An ampulla is a small container about 3-4 inches (9 cm) high of pale yellow or orange clay, produced in the neighborhood of the sanctuary of Saint Menas, near Alexandria. Ampullae, filled with water from a spring near the saint’s tomb, were widespread in Egypt and throughout many regions of the Christian world. Their dating corresponds to the period when the Sanctuary of Saint Menas flourished, from the beginning of the fifth century to the end of the first half of the seventh century. Coptic ampullae appear in two main forms:
- Containers in the shape of the pilgrim’s flat gourd, with a narrow neck edged with two handles, the belly being decorated on both surfaces with round medallions in relief. The illustrations within this form evolved as follows:
– The essential schema was a representation of Saint Menas in military dress, with both hands raised as a sign of prayer; at his feet, he is venerated on each side by a camel. The representation of the model, still classical or very swollen, was placed in a circular border of chevrons, laurel, and smooth taeniae. Other motifs—rosette, boat, basket with bread—as well as the identifying inscription eulogia tou agiou mena (blessing of the Holy Menas) also appeared. From this period there are large-sized ampullae, about 6 inches (15 cm) high, with the figure of Saint Menas praying or a representation of Saint Thecla venerated by dogs, following the same schema.
– About the year 600, the output of ampullae increased and the schema of representations on the medallions was restricted. The same medallion with the worshiping figure of Saint Menas venerated by the camels within a circular milled border ordinarily appeared on both sides of the belly. The representation had become more schematic and linear. Another type of decoration of the ampulla consisted on one side of a medallion with the above schema and on the other of the eulogistic legend encircled by a border of laurel. In the final phase of production of Coptic ampullae, another medallion was elaborated with a schematic head in profile, negroid features, and frizzled hair, within a double border of milling.
- Small molded vases in the shape of a man’s head with frizzled hair on a round base surmounted by a slim neck. The mouth and nose were modeled in clay, the eyes painted, and the whole touched up with color. Their production paralleled that of the gourd-shaped ampullae, as well as statuettes of women and horsemen from the same workshops.
- Kaufmann, K. M. Die Menasstadt I. Leipzig, 1910.
- . Zur Ikonographie der Menas-Ampullen. Cairo, 1910.
- Kiss, Z. Les Ampoules de St. Ménas des fouilles polonaises à Kôm el-Dikka. Warsaw, forthcoming.
- Metzger, C. Les ampoules à leulogie au Musée du Louvre. Paris, 1981.