 49, p. 74
G.Andreu, M.H.Rutschowscaya, C.Ziegler ; Ancient Egypt at the Louvre, Paris, 1997, n 113, p.222-223

Technical description

  • Peinture au saint Ménas

    VIIe - VIIIe siècle après J.-C.

    ermitage des Kellia

  • peinture à la détrempe

    H. 67 cm; W. 79 cm

  • Fouilles de l'IFAO, 1964 - 1965

    E 26822

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Bawit room

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Additional information about the work

In Greek: "Agios Menas"