BIBLICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART
[The term “biblical subjects” here designates subjects taken from the Old Testament; subjects from the New Testament are grouped with the Christian subjects as a whole (see CHRISTIAN SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART).
Biblical subjects are far from rare in Coptic art, although they are not as frequent as they are, for example, in the Roman catacombs. Coptic art emphasizes Christian subjects, rather selectively chosen, and also certain themes or figures of pagan origin that have been given Christian interpretation (see MYTHOLOGICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART).
Abraham and Isaac
The story of the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his cherished son, Isaac, in obedience to God’s command, occupied an important place in Coptic iconography. Probably the oldest representation is in a wall painting discovered at Tell Idfu in 1923- 1924 (Henne, 1925, pp. 25, 26, 30). The upper part has disappeared, leaving a headless man clothed in a short tunic. With his left hand he is grasping another, smaller person by the hair and prepares to pierce him with a sword. The remaining details correspond to the essentials of the known iconography of the scene, which are suggested by some unidentifiable traces on the right. This possibility, as well as the location of this mural in a quarter consisting of houses attributed to the Christian epoch (Henne, 1925, p. 25, n. 5), verifies the identification of the figure as Abraham. The linear style places this painting in the fourth century.
Abraham and Isaac stand out in relief in a niche under a broken pediment originally from DAYR APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara and now in the Coptic Museum, Cairo. Two sequences of scroll patterns with stylized leaves converge toward a central cross, surrounded by a leafy crown. The two figures are full-face. At the top left, the hand of God holds back the raised right arm of Abraham wielding the knife while Abraham’s left hand grasps Isaac’s head by the hair. Isaac slightly bends his knees. The ram, which God provided as a substitute sacrifice, stands in profile under the divine hand and the patriarch’s upraised arm. A good study of this piece by J. Leibovitch locates it, perhaps a little too precisely, in the middle of the fifth century by reason of the special aspect of the pediment (Leibovitch, 1940). The symmetry of the composition, as well as the lifelike proportions of the figures and the naturalism of the vegetable elements, suggest a date at the beginning of the century.
Leaving aside possible examples that may have been destroyed, the theme reappears much later in two woven sleeve bands of the ninth century. One belongs to the Historic Museum of Textiles in Lyons and is in excellent condition. The other, in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, has loose threads in the center, somewhat to the detriment of Abraham and the ram. Both bands show the complete scene. They come from the same model and have the same composition.
In the Cooper-Hewitt piece, for example, the scene fills a yellow ochre square, which is flanked by two panels decorated with red crossbars bearing a flower or a bird, the spread- out halves of flowers, and borders of overlapping leaves. In both bands Coptic letters are scattered near the heads of Abraham and Isaac, some of them forming part of the men’s names. Both bands exhibit features characteristic of the ninth century—crossbars, spread flower-halves, flying-shuttle lines of unbleached thread, borders of overlapping leaves, and the defective transcription of the names (Du Bourguet, 1964, pp. 26-30, sec. F).
In painting, Abraham and Isaac appear again in the haykal (sanctuary) of the ancient church of DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS near the Red Sea (Piankoff, 1958, pp. 156-59, pl. 1). This mural matches another sanctuary painting, of the meeting of Abraham and MELCHIZEDEK, in the traditional symbolism relating to the Eucharist. The general attitude of Abraham is the same as in the preceding examples, but his head is haloed, and he is clothed in a long decorated tunic with sleeves, caught at the waist by a green girdle. With his right hand he holds the hair of the kneeling Isaac, whose head is turned backward. With his left hand he prepares to pierce him with a long dagger. The style, no doubt influenced by Byzantium, which still maintained some contacts with the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt in the tenth to twelfth century, may place this painting at the end of the twelfth century.
