Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Greetings again from Cairo. We are still preparing for the fall term which begins the end of September. Some things happening in the meantime are:

The arrival of a Biblical scholar, Willem de Wit, from the Netherlands to help teach masters' students,
The 9th Annual Congress of Coptic Studies (15-20 of September),

The arrival and settling in of the Peter Johnson family (He is the new regional rep. for the ELCA)

And a chance for me to do some travelling and visiting with colleagues from the seminary. Thus begins my story and brief reflection about art in this place over the centuries.

I have become more fascinated by the art of all cultures in these last few years, and coming to Egypt exposed me to some of the treasures from this place. In a visit to the Egyptian Museum shortly after my arrival I came across a small section devoted to portrait-paintings from the Greco-Roman period. Thus begins my story. The first picture is not from Cairo, but of a fresco now in Naples which comes from the ruins of Pompeii. Few of these still exist due to the ravages of time and tragedy. This one gives us a glance into the life of a simple baker family, their appearance and their dress. Note how the couple faces us and how prominent the eyes are depicted. They seem to be looking at us, or maybe a little beyond us. Fresco painting was popular for walls and ceiling. It involved mixing the pigment of the paint powder with the wet plaster as it was being applied. It remains a method in many parts of the world. I remember being fascinated with the frescos of Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists of the 20th century.

Another method employed from ancient times to depict images was through mosaics, the insertion of many tiny painted tiles onto a ceiling, wall or floor surface. These often retained their color for centuries because they had been baked into the surface. The sheen remains. An example of this is from the entrance to a Coptic Church of St. Mina, on the outskirts of Cairo. Some friends and I were there to witness a Coptic wedding. The mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus seemed to sparkle in the later afternoon sun.
Notice too that their portrait presents them as facing directly toward us, yet we will soon see in a close up of the face of Mary that the gaze is much like the one of the couple in the fresco above. This illustrates how the Christians adopted some of the features from past art.

Another method of portrait painting which was very popular is the Greco-Roman and early Christian period in Egypt evolved from the wooden masks which were put in the coffins of the Egyptian pharoahs and other nobility from ancient times. This method, called "encaustic painting" involved applying the paint with hot wax to a wooden surface. It allowed the details to remain rich and vibrant over the centuries. Many of these masks, uncovered by treasure seekers from the West as early as 1615, became very popular in Europe during the 19th century. Again, the gaze or stare of the woman is a very striking feature of the painting. How she appeared in life was to be remembered as this "mask" was placed on her body in the tomb.
Now compare her with the close up of the mosaic face of the Virgin
from the front of the Church of St. Mina. To me the same emphasis on the eyes (perhaps showing more compassion), and the gaze which seems on the one hand to be directed toward you, the viewer, and yet in some way beyond you. Art historians have suggested that the Christians during these early centuries wanted to portary its saints as real people, living normal lives and relating to us, and yet with a gaze that stretches beyond the chances and changes of this age to a new life and anticipates a world which await those who trust in the Lord.
More information about the school and its activities will follow soon. Hope you are well. Roger Rogahn

1 comment:

David L. said...

Roger! What a fine mini trip to Egypt and the Mediterranean,via the art you shared pictorially.
Appreciated the commentary, also, since it helps beginners to further appreciate what we are viewing.

Exciting days for you as you begin a new year, also.

I need to contact an old friend of mine from my days in Iowa. Dave Abrams is an ELCA pastor who is retired and whose wife Joan was a Presbyterian missionary in Egypt, probably in the 1950's or maybe the 60's. Don't remember anything more about her assignment. Dave was Presby also but came into the Lutheran Church as an adult in the Navy, I believe.

We'll see about finding them.

We are just beginning our call committee call process after being in a state of pastoral dissolution (lost 2 full time and one half time pastors in about a one and a half year process three years ago.) It has been a long healing process that is surely not completed yet, although few might want to say that. I know I still have some growing (and healing?)to do. Such crises are an opportunity for us all to grow in our walk with God.

What commitment the Christian pastors you work with must have. It is a humbling and salutary thought. Peace to you Rog.
Dave LaMaster