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Christian Subjects In Coptic Art - Coptic Wiki


Whatever its materials and techniques—stone or wood relief sculpture, painted walls or manuscripts, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, or glass—Coptic Christian iconography retained a few rare elements of pharaonic origin and many Greco-Roman elements from Alexandrian tradition. From the fifth century on, these pagan subjects mingled with Christian motifs. The Christian subjects naturally constituted the figurative or symbolic decoration of churches and monasteries. They were readily accompanied by animal, vegetal, or geometric motifs, which themselves had a sacred symbolism.

The pagan subjects were used to decorate everyday objects such as clothes, furniture, and household utensils. Their retention was not a perpetuation of paganism, for the subjects could take on a Christian meaning, as did figures of Orpheus, Cupid and Psyche, and the Good Shepherd in the Roman catacombs. The Copts extended this syncretism further to cycles surrounding Dionysis and Aphrodite or even to single figures who evoked a cycle, such as putti (cupids), dancers, Nereids, or gladiators. In the accommodation of Christian and pagan motifs, Coptic art was distinct from other art of the time and affirmed its originality.


of the Magi

In the early Christian world, the theme of the of the Magi was generally associated with the Nativity of Jesus. Both subjects were rarely found in Egypt. Apparently, the adoration of the Magi was never portrayed in textiles. Although D. Renner suggested that the three Magi could be recognized in three standing figures pictured upon a tunic from the Church of al-Ashmunayn, Hermopolis Magna, dating from the seventh or eighth century (Renner, 1974, pp. 67-68), such an interpretation cannot be accepted without reservation.

The theme clearly appears, however, on a censer from DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS, near the Red Sea (Leroy, 1976, pp. 381-90). Here, three men wearing Phrygian caps approach the Virgin, who is seated on a high-backed chair holding the Child on her lap. This same subject also appears on so-called Syrian censers, possibly made in Syria, and on a silver bracelet and a plaque of gilt silver both dating from the sixth century (Leclercq, 1931, col. 1047, fig. 7490, and col. 1051, fig. 7495).

During the Middle Ages, the motif of the Magi appeared chiefly in painting and wood sculpture. In a painting at DAYR AL- SURYAN (Monastery of the Syrians) in Wadi al-Natrun, the three Magi (an adolescent, an adult, and an old man), wearing Oriental robes and Phrygian caps, approach the Virgin, presenting her with caskets containing their gifts. Placed symmetrically on the other side of the Virgin are the shepherds (Leroy, 1982, p. 68). However, a Coptic attribution for this piece is debatable.

Not much remains from the scene decorating the sanctuary of the Church of Saint Mark at DAYR ANBA MAQAR (Monastery of Saint Macarius) in Wadi al-Natrun. Here the existence of embroidered clothes and gifts of the three Magi can only be deduced.

During this same period, Nativity and scenes were sculpted on one of the wooden doors of the Church of Saint Sergius in Old Cairo (Zaloscer, 1974, p. 50). On the lower part of the panel, at the left, there are three shepherds accompanied by two kid goats, and at the right, three Magi. The eldest, characterized by a long beard, is kneeling. His companions—an adult and an adolescent with frizzy hair—follow him, each one bearing a gift for the Christ Child.

A panel coming from the wooden door of the Church of Sitt Maryam (Church of al-Mu‘allaqah in Cairo, attributed to the thirteenth century, now in the British Museum, London), differs slightly (Beckwith, 1963, no. 142; Coquin, 1974, p. 84). The of the Magi adjoins the Nativity, taking the place usually occupied by Joseph. The eldest king is kneeling and offers his gift to Mary.

After the twelfth century, the and the Nativity are portrayed in illuminated manuscripts (see ILLUMINATIONS) (Leroy, 1974, p. 208). Even though examples are few, two iconographies of this theme can be distinguished. The first composition resembles early Christian representations as a whole.

Here, the Nativity and of the Magi constitute two distinct scenes; in the adoration, the Magi approach and bow before the Virgin, who is enthroned with the Child on her lap. It must be noted that this is how the scene was portrayed on “Syrian” censers. The second composition intimately mixes the two motifs, uniting around Mary both the Magi and the shepherds. This representation, the one most widespread in Egypt, was also found in Christian Nubia, at Faras, for example.


  • Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300. London, 1963.
  • Coquin, C. Les Edifices chrétiens du Vieux-Caire, Vol. 1: Bibliographie et topographie historiques. Cairo, 1974.
  • Leclercq, H. “Mages.” In Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Vol. 10, pt. 1 (1931), 980-1067.
  • Leroy, J. Les Manuscrits coptes et coptes-arabes illustrés. Paris, 1974.
  •  . “L’Encensoir “syrien’ du couvent de Saint Antoine dans le désert de la Mer Rouge.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 76 (1976):381-90.
  •  . Les Peintures des couvents du Ouadi Natroun. Cairo, 1982.
  • Renner, D. Die koptischen Stoffe im Martin von Wagner Museum der Universität Würzburg. Wiesbaden, 1974.
  • Vezin, G. L’ et le cycle des mages dans l’art chrétien primitif. Etude des influences orientales et grecques sur l’art chrétien. Paris, 1950.
  • Zaloscer, H. Die Kunst im christlichen Ägypten. Vienna and Munich, 1974.



The archangel Gabriel’s visit to announce the miraculous birth of the Infant Jesus to the Virgin translates into pictorial terms the belief in the Incarnation of God and the Immaculate Conception. Despite the Monophysite denial of the dual nature of Christ (see MONOPHYSITISM), Egyptian artists frequently pictured episodes in the life of the Virgin and Child, appealing to the dogma that Mary is the THEOTOKOS (Mother of God) defined at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

The oldest known occurrence of the Annunciation in Egypt is a fragment of a fifth-century wooden relief in the Louvre, Paris. Mary is seated on the left on a high stool and is spinning wool. She looks at the viewer with an astonished expression, as the announcement is made by the angel, of whom only a leg and foot remain. The same composition was used on a gold medallion preserved in the State Museum of Berlin and on a printed fabric of the fifth or sixth century from Akhmim in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. As represented on the fabric, Mary is spinning and obviously flourishing her spindle, while Gabriel executes a graceful backward movement. The name “MARIA” is inscribed between the two characters.