In a wooden panel from the Fatimid period the scene appears in relief. Abraham is represented in profile, with his legs apart. He is clothed in a long robe with pleats; his haloed head is turned backward and upward toward that of a winged angel, who appears in the upper left corner. He turns his back to a tree whose foliage shelters a ram set in profile above the patriarch and his son. The latter is stretched on an altar, and his father is preparing to cut his throat. The reproduction of Abraham’s clothing and the undulations of the foliage are fairly characteristic of the Coptic woodwork of the period (Beckwith, 1963, no. 140, and Rutschowscaya, 1986, nos. 355-58). Variety and fidelity clearly mark this panel which does credit to the originality of Coptic art down to its final period.
- Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture 300-1300. London, 1963.
- Bourguet, P. du. Musée National du Louvre. Catalogue des étoffes coptes. Paris, 1964.
- Henne, H. “Tell Edfou.” Collection des fouilles de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire (1923-24) vol. 2, pt. 3. Cairo, 1925.
- Leibovitch, J. “Un fronton de niche à scène biblique.” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte 6 (1940):169-75.
- Pagan and Christian Egypt. Brooklyn Museum, New York, 23 January to 9 March 1941.
- Piankoff, A. “Peintures au monastère de Saint Antoine.” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte 14 (1950-1957). (Cairo, 1958):151-63.
- Rutschowscaya, M.-H. Catalogue des bois de l’Egypte copte. Paris, 1986.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.
Adam and Eve
The story of Adam and Eve, the protoparents, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden for disobedience to God, seems to have inspired the Copts hardly at all. There is no portrayal extant in either sculpture or the minor arts. Painting alone occasionally reflects this theme. The oldest depictions are found at al-Bagawat, near the Khargah oasis. In the fourth-century Chapel of the Exodus, Adam and Eve appear simply standing; Eve is called “Mother of All the Living.” In the sixth-century Chapel of Peace, both Adam and Eve, hiding their nakedness with their hands, stand next to the Tree of Knowledge, around which winds the serpent-tempter. A tenth- century painting from Umm al-Barakat in the Fayyum now in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, presents two episodes from the biblical tale. In the first, on the right, near a luxuriant tree under which animals take shelter, Adam and Eve, nude and unashamed, are eating the forbidden fruit. In the other, on the left, Adam lifts an accusing arm toward Eve. Both of them, ashamed of their nudity, cover themselves with vine leaves. Finally, in Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit, in Chapel 28, a lone man is called “Our Father Adam” (Clédat, 1904, p. 160 and pl. 106). A similar depiction was also found in an unnumbered chapel (Grabar, 1946).
- Clédat, J. Le monastère et la nécropole de Baouît. Cairo, 1904.
- Grabar, A. Martyrium, Récherches sur le culte des reliques et l’art chrétien antique 2; Iconographie. Paris, 1946.
- Simaykah, M. Guide sommaire du Musée copte et des principales églises du Caïre, pl. 103. Cairo, 1937.
Daniel in the Lion’s Den
According to the book of Daniel, Daniel, a devout Jew at the Babylonian court of Nebuchadnezzar, is cast into a lion’s den for his faith. This theme seems to have been illustrated rarely in Coptic art. The most ancient portrayal, dating from the fourth century, is a painting from the Chapel of the Exodus at al-Bagawat. Here Daniel is pictured standing between two lions and praying; two centuries later the same subject was painted in the Chapel of Peace, also at al- Bagawat. The theme then seems to disappear from painting. (According to H. G. Evelyn-White, the subject was depicted at DAYR ANBA MAQAR in WADI AL-NATRUN, but J. Leroy questions this identification [Leroy, 1982, pp. 45 and 78].) Nonetheless the prophet is evoked in Chapel 19 in Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit, alongside the names of the Three Hebrews in the Furnace, another episode from the book of Daniel (Clédat, 1904).
