Art Survivals From Ancient Egypt

ART SURVIVALS FROM ANCIENT EGYPT

In Egypt in the first century A.D., pharaonic themes became rare; Coptic art in its beginnings contained practically none. Such themes yielded to Greek iconography, which was already in competition with them under the Ptolemies. Later, subjects of Roman origin were added. In the pre-Coptic period, the artistic style itself included a mixture of pharaonic names and attitudes with figures and forms inspired by Alexandrian art, juxtaposing them rather than combining them to emphasize the subject.

Conversely, Greco-Roman iconography underwent a double transformation from the beginnings of Coptic art, for which it provided the great majority of themes. First, it perpetuated the divine personages of ancient Egypt under the names and semblances of Greek divinities. Second, its style gradually abandoned the classical manner to obey in greater or lesser degree the dictates of native and ancestral tradition. Pharaonic survival should thus be looked for not so much on a superficial and external level as in the depths of the Coptic soul and its surface expression.

Coptic art, even in its beginnings, preserved no pharaonic theme or motif. The only themes that recall ancient times are themselves exceptional. From the Louvre Museum, for example, one can cite only a seventh-century stone relief of Horus as a Roman horseman lancing a crocodile. The Christianized motif of the ankh sign, which became the crux ansata, appears in various media, especially decorated textiles. An eighth-century tapestry in the Louvre may also be included; its Udjat (sacred eye of Ra) in the form of an eye given to a stalk with its husk must have been inspired by motifs that the artist no doubt saw in surviving temples.

A typical pose of Isis seated with her left arm holding her son Horus on her knees may have been the iconographic prototype of the seated Mary holding the infant Jesus. The large number of Isiac sanctuaries, among them one in Rome in the time of Tiberius, suggests this hypothesis, although representations of mother and child are also found in Greek sacred monuments. One cannot go further, even admitting the predilection of the Copts for the theme of the Virgin as evidenced by numerous Madonnas (See VIRGIN ENTHRONED) in painting or in relief, notably from the monastery of Saint Jeremiah at Saqqara (Coptic Museum, Cairo).

We can detect a Roman influence through the classical and pre-Byzantine style of an enthroned Virgin Mary incised in stone from the Fayyum (Berlin Museum). The preference for this subject can thus be attributed not so much to the iconographic prototype of Isis as to a Christian continuation of Isiac myths which could be integrated and transformed into devotion to the Mother of Christ. The survival would then be due more to atavistic Egyptian attachment to the maternal sentiment than to any precise iconographic prototypes, whether native or foreign.

A survival of a symbolic kind that is, nevertheless, widespread in Coptic art finds expression through Greco-Roman themes by seeing the Egyptian gods inherited from pharaonic times in the Greek gods introduced by the Ptolemies or in the Roman gods added to them and preserving their original names. The subjects were gods as important in the late pharaonic era as Osiris and Isis.

The process occurred in two successive stages: the first began under the pharaohs, when, for example, representations of Queen Nefertari at Abu Simbel took on the attributes of the goddesses Isis, Hathor, and Mut; the second followed, for example, in the first centuries A.D. in the terra-cottas representing Aphrodite in the pharaonic hieratic pose with the combined attributes of the same Egyptian goddesses.

The Egyptian attitudes and attributes may have disappeared in the fourth century, but their significance remained. Despite the goddess’s name, it is not so much Aphrodite who is represented in terra-cottas as are the Egyptian goddesses, although in composite form. It is the same with Dionysus as a representative of Osiris. The line thus chosen was to be continued in the Coptic Christian period by the substitution of Christian significance for that of Egyptian gods in the semblance of Greek or Roman deities.

This substitution is analogous to the practice of the Christian artists of the catacombs in Rome, who used themes of pagan origin, such as Cupid and Psyche, the Elysian fields, Orpheus, or the seasons. In place of Isis- Hathor-Mut, the birth of Aphrodite (Aphrodite anadyomene), for example, became the symbol of the soul reborn from the waters of baptism.

One survival, which though subtle is nonetheless clear, appears in style. It is certain that under the influence of various factors— Neoplatonism and the accession of Roman knights and provincial Latins, and even Orientals, to the imperial throne and to the senatorial order and court functions—simplification and abstraction tended to supplant the classical elegance of form from the beginning of our era. This transformation was brought about through a lessening of the sense of perspective.

The proof lies in the decadence of Hellenistic works, when they are seen in the perspective of this decline. The Alexandrian ivories in the throne of Aix-la-Chapelle are flagrant examples, particularly in the faces and in the extremities of the limbs of the figures. When an authentic inspiration governed by new factors rises from the roots, one of two things may happen. Either the style grows stronger while abandoning some primitive traits, as was the case with Byzantine art; or it modifies features hitherto characteristic of the ancient motifs (in this case the Alexandrian) to the point of choosing gradually and finally the exact reverse, as was the case with Coptic art.

It is true that Coptic art like contemporary forms of Mediterranean art, followed the same movement toward abstraction and stiffening of classical forms. But in contrast to other forms, which, apart from Byzantine art, abandoned themselves in a kind of mechanical automatism, Coptic art adopted for the better whatever classical forms it could. If in its beginnings, it preserved something of Hellenistic elegance, it destroyed Hellenistic proportions in order to emphasize important elements of the subject. In short, it developed toward signifying some typical feature, sacrificing an external harmony for an internal and striking one.

A choice example is the Dionysian figure spouting from the vine like juice from the grape in a stone sculpture in the Louvre. The objective was attained in sculpture by sacrificing plasticity; it was attained in painting with an illusion of relief, as well as by insisting on an opposition to or correspondence with neighboring volumes or surfaces. Coptic art even produced chiaroscuro effects by contrasting two flat surfaces in stone reliefs and in looped textiles, as well as by contrasting somber and bright colors in paintings and in tapestries. There is here a unity of concept, the constant element that touches all techniques, including architecture, to the point of making mystery triumph over any conventional or apparent harmony of forms.

If some works allowed even noticeable deformities to break through, that is the inevitable price of any artistic quest and the fate of any art, even a prestigious one. Art is judged by works of quality, and Coptic art is sufficiently provided with these. Even if the processes became different with time and circumstances, these works show the same quest for symbolic effect that animated the artists of pharaonic times.

In addition, the decorative element became a characteristic, one that developed even more in the Muslim period. Abstraction and even mechanization became processes of improvement, and their use redeemed, to a large extent, the damage done to classical harmony. In decoration on stone, cloth, or pottery, the Coptic artist became enchanted with his work, which was marked by an entirely original fantasy. For example, the basket capitals at Bawit are one of the remarkable successes of Coptic art.

This vigorous tendency cut across all contemporary arts. In it one may legitimately see a heritage from the pharaonic style, profoundly marked by a symbolic conception opposed to the naturalistic arts. Curiously and as a kind of confirmation, a fragmentary Annunciation in relief on painted wood (in the Louvre) adopts in its own way one of the major conventions of the art of ancient Egypt. In a flat-surface technique, the seated Virgin appears full-face with her body in profile; this posture stands in an inverse but nonetheless striking relationship to the ancient showing of faces in profile and torsos full-face.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bourguet, P. du. “Die koptische Kunst als mögliche Erbin der pharaonischen Kunst.” Koptische Kunst: Christentum am Nil. Catalogue of the Exhibition at Villa Hügel, Essen, 1963, pp. 122-30.
  •  . L’Art copte (collection L’Art dans le monde); pp. 1-54. Paris, 1968.
  •  . “L’Art Paléochrétien.” Meulenhoff et Lausanne formes et couleurs, p. 209, n.33. Amsterdam, 1970.

PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.

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