On the painted dome of the Chapel of Peace in the oasis of Khargah of the fifth or sixth century, the Virgin Mary is standing facing the viewer. Her face is framed by her long fair hair, and the palms of her hands are open on her breast to signify prayer. The archangel Gabriel has been replaced by a dove, which is moving in the direction of Mary’s face. The dove evokes the idea of the Holy Spirit descending on the Virgin to effect Gabriel’s announcement, and it emphasizes the notion of the Incarnation.

In the crypt of Abu Jirjah there has survived a fragmentary picture of the Annunciation from the eighth century. It is possible to make out the Virgin’s high-backed chair and the left side of her face. The angel, preserved for the most part, is shown facing forward, but the feet are in profile in a walking position emphasized by a movement of the hands in the Virgin’s direction. Clothed in a cloak and a tunic decorated with two clavi (stripes) and woven squares, the angel makes his announcement, which appears on an inscription between the two figures. A manuscript dating from 914 in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, adopts exactly the same arrangement of figures, adding an inscription above that mentions the names of Mary and Gabriel.

A silk-embroidered medallion from the seventh or eighth century in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows alongside the Annunciation the scene of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Because of the embroidered-silk technique and the style of the figures, this fabric seems to be a foreign import, probably Byzantine. Mary is seated in front of a structure crowned by a conch shell.

His wings arranged asymmetrically, the angel moves forward as he raises a hand to indicate that he is the speaker. An identical composition is reproduced in a manuscript of 1180 in the National Library, Paris. The Virgin is spinning and holds the distaff in one hand, allowing the spindle to hang in front.

The painters of the Wadi al-Natrun adopted other models. In an eleventh-century mural at Dayr Anba Maqar, the angel, who is placed on the left, walks briskly on the overhang of a scoinson arch, while the Virgin, seated on a background structure, indicates her surprise by a movement of her hand. In a mural of the eleventh or twelfth century at Dayr al-Suryan, the same scene, in the apse of the of the Church of the Virgin, is next to the Nativity. The Virgin, on the left, has assumed an upright position. Between the angel and the Virgin a dual inscription in Coptic and Syriac recalls the angel’s greeting in the Gospel. The style of these late paintings is strongly stamped with Middle Eastern and Byzantine influences.

The Virgin also appears standing on a twelfth-century cedarwood panel from the Church of Sitt Maryam in Old Cairo now in the British Museum. Like the scene of the Baptism of Christ that fills the upper part of the panel, it is arranged on a background of arabesques in the purest Islamic tradition. The Virgin is holding a book, a detail characteristic of Western iconography.

A series of bronze censers in the Louvre and dating from the tenth and the eleventh centuries is decorated with episodes from the life of Christ in a style so simplistic that it is hard to recognize the scenes. The Annunciation is frequently shown, the two figures being placed alongside each other without precise details. Specimens identical to these have been found in Syria.


  • Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture, p. 31 and fig. 141. London, 1963. Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte, p. 38. Paris, 1964.
  • Cabral, F., and H. Leclerq. Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Vol. 6, cols. 1241-52, fig. 5191. Paris, 1903-1915.
  • Christentum am Nil. Koptische Kunst. Catalogue of the Exhibition in the Villa Hügel, p. 163. Essen, 1963.
  • Cramer, M. Koptische Buchmalerei, p. 65, figs. 69, 70. Recklinghausen, 1964.
  • Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi’n Natrun, 3 vols. New York, 1926-1933.
  • Fakhry, A. The Necropolis of El Bagawat in Kharga Oasis, fig. 70. Cairo, 1951.
  • Kendrick, A. F. Catalogue of Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt, Vols. 1-3, pp. 64, pl. 19, and p. 57, pl. 17. London, 1920-1922.


Apostles and Evangelists

In their art the Copts depicted the apostles in groups or individually. In group representations, a distinction must be made between those picturing the Twelve Apostles and those picturing only the principal ones, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The group of Twelve Apostles is found many times in Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit in the lower panel of a scene showing the triumph of Christ (Clédat, 1904, Chapel 12, p. 52). To this scene must be added a group composed of Christ enthroned among his apostles, who are likewise seated.

Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Mark the Evangelist may also be depicted individually. Peter is the principal figure in a scene in the back of a chapel of the Ramessid temple of Dayr al-Sibu‘ah in Nubia, which unites royal pharaonic iconography and Coptic Christian motifs. In the chapel the monks had covered subjects that had been engraved in relief on the temple walls at the time of Ramses II in the thirteenth century B.C. with a layer of plaster or mud reinforced with grasses.

Over the plaster, which assured the reliefs of remarkable preservation, they scattered their own Christian paintings. One pharaonic scene, however, they modified. This scene dominated by Peter originally showed Ramses offering flowers to the gods of the Temple. The monks replaced these gods with the figure of Saint Peter, represented as bowing to the pharaoh, paying an homage that had come down through millennia of pagan tradition.

Saint Paul, along with Saint Thecla, whom he is teaching, is seen in the Byzantine decoration of the Chapel of Peace at al- BAGAWAT (Fakhry, 1951, p. 78). Saint Mark is likely the subject of a bust upon which is inscribed his name followed by the title, Evangelist (see PORTRAITURE).


  • Bourguet, P. du. Les Coptes. Collection Que sais-je? Paris, 1988.
  • Clédat, J. “Nouvelles recherches à Baouît.” Comptes Rendues de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, pp. 517-526. Cairo, 1904.
  •  . Le Monastère et la Nécropole de Baouît, 2 vols. Mémoires des Membres de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 12. Vol. 1 in 2 pts. Cairo, 1904, 1906; Vol. 2, Cairo, 1916.
  • Fakhry, A. The Necropolis of El-Bagawat in Kharga Oasis. Cairo, 1951.