Daniel is also found in sculpture and in the minor arts. Two reliefs present the story, each from a different aspect. In the one, Daniel, a heroic nude orant (praying figure), is surrounded by two lions threatening him with jaws gaping, fangs sharpened, and claws bared. The scene is framed by pillars carved in light relief and by draperies tied at the height of the hero’s face. The second relief, in the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, adopts a more classical iconography. Here the praying Daniel wears a traditional Middle Eastern costume: anaxyrides (close fitting trousers), boots, a belted tunic, a flowing cloak held by a fibula, and a small conical cap. The lions, completely subdued, are licking the feet of the man they should have devoured. The composition occupies the center of a niche under a pediment decorated with plants and peacocks. By its style and technique this relief is related to works of the fifth and sixth centuries (Rassart-Debergh, 1976, pp. 20-21). A third relief, from the seventh century, in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, links these two earlier representations: Daniel, dressed in a Middle Eastern costume, raises his arms; the lion on the left rears up threateningly while the one on the right places his muzzle on the feet of the hero (Effenberger, 1975, no. 51).
A similar scene is depicted on two pieces in wood dating from the fifth century in the State Museum of Berlin: a comb from AKHMIM (Effenberger, 1975, no. 85), and a beam or girder perhaps from Bawit (Badawy, 1978, no. 3.83, p. 162). On the beam the hero and the lions—seated on their haunches and stretching their heads toward Daniel—are cut away from an architectural background. On an ivory pyx of the sixth century (in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington, D.C.), the lion’s den is suggested by two low brick walls before which the lions are crouching (Badawy, 1978, no. 3.77, p. 158). Daniel, simply dressed, lifts his arms toward heaven while an angel approaches, closing the mouth of the lion on the right with his hand.
David at the Court of Saul
The early history of David, the shepherd boy chosen by the prophet Samuel to be king, the hero who killed the giant Goliath and played the harp for King Saul, is told in First Samuel. The appearance of David in scenes from this period of his life in wall paintings in several chapels at Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit suggests that he was so honored at other sites in Egypt, although no evidence has survived. He was important in Christian iconography as both an ancestor of Christ and a prefiguration of Christ. Moreover, it is possible that the Coptic restriction of his story to his youth was inspired by its analogy at certain points to the story of Joseph at the court of pharaoh. Both youths, for example, served a ruler and were saviors of their people, and both prefigured Christ.
Several of the paintings of David could not be saved. Those that have been photographed or identified from various details present two isolated episodes and a decorative series.
In one isolated episode, in Chapel 34, Saul is shown in profile, seated upon a throne, and David appears as an interpreter of dreams (Clédat, 1916, pl. 13). In another, in Chapel 32, David appears as a cupbearer holding two amphorae under an imitation arcosolium (arched cell in a catacomb) (Clédat, pls. 6 and 9).
The decorative series runs at middle height on the walls of Chapel 3 (Clédat, 1904, pp. 10-20). It is a frieze consisting of 20- inch (50 cm) squares alternating between scenes and decorative areas divided into four linked swastikas. The scenes are episodes from the story of David: the rejection of David’s brothers by Samuel, Samuel’s choice of David, Saul equipping David for battle, David confronting Goliath, David slaying Goliath, David playing the lyre before Saul on his throne, who threatens him with a javelin, David and his friend Jonathan, and David at the house of the priest Ahimelech.
The style of the two sets of subjects is perceptibly different. The paintings of the isolated episodes are more richly decorated and their figures more sumptuously clothed than those in the decorative series. They appear to be earlier than the series, possibly from the sixth century. Several indications, including the beards of those watching David’s fight with Goliath and the sketchy character of the design, suggest a date in the seventh or eighth century.
- Clédat, J. Le monastère et la nécropole de Baouît. Memoires des Mémbres de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale, Vol. 12 (1904) and Vol. 39 (1916).
PIERRE DU BOURGUET
Malevolent spirits, or demons, had great importance in ancient Egypt and in the literature of the Coptic monasteries. Even accounting for the destruction of so much Coptic art, one would think that demons should have left traces in what has survived or been recorded. Such representations, however, are extremely rare.
