She approached the wide narthex entrance through the narrow flight from above.Though the dim lighting and close walls surrounding the spiraling rock steps brought on a spell of dizziness and a slight claustrophobic gasp, she did not regret her venture to the Cave Church of Saint John the Short. The desire to celebrate her birthday in this 5th century church, hewn from the rock of caves, had spurred strong resistance from her family.
“We’ll take you, Mother.”
“Auntie, it’s not safe for you to go alone.”
She had laid before them carefully made plans, gently reminding of the importance of an only birthday wish. At last, they had added a few precautions to her program and reluctantly bid her good day as she left them to their tour of the village of Dair Abu Hinnes, a few kilometers from the Christian ruins of Antinoe.
A rough wooden bench in the narthex afforded a needed rest in a solitude of peaceful, although damp, chambers. She had come to quench her love of art history with a long soothing drink of ancient early Christian paintings and Coptic art. Dating to the 6th century, these works cover the walls of the cave church in which hermit monks once worked, prayed and slept alone; where archaeologists believe Saint Colluthus was martyred. She came for another reason, known only to God and herself. In desperate prayer she had diligently sought Him for reassurance lost. Her answer, she believed, would come in this church.
Slowly, rubbing her knees and taking in a deep breath, she rises and moves to the room on the right. Instantly her mood transforms with the impact of paintings depicting magnificent scenes of the life of Christ. Tears well in her eyes as King Herod sits on his throne and assists in the Massacre of the Innocents. Zechariah and Elizabeth look on from the end of the wall and she remembers the rejoicing movement in Elizabeth’s uterus when Mary came near. Her head bows in reverence of the glory of the angel Gabriel; she can almost hear the assurance to Joseph of his betrothal to Mary. Each representation painted directly on wood panel steps off the wall and comes alive, telling of God’s miracles, exclaiming His power and glory.
She proceeds from one panel to the next softly, almost on tip-toe, afraid of disturbing the animation of art woven in colors with adept strokes from each artist's tool. Wall paintings hang in a niche and include Christ and Mary at the wedding of Cana, the rod in His hand stirring water. The sweet taste of warm grapes fill her mouth as the water turns to a glorious shade of amber.
The room to the left takes her to walls embellished with paintings of Lazarus stumbling from the grave as Jesus weeps and Mary and Martha praise His power. She fingers the Coptic inscriptions and marvels at this art which began as a means of telling God’s Word in graphics, evolving from crude styles to the refined and highly developed of later years.
Back in the narthex, she leans against the cold wall and pulls the crocheted sweater tighter around her shoulders to ward off the chill of the cave. Her mind goes back to the days before, plagued with inner fear of uselessness and passions of life withdrawing far earlier than her desire, she had questioned her continued existence through one more birthday.
Fearing no longer, she whispers to God.
Thank you, Father, for leading me here on my special day. In this cave, You have shown me the value of ancient art. These paintings are centuries old, yet their value has never decreased. I do not speak of monetary significance. The value of these antiquities come with their living, breathing messages of Christ. They inspire a new fire within me. They will do the same in others who come after. Lord, I am seventy-eight years old today. Forgive me for fretting my worth in these past months. Let my life in Christ be ever a work of art, a valued ancient painting.
TourEgypt, artc., The Christian Village of Dair Abu Hinnis and the Churches of Saint John the Short; artc. Coptic Christian Paintings
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