Baptism of Jesus

The elements of the iconography of the baptism of Jesus by Saint JOHN THE BAPTIST in the Jordan are seen early in the Roman catacombs, notably that of Saints Peter and Marcellinus. The figures are generally reduced to the two earthly participants—Jesus, who appears beardless, and John the Baptist. Sometimes heavenly symbols—the divine hand and the dove of the Holy Spirit—are at the top of the scene.

The baptism is found in two wall paintings, in Chapel 30 and Chapel 17, of Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit. They originally showed both earthly and heavenly symbols, although in Chapel 17 the hand and dove have been destroyed, leaving only traces of their former presence. The basic figures are augmented by details common in Christian iconography in the Mediterranean world in the fifth and sixth centuries—in Chapel 30 a standing angel holding a cloth, the Jordan represented as a small seated figure, and three fish; in Chapel 17 a duck.

In Chapel 30 the child Jesus stands naked in an attitude of prayer. From the contrast of the forms and folds of the garments, the painting in Chapel 30 can be dated to the sixth century, that of Chapel 17 to the eighth. Although only these two complete murals at Bawit remain, traces of repetitions of the same theme, as in Chapel 27, where the Jordan is represented as a woman emerging from the water and Jesus is small and bearded with a child kneeling at his feet, suggest that there were baptism scenes in many other monasteries.

The theme also appears in three illuminations from Gospels. One is from a twelfth-century Copto-Arabic Gospel in the National Library, Paris. It retains Jesus and John but has two angels flying over the water of the Jordan. The river is covered with aquatic plants and conceals a standing, bearded Christ.

The other two illuminations come from a thirteenth-century Copto-Arabic Gospel in the Catholic Institute, Paris (Leroy, 1974, p. 159), and from a seventeenth-century Copto-Arabic Gospel in the British Museum. They include Jesus, John, and the two angels but raise the level of the Jordan around Jesus and leave John and the angels on dry ground. The style is Arabic rather than Coptic.


  • Bourguet, P. du. La Peinture paléo-chrétienne. Paris, 1965.
  •  . “Datation raisonnée de la peinture murale copte.” In Actes du Colloque nubiologique de 1973 à Varsovie, pp. 40-43. Warsaw, 1976.
  • Clédat, J. Le Monastère et la Nécropole de Baouît. Mémoires des membres de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 12. Vol. 1 in 2 pts. Cairo, 1904, 1906; Vol. 2, Cairo, 1916.
  • Leroy, J. Les Manuscrits coptes et coptes-arabes illustrés. Paris, 1974.


Bath of the Infant Jesus

It does not seem that the bath of the Infant Jesus, a detail in the Nativity scenes that is frequent in Byzantine art, passed into Coptic art (Cramer, 1959, pp. 234-37). Although numerous paintings have disappeared, in the scenes that have survived, the bath does not appear.

A sculpture in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, however, raises a question about whether the bath was ever portrayed. The piece is not allied to any Coptic sculpture in stone or wood. It is a slab of limestone carved in relief, missing the right border and the top, which presents the greater part of the bath of an infant. The remaining framework consists of a series of meanders in which swastikas and flowerets alternate. The infant appears half-length in the center of a footbath.

On his right, a person seated in profile but with head and shoulders full-face is proceeding with the washing. On his left, a woman standing full-face is taking a vase from a kind of brazier. Between her face and that of the infant are a cantharus (deep, two-handled cup) on a tripod and a fairly large object identified as a comb, with an upper and a lower series of teeth, starting from a middle band adorned with three crosses. The costumes of the two adult figures consist of a long robe and a headdress. The low-cut robe on one figure has a wide neck marked by double lines. A light serpentine line starting from the neck ornaments a dark background. The headdress worn by the person on the left is Phrygian in form and is adorned by a cross similar to those of the object placed above the child.

It is probable that the person on the opposite side wears the same headdress, which is cut off at a quarter of its height, and may have a hood under the headdress, which falls to the shoulders and hides the hair. The child and the person on the left have hair curling on each side of the face. The two adults are barefoot.

Apart from the crosses, which some (for example, Zaloscer, 1974, p. 119) think may have been added later, there is nothing to indicate that the sculpture portrays the bath of the infant Jesus. Although the scene is treated for itself without any connection with the Nativity, it is an integral part in the whole of Christian iconography. The crosses could be of the same period as the rest of the subject, without any direct connection to the life of Christ.

The garments are not in any way decorated in the Coptic fashion. The tight waist of the person on the right would be achieved only by a girdle in Coptic clothing, but there is no girdle here. Finally, the Phrygian cap points to an origin to the east of Egypt. J. Beckwith does not mention this piece in his book Coptic Sculpture 300-1300. It may be simply a scene drawing attention to the person honored or even to someone deceased.


  • Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300. London, 1963.
  • Cramer, M. “Eine koptische Reliefdarstellung und ihre byzantinischen Parallelen.” In des 24. Internationalen Orientalischen Kongresses, ed. H. Franke. Wiesbaden, 1959.
  • Zaloscer, H. Die Kunst im christlichen Ägypten. Vienna and Munich, 1974.



The tender motif of the Holy Virgin giving her breast to her Son always has been so popular in Christian Egypt that some writers liked to consider it simply as a Christianized form of Isis nourishing Horus. And indeed, at least according to K. Wessel (1954-1955, p. 199) there seem to be some sculptured examples of both Isis and the Virgin in the State Museum of Berlin that could be interpreted as such. Nevertheless, there are—besides the resemblances—also some differences between the two types that make it difficult to assume a relationship (Tran Tam Tinh, 1973; 1978). Both types resemble each other in showing the same kind of eyes of the mother gazing beyond her son, while the child looks at her. They differ, however, in that since Hellenistic times Isis normally wears a garment that leaves both her breasts free, and her right hand offers her left breast to Horus. The Holy Virgin, occasionally painted with her head inclined toward Jesus, always has one breast covered, offering the other (be it the left or the right one) with her corresponding hand to Jesus. In representations from medieval Nubia she is sometimes wearing a crown and a veil. Often she is accompanied by angels, saints, or both. In the Nile Valley the motif is hardly ever seen as a genre piece but is more often depicted with dignity: in the small niches in the eastern walls of monastery cells, probably eighth century, such as Cell 42 at Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit (Clédat, 1904-1906) and Cell 30 (Maspero, 1932), Cells A, 1725, and 1807 at Dayr Apa Jeremiah, at Saqqara; on the walls of the cathedral of Faras (four times); and in some miniatures.