Apart from the more than doubtful identification of a demon with a child in a mural in Chapel 17 of Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit (Clédat, 1904, vol. 2, fasc. 2, pl. 46 and p. 78), there was in the same chapel (pl. 55) a fresco in which, amid magic symbols, Saint Sisinnios, pictured as a Byzantine horseman, pins to the ground the white-skinned female demon Alabastria. He also puts to flight a kind of winged siren, described as Alabastria’s daughter, and finally a centaur holding a hook. These two figures also recall the race of demons, the siren by her serpent’s tail and the centaur because the demon showed himself to Saint ANTONY THE GREAT in that form as described by Saint Jerome (cf. Jerome, 1898, p. 4). There are, however, representations of malevolent figures with dark skin, who may have some connection with demons, in some portrayals of the story of the patriarch Joseph (see below). Examples are some tenth-century textile decorations—orbicula (circles) perhaps for cushions, and clavi (bands framing the front opening) and sleeve bands for garments—and miniature paintings such as that of the Octateuch of the Seraglio, which portrays Joseph being sold to the Ishmaelites by his jealous brothers (Kitzinger, 1937-1938, pp. 266- 68).
Possibly the rarity of demons in Coptic art was due to superstitious fear of their images, which could have been carried over from pharaonic to Christian times. The images just cited would have been accepted only because they exalted good over evil, that is, the power of Saint Sisinnios over demons and the victory of Joseph over the instruments of his brothers.
The dark color of the malevolent figures in the textiles and miniatures may be related to the fact that the black color given to demons in other parts of the Christian world was probably of Coptic origin. It must have been characteristic of politico-religious precursors in the pharaonic period transformed into Christian demons. Indeed, there is every reason to think that Coptic monastic stories were the vehicle for this iconographic detail, in the West as well as in the East. In such stories the demon is persistently presented as “the little black Ethiopian” or more simply either as “the little Ethiopian” or “the black one.” No other description in early Christian literature or iconography specifies the color of the demon’s skin.
The expressions “the black one” and “the Ethiopian” (and its synonym “the Nubian”) go back to descriptions of the wicked god Seth, associated with the desert and sterility, in various Egyptian writings of the Ptolemaic period. A curse was laid upon Seth by Psamtik I in 660 B.C. to destroy even into the holy places any impulse of the black people of Nubia, who had killed his father, to ascend again the throne of pharoah. This curse was applied to the descendants of the Nubian kings of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. The expressions were passed on through stories of the customs, monastic rules, and lives of the Coptic monks, including tales of frequent pillaging of their monasteries by the nomadic Blemmyes (see BEJA TRIBES), who came north from Nubia by way of the desert. Thus the black color associated with people so damaging to monastic life in Egypt could not but pass into the general iconography of the demons who opposed monastic asceticism in the wider Christian world.
- Clédat, J. Le monastère et la nécropole de Baouît. Memoires des Mémbres de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale, Vol. 12 (1904).
- Du Bourguet, P. “L’origine pharaonique d’un détail dans l’iconographie chrétienne: La Peau noire du démon.” In Proceedings of the XXVIIth International Congress of Orientalists, Ann Arbor, Mich. 13-19 August 1967, ed. Denis Sinor et al. Wiesbaden, 1971.
- Jerome (Eusebius Hieronymus). “Vie de Saint Paul de Thebès.” Annales du Musèe Guimet 25 (1898):4.
- Kitzinger, E. “The Story of Joseph on a Coptic Tapestry.” London University Journal of the Warburg Institute 1 (1937-1938):266- 68.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.
According to the book of Jonah, the prophet Jonah tries to escape God’s command to preach repentance in Nineveh by going to sea, but he is thrown overboard in a storm as a bearer of bad luck and swallowed by a great fish. After three days he is coughed up and eventually carries out his mission.
Apparently Coptic iconography uses nothing of the Jonah story except that he was regurgitated by a sea creature.
The theme appears in two works in the Louvre Museum, Paris— a decorative high-relief from the southern church of Dayr Apa Apollo of the fifth or sixth century and the lateral panel of a hanging made of an uncut bouclé fabric dating from the ninth century. In this panel Jonah rises vertically, in an attitude of prayer, from the mouth of the sea creature in the shelter of a castor oil plant. The fish mentioned in the Bible here takes the form of the ketos, a sea creature given two forepaws and sometimes two ears, which the Greeks used, from the fifth century B.C., to picture “cetaceans” and especially whales.
