BYZANTINE INFLUENCES ON COPTIC ART
It would be astonishing if Byzantine art had not exercised an influence on Coptic art, which was the art of a region included in the Byzantine empire. Byzantine art was at an advantage over Coptic art, since it was an imperial art, as dominant as it was rich and having all the splendor of brilliant luxury, whereas the values of Coptic art were modest and could only find models in Byzantium.
Thus Byzantine specialists naturally tend to see Coptic art as a department of Byzantine art to the extent of classifying among the techniques of Byzantine art the best works of Coptic art in painting, sculpture, and tapestry. This claim is made by scholars as well informed as A. Grabar (1966, pp. 173-89, 245-46, 264-69, 323-32), and it is carried to extremes by K. Wessel (1964). It is, however, rejected by E. Coche de la Ferté (1981, p. 29).
The claim loses substance when the facts are considered. Coptic art was already well established when Byzantine art came into being at the end of the fifth century. The possibility of direct and constant links between the two is limited to two centuries because of the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs. These were the years when the Byzantine authorities provoked Coptic hostility. These circumstances, then, make an influence of Byzantine art more plausible because of its dominant position, rather than that Coptic art should have been part of the Byzantine: not the style—which is the very life blood of art—but the iconography, a supporting feature, was affected.
If Byzantine influence occurred between the middle of the fifth and the middle of the seventh century, it could be revived only with some indulgence from the ninth to the twelfth century, when Tulunid and Fatimid Egypt gradually opened its gates to the Byzantine empire.
The first of these periods, then, is one of coexistence of these two art traditions, while Egypt was occupied by the Byzantine authorities.
In Egypt the basilicas of the crypt of ABU MINA, one erected by Constantine in the paleo-Christian period and the other added by Arcadius in the fifth century—each a part of an imperial program and constructed with rich materials—do not appear to have had a decisive influence. Rather, it seems that the Coptic basilica derives from the Roman Christian basilica, with some native modifications. This is apparent particularly in the side entrance, sometimes with a baffle, reentrant colonnades, and a tripling of the apse, which is itself also reentrant and a product of the vertical lines of the walls.
The decorative sculpture of Coptic churches may have borrowed certain motifs from Byzantine art, among them the foliated scrolls of the friezes. Nevertheless, the scrolls, as in the South Church of Bawit, may equally well have derived from those evident in Roman mosaics scattered around the periphery of the Mediterranean from Libya to Syria. Scrolls elsewhere developed according to a Coptic style characterized by the flat disposition of the whole and an extremely elaborate stylization.
This transformation is particularly true of the corbeled capitals such as those in the South Church of Bawit. The corbeled capital, too, was of Libyan origin, from Sabratha and Leptis Magna, and earlier than Byzantine art. The imagination displayed here and the clear-cut right-angled contrast of surface and recess that throws it into relief are typically Coptic.
The pictorial decoration of the Chapel of Peace at al-Bagawat was plainly Byzantine and not Coptic. It remained isolated at that oasis from all other Coptic productions, none of which included any of its features. Some liturgical attributes, such as the garments of the saints or the monks in the church of the monastery of (DAYR) APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara or in the devotional chapels of Bawit, matched those of the sacred figures of the sanctuaries of Ravenna.
But there the form had lost the elegance of its drapery, and the figures were grouped side by side instead of gathered together, as if in an interpretation of movement, as is usual in the art of Ravenna and in Byzantine art as a whole. Another liturgical symbol, the sacred book adorned with precious stones and carried by a Christ shown with the Abbot Mena, painted on wood, clearly indicated the influence of Byzantine art in the stereotyped way it portrayed the Savior. Otherwise Byzantine influence was subsidiary; the subject matter, the style of the characters, and the language of the inscription that names them were entirely Coptic.
Various subjects in fabrics and tapestries are of Byzantine origin. Some of these are the fantastic animals that face each other in some groups of fabrics, the medallion showing Alexander on horseback (Museum of Textile, Washington), and certain pieces of silk from Antinoopolis (Louvre). But these are isolated examples and distinct from the major productions of Coptic fabrics. The subject of the tapestry hangings in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which show the Virgin seated in state with the Infant Jesus and busts of the Apostles and saints around the edges, is Byzantine, but the presentation has broken with the original style to become Coptic oriented.
The links between Constantinople and Egypt, which were interrupted by the Arab conquest of Egypt, resumed in the ninth and accelerated in the tenth to the twelfth centuries. But they were episodic and superficial among the Christians of Egypt, who were from that time a minority without influence. The church of the monastery of Abu Fanah in western Middle Egypt, which is uniformly decorated with Byzantine crosses, suggests that in that region Byzantine iconoclasm was in the ascendant; but this is an isolated case.
The saints on horseback decorating the rear of the church of the Monastery of Saint Antony (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS) in the desert near the Red Sea are marked by Byzantine influence either by their postures or by the placing of a church under the horses’ bellies; the faces of the horsemen, however, show Coptic features. The themes of shoulder bands and the cuffs of tunics contrast with everything Coptic though at the same time are part of it. These are characterized by the garments or details of garments (e.g., the thorakion [baldric] of the persons there represented) and are often accompanied on the edges by animals facing each other. But the whole is treated in crowded and angular fashion, typical of the Coptic style.
Thus the Byzantine presence was felt in Egypt as it influenced Coptic art. Sometimes the Byzantine characteristics were strong and isolated; sometimes they were slightly modified by Coptic features; sometimes their traces appeared in art that was completely Coptic in style. As with other art styles, especially Greco-Roman art, the Byzantine may have provided subjects that were entirely reworked in Coptic style in such a manner as to lose the marks of origin.
This assimilation and, ipso facto, difference had two causes. One was theological, particularly the cult of images, which set the Coptic expression of the common Christian faith at odds with that developed at Constantinople. The other was a less intellectual and spiritual perspective in an Egypt under foreign occupation. The genius of the invaders was to simplify and transform subjects from the pharaonic heritage into elaborate decoration.
- Bourguet, P. du. Peintures chrétiennes; couleurs paléo-chrétiennes, coptes et byzantines, pp. 200-201. Geneva, 1980.
- Coche de la Ferté, E. L’Art de Byzance. Paris, 1981.
- Grabar, E. L’Age d’or de Justinien Collection L’univers des formes. Paris, 1966.
- Wessel, K. L’Art copte. Brussels, 1964.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.