Since 1965 there has been some discussion as to how the Galactotrophousa should be regarded. Did it originate on Egyptian soil, but was it aimed, because of its typically human features, at convincing the Monophysites of the human nature of Christ (Wessel, 1964, p. 234; Michalowski, 1967, pp. 91, 92, 109 and 154; Michalowski, 1974, pp. 38 and 229)? Or did it originate as a poetic motif in ancient literature too old to have come into being after the Council of Chalcedon (451), and, moreover, was it used in controversies aimed at the Docetists (who denied the humanity of Christ) and Nestorians (who refused to say God was born of a virgin), not against the Monophysites (Krause, 1970; 1978; van Moorsel, 1970)? A marble krater (jar) from the eastern part of the Roman empire, dating from 364-378 and bearing a representation of this motif—in the context of the adoration by the Magi—shows, however, that the Galaktotrophousa need not necessarily be Egyptian in origin and also that it cannot be the fruit of theological discussions about Chalcedon (Severin, 1970). The sculpture in Berlin previously cited seems, according to Wessel, also to date to before 451 (Wessel, 1978, p. 199).


  • Cledat, J. Le Monastère et la nécropole de Baouît, 2 vols. Cairo, 1904-1906, 1916.
  • Krause, M. “Zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte Nubiens.” In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, pp. 71-86. Recklinghausen, 1970.
  •  . “Bischof Johannes III von Faras und seine beiden Nachfolger; noch einmal zum Problem eines Konfessionswechsels in Faras.” In Etudes Nubiennes, pp. 153-65. Cairo, 1978.
  • Maspero, J. Fouilles exécutées à Baouit. Cairo, 1932.
  • Michalowski, K. Faras, die Kathedrale aus dem Wüstensand. Einsiedeln, 1967.
  •  . Faras; Wall Paintings in the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw. Warsaw, 1974.
  • Moorsel, P. van. “De Galaktotrophousa en de Monophysieten.” In Opstellen voor H. van de Waal, pp. 125-36. Amsterdam and Leiden, 1970.
  •  . “Die stillende Gottesmutter und die Monophysiten.” In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler, pp. 281-90. Recklinghausen, 1970.
  • Tran Tam Tinh, V. Isis Lactans. Leiden, 1973.
  •  . “Du nouveau Isis Lactans (Supplément I).” In Hommages à 68. J. Vermaseren, Vol. 3, pp. 1231-68. Leiden, 1978. Wellen, G. A. Theotokos. Utrecht and Antwerp, 1960.
  • Wessel, K. “Eine Grabstele aus Medinet el Fajoum: zum Problem der Maria Lactans.” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin IV, 1954-1955.
  •  . “Zur Ikonographie der koptischen Kunst.” In Christentum am Nil, ed. K. Wessel. Proceedings Colloquium Essen 1963, pp. 233-239. Recklinghausen, 1964.
  •  . “Die älteste Darstellung der Maria Eleousa.” Atti del VI. Congresso Internazionale di Archeologia Cristiana, 1962, pp. 207-213. Vatican City, 1965.
  •  . “Die stillende Gottesmutter.” In Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur (Festschrift H. W. Müller), pp. 185-200. Munich, 1978.


Jeremiah, Saint

The name Jeremiah in Coptic tradition can refer either to the Old Testament prophet or to the founder of a monastery of that name at Saqqara, DAYR APA JEREMIAH. He is usually found in association with Enoch, also an Old Testament prophet and a monk.

Although the Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Arabic sources do not always agree on the identification of Jeremiah as a prophet or a monk, on the location of his monastery, or on the doctrine followed by his monks, it is assumed here that the monastery ruins at Saqqara, discovered by J. E. Quibell near the pyramid of Ounas after 1904, are indeed those of Dayr Apa Jeremiah. Representations of both Jeremiah and Enoch appear there and at Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit.

At Saqqara numerous inscriptions, essentially commemorative, follow an identical formula. After the Trinity, the Virgin (and sometimes the archangels), Apa Jeremiah, Apa Enoch, and Apa Sibylla are invoked. It is generally considered that this Jeremiah is the monk who founded the monastery, that Enoch is the Old Testament prophet, and that Sibylla is the Sibyl of Alexandria (Quibell, 1912, p. 48). Each of these names could be a conflation of personages: Jeremiah could be at once the prophet and the monk who inherited the same name; the same could be said of Enoch; Sibylla could equally well be the Christianized Sibyl of Alexandria or a simple mortal, the mother superior of a convent of nuns, which at both Saqqara and Bawit adjoined the monastery of the monks (Rassart-Debergh, 1981, pp. 201-203).

For A. Grabar, “At Saqqara . . . the local Saints Jeremiah and Enoch were inspired from certain iconographical types, almost certainly reproduced from original portraits” (Grabar, 1946, p. 129). For J. Leroy, however, “The iconography of monks has never been too realistic” (Leroy, 1975, p. 62). However that may be, at Saqqara, Jeremiah and Enoch correspond to well-defined types. They are always in the east niche of the oratory (in Cells 1807, F, D, 1719, 1724, 1727, and 1733 and Chapels F and D), sometimes head and shoulders, sometimes full-length. Their garments are identical to those of the other monks, a long tunic often knotted at the waist and a mantle covering the shoulders. It should be noted that Enoch alone has his feet covered by half-boots, instead of the monastic sandals. At Saqqara boots are a privilege reserved for the archangels, while at Bawit, archangels, the apostles, and sometimes military saints wear boots. Both figures hold some work in their hands, usually a closed codex.

The faces of Jeremiah and Enoch are individualized, as are those of Peter and Paul in early Christian art. That of Jeremiah is emaciated; the cheeks are ill concealed by a rounded beard. In most representations he wears a round halo. In Cells D and 1727, he wears a square one, characteristic of a saint who is still alive. In contrast, Enoch’s face and round halo are framed by the curls of his abundant hair and by a tufted beard ending in a point.