These two features—regurgitation by the sea creature and the presence of the castor oil plant (which evokes Yahweh’s pity for the inhabitants of Nineveh)—were interpreted by Christians as symbols of the Resurrection of Christ.
- Badawy, A. Coptic Art and Archaeology: The Art of the Christian Egyptian from the late Antique to the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1978.
- Bourguet, P. du “Deux pièces coptes de la fin de la période ommeyyade.” Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France 19, 2 (1969):101-2.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.
The story of Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers but rose to favor with the Egyptian pharaoh and fed his hungry people, is told in Genesis 37. It is the only biblical theme that is widely depicted in Coptic art—on about fifty tapestry ornaments on Coptic textiles (Vikan, 1979, pp. 105f. note 4; Liberec-Kybalova, 1967, no. 83; Weitzman, 1979, no. 412; and Nauerth, 1978). Thus almost all the larger museum collections of Coptic textiles (see TEXTILES, ICONOGRAPHY OF COPTIC) possess one or more pieces reproducing pictures from the story of Joseph. The theme appears on the different forms of the trimming of tunics of late antiquity: clavi, sleeve bands, and above all orbicula. On these orbicula, large or small, the complete sequence of the scenes is most frequently and best documented. The cycle of nine pictures depicts the following: (1) pharaoh’s dreams, which as a rule were presented in a central medallion, while the eight other episodes run around this medallion either clockwise or counter clockwise; (2) above the center, the picture of Jacob, who sits on a splendid bed and sends Joseph to his brothers; (3) Joseph meeting them in the field at Sichem (Vikan, 1979, p. 106, n. 9); (4) Joseph cast into a well (Vikan, 1979, p. 106, n. 10, notes an example in which Joseph is drawn out of the well); (5) Joseph’s brothers dipping his coat in the blood of a slaughtered goat, although the thought that the brothers wish to murder Joseph, who is small and has a nimbus, probably plays some part in the picture (on the problem of this scene, see Nauerth, 1978, pp. 154f., and Vikan, 1979, p. 107, n. 43); (6) the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites; (7) his brother Reuben’s grief at the empty well; (8) Joseph’s journey to Egypt; and finally (9) the sale of Joseph to the Egyptian Potiphar. The scenes of an orbiculum could face to the right or to the left, a convention explained by the ancient custom of adorning tunics with two orbicula, showing the same or an opposing pattern, set opposite each other on the garment at the shoulders or at knee level.
The very close sequence of the pictures on the orbicula and the occasional contraction of scenes (e.g., scenes 1, 2, 3, 5) indicate that the origin of these illustrations is to be sought not in textile art but in book illustration. On the basis of an exact analysis of the individual scenes, G. Vikan has shown that the Coptic fabrics drew on the Sir Robert Cotton manuscript, whereas the Joseph scenes on the Lens silk textile did not (Weitzmann, 1979, no. 413). This relationship at the same time provides a proof that the Cotton manuscript is of Egyptian origin. The fact that the illustrations in the Coptic manuscript are limited to Genesis 37 is still a problem, which is probably connected with the assessment of the figure of Joseph. His Egyptian career, for example, is not further represented (Weitzmann, 1979, p. 462; Vikan, 1976, pp. 99 and 108, with n. 62), although admittedly the chapter is in literary terms also a self-contained block between Genesis 36 and 38.
The original sequence of scenes was altered in manifold ways, often almost beyond recognition, by the omission of individual scenes or figures. This is especially observable on the sleeve bands, on which the mirror-image arrangement of individual elements still plays a special role. (Problems in detail are perhaps also technically conditioned, namely, by the use of weaving stencils; cf. Nauerth, 1978, pp. 158f).
- Liberec-Kybalova, M. Die alten Weber am Nil. Prague, 1967. Nauerth, C. “Die Josefsgeschichte auf koptischen Stoffen.” Enchoria 8, 2 (1978):151-59.
- Vikan, G. Illustrated Manuscripts of Pseudo-Ephraem’s Life of Joseph and the Romance of Joseph and Aseneth. Unpublished diss. Princeton, 1976.