At Bawit, Jeremiah appears both as prophet and as monk. As prophet (Chapel 12), he wears half-boots. As monk (Cells 20, 28), he wears sandals and a long dark tunic covered by a paler mantle. His face is as emaciated as at Saqqara. The inscriptions after Jeremiah the founder include Jeremias the mason, Jeremias archimandrite, and Brother Jeremias.

Where Jeremiah has a double role at Bawit, Enoch always appears as a monk clothed in a tunic and long mantle and carrying a calamus (quill pen) and scroll. He is always called Apa Enoch. His face is similar to representations at Saqqara, but his beard is shorter as if he were younger (Grabar, 1946, pp. 300-301).


  • Grabar, A. Martyrium. Recherches sur le culte des reliques et l’art chrétien antique, Vol. 2: Iconographie, Paris, 1946. Photographic reprint, London, 1972.
  • Leroy, J. La Peinture murale chez les Coptes, Vol. 1: Les Peintures des couvents d’Esna. Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 94. Published with the collaboration of
  1. Psiroukis and B. Lentheric. Cairo, 1975.
  • Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara (1908-9, 1909-10). The Monastery of Apa Jeremias. The Coptic Inscriptions, ed. H. Thompson. Cairo, 1912.
  • Rassart-Debergh, M. “Remarques iconographiques.” Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia 9 (1980):201- 203.


of the Innocents

King Herod’s of young male children in an effort to kill the infant Jesus, an episode from the cycle of the infancy of Christ, is known in Coptic art from two examples, one at DAYR ABU HINNIS at Mallawi, the other at DAYR APA APOLLO at Bawit.

At Dayr Abu Hinnis the theme is found in a painted sequence in a rock-cut church. The whole sequence, which probably began with the Nativity and included the appearance of the archangel Gabriel to Joseph and the flight into Egypt, is a frieze contained between two horizontal borders. The lower one is a line of interlacing surmounting a series of variously colored rectangles. The upper one is composed of the same series of rectangles and surmounted by varied plants and flowers, rounded or pointed.

The scene itself begins with King Herod, identified by his name above him. He sits on a cushioned stool, his left leg forward, his right bent back. His left arm leans on a lance, and his right hand rises toward his face (shown slightly three-quarter). He is protected by two Roman legionaries, who turn their backs behind their almond-shaped shields. The group is in a kind of tribunal with Ionic columns. In the undulating country that extends in front of them, two executioners in Iranian tunics are about their work. One is whirling a child in the air, the other lays a child on the ground. Two children lie between them, already slain, their blood flowing in streams. A third soldier threatens Saint Elizabeth, who holds her son, the young John the Baptist, on her knees. Another soldier threatens the prophet Zechariah, who, without a halo, kneels down and turns his back to the gate of the Temple, perhaps to defend it. Above the undulations rise three sanctuaries, each in the form of a tower surmounted by a kind of cupola. Between them are trees that look like umbrella pines.

The respect for the realistic proportions of the bodies, the naturalness of the movements in their diversity, the supple pose of Herod contemplating his deadly work, and the picturesque character of the backgrounds as well as of the upper decoration on the frieze indicate an Alexandrian influence that suggests a date in the fourth century. That calls into question the attribution by the excavator J. Clédat to a date later than the fifth century (Clédat, 1902, p. 47). A confirmation of the earlier date is the Christian tomb near Antinoopolis toward DAYR AL-DIK, whose style, like that of the little bed of flowers in this scene, is close to that of the Roman catacombs of this period.

The scene of the at Bawit is in Chapel 30. Clédat’s description of it indicates a style approaching realism in the gestures and notes the introduction of new figures such as a group of despairing mothers.


  • Bock, V. de. Matériaux pour servir a l’archéologie de l’Egypte chrétienne, pls. 33, 44-50. Saint Petersburg, 1901.
  • Clédat, J. “Notes archéologiques et philologiques.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 2 (1902):44, 50.


Menas the Miracle Maker, Saint

Saint MENAS THE MIRACLE MAKER was an Egyptian camel driver who was martyred in the third or fourth century. He was the object of a cult associated with miraculous life-giving waters from a sanctuary in the Western Desert or the Libyan desert (see ABU MINA).

Saint Menas appears in Coptic art in two iconographic types. In the older he is a young man standing in the orant (praying) position, flanked by two camels. His name is generally written nearby, but there is rarely a cross. This type is widely represented because it was used in low-relief on AMPULLAE (flasks) containing water from the sanctuary of Abu Mina. Saint Menas’ face appears on one side of the vessel while the other side is occupied by another face, often that of Saint Thecla (see below), whose sanctuary is close to that of Menas. The model for these ampullae must have been very precise and was rather Hellenistic in style. It was perpetuated without modification by the use of molds. The first type also appears, outlined in ocher on white, in a fresco found in a seventh-century church at Kellia, now in the Louvre. Although the lower part has been destroyed, the saint’s features are accentuated in the shape of the face (Daumas and Guillaumont, 1969, Vol. 2, pl. 386). This same praying figure is found in marble reliefs on stelae or on panels such as one in the Museum of the Arts, Vienna. Such reliefs belong more to Hellenistic than to Coptic art, since the Copts did not use marble.

The second iconographic type presents Menas as a centurion on horseback, often in the orant position. This type is generally seen in frescoes, notably six frescoes, probably from the eighth century, at MADINAT HABU (Wilber, 1940).

In Dayr Anba Antuniyus on the Red Sea, a slightly different version is found among the saints mounted on horseback in the narthex of the Old Church. It dates from 1232-1233, when the sanctuary of the church was restored. Each of these saints is depicted with head and shoulders full-face, on a horse in profile. Between the horse’s hooves under the feet of the personage, a sanctuary is placed. In representations of Saint Menas, the sanctuary is evidently that of Abu Mina (du Bourguet, 1951, p. 43; Piankoff, 1948).