- . “Joseph Iconography on Coptic Textiles.” Gesta 18, 1 (1979):99-107.
- Weitzmann, K. Age of Spirituality, catalog of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 19 November 1977 to 12 February 1978. New York, 1979.
The Three Hebrews in the Furnace
The story of the three young Hebrews in the furnace, sometimes called the Three Holy Children, is told in the book of Daniel in the Septuagint and in the Apocrypha to the Bible. Exiles in Babylonia, they were thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to worship an idol, but, praising God, they were rescued by an angel. Their names in Babylonian are Abednego, Shadrach, and Meshach (Azariah, Hananiah, and Mishael in Hebrew).
The theme of the three young men is abundantly illustrated from the earliest period of Christianity, except in Byzantine art, appearing in sculpture (on sarcophagi), in painting and the minor arts, and more rarely in mosaic. Two episodes in particular are represented: the appearance of the young men before Nebuchadnezzar, who points out the idol while they turn away in horror, and the three standing in the furnace, the flame of which is sometimes fanned by an attendant, either alone or accompanied by the angel who saves them. Sometimes the two episodes are associated with Nebuchadnezzar enthroned near the idol and witnessing their torment.
Coptic Egypt and Christian Nubia highly esteemed the subject, both in texts and in art. A special source of inspiration for them, rarely depicted in the West, was the point at which the angel descends from heaven to quell the flames.
A relief of the seventh century preserved in the Coptic Museum in Cairo shows the young men and the angel side by side. The three Hebrews raise their arms in the attitude of prayer. They are dressed in Parthian costume, consisting of a knee-length tunic with puffed sleeves closed at the wrist and tied at the waist; trousers; and a chlamys (cloak), fastened on the right shoulder by a clasp and covering the left shoulder and forearm. Contrary to what is normally seen, their feet are bare. They wear conical caps in their curling hair, which frames their beardless faces. The angel, whose long tunic reaches to his bare feet, raises his left arm in a gesture of protection; in his right hand he holds the long rod with which he has just stilled the flames.
Slightly different is the fourth-century representation in the Chapel of the Exodus at al-Bagawat, near Khargah. Here, the furnace is depicted as a kind of hut of flames with an opening on the right, the name marked in Greek. Four people are standing in the flames—in the foreground three orants, identical in their attitude and their clothing (a tunic adorned with clavi descending over trousers and/or dark-colored boots), and in the background the angel of the Lord.
The three Hebrews are equally called to mind in the Chapel of Peace, at al-Bagawat, beside a sixth-century mural showing Daniel in the lions’ den (see above). Some allegorical figures, carrying their name in Greek, allude to various episodes in the life of the prophet; among them euche (“prayer”) recalls the song which the young men addressed to God.
In a sixth-century drawing, from a private house in Wadi Sarjah, now in the British Museum, London, the three Hebrews stand in the middle of a group of haloed busts in the posture of prayer amid flames that they trample down. In an effort to convey movement and perspective, their bodies are seen from the front, while the faces are shown in three-quarters view. Their gaze converges on a small haloed figure, wearing tunic and mantle and with bare feet, who stands above them. His left arm is raised to waist level, while his right hand holds the long rod with which he is quenching the flames. The inscription angelos leaves no doubt as to his identity. All three Hebrews wear tunics caught at the waist and swelling over trousers; the chlamys, fastened under the neck, is stirred by the wind, which will calm the flame. On their heads they wear Phrygian caps, and their feet are shod with slippers.
The theme also appeared in DAYR APA JEREMIAH on the east wall of cell F, to the left of the niche.
This mural, from the seventh century, no longer exists. In the early twentieth century, color had already disappeared and no more remained of the picture of the three Hebrews than an outline in red and black (Quibell, 1908). Nevertheless the scene remains legible; the three young men standing close together raise their arms. They are dressed in Parthian costume: tunic falling to the knees with three flaps, according to Quibell’s drawing, long trousers, chlamys held by a heavy brooch fixed on the chest. The curls that frame their young and beardless faces do not seem to be topped by the usual Phrygian cap but are encircled by a large aureole. On their right, a little larger in size, the angel, bending slightly, is quenching the fire with his long rod ending in a cross. Flames surround the whole composition. A vertical element closes off the picture on the right. Unfortunately it is not possible to decide whether this was simply a thick line or a column on which the bust of Nebuchadnezzar was raised.