  • Bourguet, P. du. “Les Monastères de Saint Antoine et de Saint Paul sur la mer Rouge.” Bulletin de la Société française d’Egyptologie 7 (1951):37-44.
  • Daumas, F., and A. Guillaumont. Kellia I, Kom 219. Fouilles exécutées en 1964-1965. Fouilles de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 28. Cairo, 1969.
  • Drescher, J. “St. Ménas’ Camels Once More.” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 7 (1941):19-32.
  • Kaster, G. “Menas von Ägypten (von Cotyacum in Phrygien).” In Lexicon der christlichen Ikonographie, Vol. 8, cols. 3-7. Freiburg, 1976.
  • Piankoff, A. “Peintures au Monastère de Saint Antoine.” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 14 (1948):159, 163.
  • Réau, L. Iconographie de l’art chrétien, Vol. 3, pp. 948-50. Paris, 1958.
  • Wilber, D. N. “The Coptic Frescoes of Saint Menas at Medinet Habu.” Art Bulletin 22 (1940):36-103.



The birth of Jesus, generally associated with the adoration of the Magi, was not so popular a theme in Egypt as elsewhere in the early Christian world. It gave little inspiration to the artists who decorated the necropolises and monasteries. It may have appeared in the earliest churches, but present documentation is too sketchy to affirm this.

At Dayr Abu Hinnis, which houses the most ancient Christological cycle, it appears that the Nativity was not depicted. To be sure, A. Gayet mentioned a Nativity scene alongside an Annunciation (Gayet, 1902, pp. 272-73), but both these interpretations have rightly been refuted by H. Leclercq (1907, cols. 2326-59). However, upon considering the originality of this Annunciation, Gayet’s confusion may be explained, for the angel is approaching Mary, who is half reclining upon her bed in the position she assumes for the Nativity. The two themes may have been confused, but since the paintings have disappeared, it is impossible to know.

From the tenth century, however, the Nativity was part of the decorative plan in the majority of churches and was equally important in illuminated manuscripts. It was always set amid other episodes in the lives of Mary and Christ.

The first example of a Nativity painting might be in Chapel 51 of Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit. Here, Salome, the midwife assisting the Virgin, stands beside her. G. A. Wellen is reticent about the identification of this scene (Wellen, 1960, n. 101) as are P. Testini (Testini, 1974, p. 314, note 99), and L. del Francia (Francia 1976, pp. 221-24, pls. 13-16). There are two Nativity scenes at Wadi al- Natrun, one in Dayr Anba Maqar and the other (whose Coptic appurtenance is doubtful) in Dayr al-Suryan.

Upon the southern half-dome of the in the church at Dayr al-Suryan, the Annunciation and Nativity are seen side by side. The figure of Mary dominates: half-reclining upon the bed, she turns her head toward the spectator, paying scant heed to the infant asleep in a manger behind her. The Child—no longer a newborn babe—has His eyes wide open. Mother and Child stand out from a background of rock, above which angels in flight announce the good news. At Mary’s feet stands a tiny white-bearded man, pensive, with his head leaning on his right hand. The inscription identifies him as Joseph. Below this principal group, the Magi (see “Adoration of the Magi,” above) approach on the right, the shepherds on the left. One of the shepherds raises his hand and points to Mary and Jesus. An old man follows while a third shepherd, playing the flute, lifts his eyes toward the angels (Leroy, 1982, pp. 67-68).

The artist who decorated the sanctuary of the Church of Saint Mark at the Dayr Abu Maqar painted the arches and vaults of the octagon with scenes from the life of Christ. Although the paintings are badly deteriorated, a Nativity may still be identified. The schema reproduces the one just described at Dayr al-Suryan. Mary and the Child comprise the central element of the tableau. Above there are angels in flight, and below, a bit to the side, Joseph meditates. Magi and shepherds draw nigh to adore the Child (Leroy, 1982, p. 35).

The Nativity theme is also rare in sculpture. Only two examples in wood are known, both being panels belonging to the doors of two churches in Old Cairo, one being from Saint Sergius and the other from the Church of Sitt Maryam.

The Nativity occupies three-quarters of the ceiling of Saint Sergius. There is a disk above containing the moon and the sun, from which rays of light descend upon the sleeping babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, who lies between the donkey and the ox. Two angels watch over Him. Beside the cradle, the Virgin is lying on her bed, while opposite her, Joseph meditates, his head under his right arm (note that here Joseph is portrayed normal size). Below, on the left, are the shepherds, the oldest of whom is pointing to the scene with his hand; on the right, the Magi come bearing gifts (Zaloscer, 1974, pl. 50).

The scene is quite different and much more complex on a panel that once decorated the Church of Sitt Maryam but is now in the British Museum (Beckwith, 1963, no. 142; Coquin, 1974, p. 84). The upper third is occupied by angels in flight, singing the praises of the newborn Child. The central part presents the Nativity and the adoration of the Magi. Mary is half-reclining with her hand outstretched toward the gifts of the Magi, while the Child sleeps in the manger. Saint Joseph, below on the left, turns his head toward Mary. In the lower part of the panel is the Child’s bath (see Bath of the Infant Jesus, above).

The Nativity was more popular in the minor arts, where it is relatively frequent from the sixth century. It appears on censers that are often attributed to Syria, but of which two examples, at least, derive from Egypt. One comes from DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH (the White Monastery), at Suhaj (Maspero, 1908, pp. 148-49; Labib and Girgis, 1975, p. 26), and the other from Dayr Anba Antuniyus (Leroy, 1976, pp. 381-90). The Nativity is part of the Christological cycle, which unfolds on the bowl of the censer. In textiles, the Nativity scene is reduced to the principal personages: the Child, the donkey and ox, Mary, and Joseph (Francia, 1976).


  • Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300. London, 1963.
  • Coquin, C. Les Edifices chrétiens du Vieux-Caire, Vol. 1: Bibliographie et topographie historiques, p. 84. Cairo, 1974.
  • Francia, L. del. “Le Thème de la nativité dans les tissus coptes, à propos d’un exemplaire inédit.” In Acts of the First International Congress of Egyptology, pp. 221-24. Cairo, 1976.
  • Gayet, A. L’Art copte. Paris, 1902.
  • Labib, P., and V. Girgis. The Coptic Museum and the Fortress of Babylone at Old Cairo, pl. 26. Cairo, 1975.
  • Leclercq, H. “Antinoë.” In Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Vol. 1. Paris, 1907.
  • Leroy, J. Les Peintures des couvents du Ouadi Natroun. Cairo, 1982.
  • Maspero, G. “Un encensoir Copte.” Annales du Service des Antiquités d’Egypte 9 (1908):148-49.
  • Testini, P. “Alle origini dell’iconografia di Giuseppe di Nazareth.” Archeologia Cristiana 48 (1972):271-347.
  • Wellen, G. A. Theotokos, eine iconographische Studie über das Gottesmutterbild in frühchristlicher Zeit. Utrecht, 1960.
  • Zaloscer, H. Die Kunst im christlichen Ägypten. Vienna and Munich, 1974.



The orant, or praying figure, is characterized by two arms stretched out or bent. The gesture is considered to have its origin in the pharaonic hieroglyph ka, which indicated a being, action, or reality of a spiritual order.

It is thus not astonishing that the gesture passed into the syncretistic Egyptian stelae of the very first centuries A.D. dedicated to deceased pagans, and from there no doubt into pagan Roman and Christian art. It finally returned to Egypt to enrich the iconography of Coptic art, whether pagan or Christian, although it was not so systematically used as elsewhere on the periphery of the Mediterranean. It spread thereafter within the still pagan Coptic stream, in two forms in particular: the funerary stelae of pagan personages and reliefs presenting a divinity, such as Daphne (see MYTHOLOGICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART).

There is a tendency to confuse this posture with that of the dancer. We can see this in relation to a dancer in a sixth-century bronze in the Louvre. But the theme also appeared in textiles, confusing Dionysian symbolism, long prevalent in the movements of dancers, with that of prayer.

As Christianity gained over paganism and then continued under Muslim domination, the significance of prayer or Christian joy replaced pagan consecrations, usually without Christian emblems, such as a cross or cruciform halo, although these were not excluded. Although the gesture disappeared in the rest of the Christian world, it was still honored in Coptic Egypt under Muslim domination, signifying the connection of important Christian personages with God. The gesture was traditional from the fourth century on in the group of Saint Menas with the camels (see AMPULLA). It was adopted in sixth-century chapel paintings at Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit for Christ at His baptism by John the Baptist (see Baptism of Jesus, above), and in the seventh and eighth centuries for Mary in the Triumph of Christ. The gesture became typical in the ninth century, as is shown in a group of deceased Christians on a bouclé tapestry in the Abegg Foundation in Bern, and also in Jonah emerging from the ketos (sea beast) on a bouclé tapestry in the Louvre. The theme was even confused with that of the exaltation of the cross, carried by a nude dancer at the end of her two raised arms, which formed the handle of a ninth-century bronze liturgical patera (saucer) in the Louvre. One cannot subscribe to the opinion of A. Grabar (1968, p. 3) that the orant in ancient Christian Egypt “is always the idealized effigy of the Christian buried at the foot of the stele.”

The orant is an example of a sense of tradition that, through successive transformation of the deeper meaning of a theme without betraying it, rules out conservatism and gives expression to the very image of evolving religious life.


  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Paris, 1967.
  •  . L’Art copte. Musée du Louvre, Petits guides des grands musées 19. Paris, 1964.
  • Grabar, A. “Deux monuments chrétiens d’Egypte.” In Synthronon, p. 3. Paris, 1968.


Parthian Horseman

The Parthians ruled a huge empire that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Indus River from 250 B.C. to A.D. 225. For them, representations of a mounted figure distinguished by a raised right arm giving a gesture of benediction with two raised fingers had a benevolent funerary significance. The theme passed to the Greeks and then to the Egyptians, because the gesture could be perpetuated by taking on new symbolism. It was prized by the Christian Copts, who used it on tapestry panels to decorate clothing and hangings from the fourth to the eleventh century.

In Coptic art the Parthian horseman commonly appears almost full-face, his right arm raised, sitting on a rearing horse shown in profile facing the viewer’s right. A dog or a hare, its head sometimes looking backward, runs under the horse. In early examples of the fourth century, the forms of the horseman and his mount are still marked by movement and embellished with touches of purple-violet (Bourguet, 1964, no. A6). Gradually the forms stiffened and in the seventh century the figure was a uniform purple-violet with the features marked in white thread. By the tenth and eleventh centuries only the general silhouette survived in uniform color, rather distorted but still showing the elevated arm and hand.


  • Bourguet, P. du. Musée National du Louvre. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Paris, 1964.
  • Picard, C. “Une Cimaise thasienne archaïque.” Monuments Piot 38 (1941):55ff.


Shenute, Saint

Saint SHENUTE was the great abbot of the Dayr Anba Shinudah (the White Monastery) at Suhaj in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. His iconography appears to be limited to two representations in different techniques and of unequal value, though the attributions are certain. Two others, according to J. Leroy (1974, pp. 73, 111), are much too conjectural to be accepted.

The first representation is an illumination of a sermon by the “holy prophet and archimandrite” recommending that the faithful use the church frequently. It appears in a manuscript from Hamuli now in the Pierpont-Morgan Library (M. 604). The date is probably the late ninth century, as suggested by the style of the garments and the coarse facial features and body shapes. The abbot is expressly named Shenute, and his name is preceded by the title ho hagios, which classes him among the saints in the Coptic calendar. His head is surrounded by a halo. He is being blessed by the right hand of Christ, who has a cruciform halo and is labeled Emmanuel in capital letters. Shenute stretches the first two fingers of his right hand toward Christ, while with his left he holds the long rod topped with a cross, the mark of his office, across his body. The two figures face the viewer, each standing under an arch. They are visually linked to each other by the position of the right arms and the direction of their sandaled feet, which are turned toward the opposite figure. The difference between God incarnate and the monk is emphasized by differences in their sizes, faces, and clothes. Christ is larger by half. The well-proportioned face of Christ has a mustache and a slight fringe of beard, while the monk’s face is triangular with a pointed beard. A large cloak, which envelops Christ entirely and which he holds at the waist, allows a glimpse of the top and bottom of the tunic, which is adorned with pearls arranged in crosses on the torso and in parallel bands down to the lower edge. A cloak covers the monk’s shoulders but reveals a tunic adorned with vertical lines of pearls arranged to form crosses.