Perhaps there was another presentation of this theme in Room 773 of the monastery, where Jeremiah himself was accustomed to sit. The decoration of this apartment was peculiar to it; for example, a jeweled cross stands on a dais framed by columns and hangings. According to Quibell, “There were traces of human figures standing among flowers, then an inscription of Saints’ names and beyond them on a white ground just the names nebw,odonocor (Nebuchadnezzar) and douloc (slave), evidently a description of a scene which has disappeared, destroyed when the buttresses were built” (Quibell, 1908, p. 11). Perhaps it was a picture of the young men being flung into the furnace tended by a slave, in the presence of Nebuchadnezzar.
The iconography of a seventh-century painting adorning Room 30 of Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit is unique. An angel holds in his bosom three small figures clad in tunics and wearing boots. The idea of punishment has completely disappeared. The angel is lifting up those whom he has just snatched from their tormentor. This variant iconography might be explained by the importance accorded to the saving angel in the valley of the Nile in the Christian era.
From some centuries later comes the painting in the north sanctuary of Dayr Anba Maqar in the Wadi al-Natrun described by H. G. Evelyn-White: “In the space at the north end of the east wall are seen the upper parts of four figures rather less than life size, so severely scarred and battered that it is hopeless to describe them . . .
. The identity of these figures is established by inscriptions painted in white on the red border above the scene: the first is labelled Ananias . . ., the fourth Misael . . ., the second and third are therefore Azarias and, probably, Michael” (Evelyn-White, 3, 1933, p. 103).
In Dayr Anba Antuniyus, among the numerous paintings—some of them dated with certainty to the first half of the thirteenth century—there is one in the choir that according to J. Leroy represents the theme of the three Hebrews. Today it is scarcely legible, but one can still distinguish the angel, holding in his right hand a long staff which passes in front of the three young men. All are clad in a tunic with a mantle fastened at the neck. On the ground and above the figures one can make out leaping flames.
At DAYR ANBA BULA, the same theme appears on a painting of the eighteenth century. Despite its recent date, this picture corresponds to the ancient pattern: the three Hebrews, represented as orants, are protected by the angel, who stands at their right; he stretches his left wing over their heads, while his right wing, folded, closes off the composition; with his right hand he holds in front of the young men the rod with which he has stilled the fire.
Two further pieces deserve mention, although strictly speaking one cannot call them Coptic. Both the Murano ivory in the National Museum of Ravenna and the icon of the Hebrews in the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, share the iconography of the Coptic works cited above.
Thus, apart from the representations at al-Bagawat and Bawit, we can demonstrate a large degree of unity in the iconography of the three Hebrews. They are praying, their arms raised to heaven, and the angel, sometimes in the midst of them but more often beside them, extinguishes the fire with his rod. It is not, as in early Christian art, their refusal that is portrayed, nor even their punishment, but that miraculous moment when the indomitable faith they have shown delivers them from martyrdom. This pattern will later be handed on to Christian Nubia, at FARAS, for example, or Sonqi Tino; here the angel will be identified as the archangel Michael.
- Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi’n Natrun. Part 3:
- The Architecture and Archeology. New York, 1933.
- Leroy, J. “Le Programme décoratif de l’église de Saint-Antoine du désert de la mer rouge.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 76 (1976):347-79.
- Meinardus, O. “The XVIIIth Century Wall-Paintings in the Church of St. Paul, The Theban. Dair Anba Bula.” Bulletin de la société d’archéologie Copte 19 (1967-1968); published in 1970:181-97.
- Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara 1906-1907. Cairo, 1908.
- Rassart-Debergh, M. “Les Trois hébreux dans la fournaise dans l’art paléochrétien. Iconographie.” Byzantion 48 (1978):430-55.