The second representation of Shenute occupies a limestone stela from Dayr Anba Shinudah now in the State Museum of Berlin. The figure is set in an arcade whose columns are topped by capitals bearing acanthus leaves; his name, Apa Shenute, in capital letters extends across the lower band of the stela. Shenute stands full-face, his slippered feet turned to the left. His features are scarcely marked, and his rounded beard makes his head a slightly elongated oval. He is dressed in a long pleated tunic, close-fitting at the waist and covered on the shoulders and sides by a cloak of the same length. His left arm is raised toward the neck. His folded right arm rests on a long staff with a cross at its top. The absence of a halo, the use of the common monastic title apa, and the fact that his staff may confer on him no more than the dignity of another monastic superior of the same name in the region appear to be the reasons that impelled J. Beckwith to express doubts about the identification of the portrait with the holy archimandrite (1963, p. 55, no. 115). The doubt is not unjustified, though it is perhaps a little too strong. The veneration indicated by the arcade, and by the absence of any indication of funerary use, seems to warrant placing this rather striking piece in the iconography of the celebrated abbot of Dayr Anba Shinudah.


  • Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300. London, 1963.
  • Leroy, J. Les Manuscrits coptes et coptes-arabes illustrés. Paris, 1974.



The tetramorphs are the four incorporeal creatures mentioned in the Bible that are the bearers of the throne of God. Revelation 4 speaks of four six-winged creatures: a lion, a calf, a man, and a flying eagle; Isaiah 6 mentions six-winged seraphim, and Ezekiel 1 speaks of four four-headed cherubim, each with four wings. From the juxtaposition of these three scriptural texts, it appears that the difference between the four creatures of Revelation, the seraphim, and the cherubim is extremely vague (although six-winged seraphim appear at ISNA and four-headed and four-winged cherubim are seen at DAYR ANBA MAQAR, Wadi al-Natrun) and that they are quite definitely regarded as belonging to the category of angels. In magic each of them has a name, which is also found in a related form in Nubian iconography (see below). The Copto-Arabic SYNAXARION commemorates them (8 Hatur) and notes that there are churches dedicated to them.

Because the four creatures are the bearers of God’s throne or throne-chariot, which was called in ancient texts the “chariot of the Cherubim” and is shown with wheels, they figure in compositions portraying Christ in majesty, in apselike niches of cells in Dayr Apa Apollo, Bawit, and Dayr Apa Jeremiah, Saqqara, dating about 700, and in apses in medieval churches. Their head and neck protrude from the midst of eye-covered wings. Above left is the man, below left the lion, below right the calf, and above right the eagle—in the order given in Ezekiel.

The tetramorph also occurs in murals of medieval Nubia, where the creatures surround the half-figure of Christ, sometimes even in combination with the Holy Cross (van Moorsel, 1966, pp. 297-316). It is in this last form, too, that the Nubian version of the magic names of the four creatures has come down. Both Nubian forms, moreover, occur in places other than apses, at Faras, Tamit, and ‘ABDALLAH NIRQI. Presumably it can be concluded that there, too, the intention was to portray Christ enthroned.

Two striking variants are found, first, in Nubia in the tenth- century church in Sonqi Tino (Donadoni, 1970, pp. 209-216; van der Helm, 1985, pp. 26-27) and second, in a mural of about 1232-33 in Dayr Anba Antuniyus, near the Red Sea (Leroy, 1975, pl. 10). In both cases the four creatures are shown upright. The threefold “holy” that Isaiah, Revelation, and the liturgy attribute to them is included in several examples as an inscription in the composition itself, as at Dayr Anba Antuniyus, while in Cells 6 and 17 of Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit, it is even written on the open codex that Christ is holding in his hand (van der Meer, 1938, p. 260).

A homily of Pseudo-Chrysostom in an eleventh-century manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, provides further information on the role of the four Creatures in Coptic angelology. When God condemned Lucifer, one of the four cast him down to earth, one divested him of his panoply, the third bound him, and the fourth cast him into the lake of fire. They then clothed Michael in Lucifer’s panoply. The question as to whether in the Nile Valley the tetramorphs also had an allegorical meaning connecting them with the Evangelists, as was common in other Christian areas, has not yet been settled (de Grooth and van Moorsel, 1977-1978, pp. 233-41).


  • Donadini, S. “Les Fouilles à l’église de Sonqi Tino.” In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in Christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler. Recklinghausen, 1970.
  • Grooth, M. de, and P. van Moorsel. “The Lion, the Calf, the Man and the Eagle in Early Christian and Coptic Art.” Bulletin Antieke Beschaving 52-53 (1977-1978):233-41.
  • Helm, M. van der. “Some Iconographical Remarks on St. Michael in Sonqi Tino.” Nubian Letters 4 (February 1985):26-27.
  • Leroy, J. Les Peintures des couvents du désert d’Esna. Cairo, 1975. Meer, F. van der. Maiestas Domini. Vatican City, 1938.
  • Moorsel, P. van. “Une Théophanie nubienne.” Revista di Archeologie Cristiana 42 (1966):297-316.
  • Müller, C. Detlev G. Die Engellehre der koptischen Kirche. Wiesbaden, 1959.
  • Nilgen, U. “Evangelisten.” In Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, Vol. 1, ed. Verlag Bruder Hollinek. Vienna, 1967-


Thecla, Saint

Thecla is the name of three saints in the early church. According to the apocryphal Acts of Saints Paul and Thecla, when the Apostle Paul was in Iconium he converted the maiden Thecla, who followed in his footsteps. She was condemned to be burnt alive for refusing to marry her betrothed but was saved by a miracle. She suffered many vicissitudes before her death in Seleucia, in Syria. Thecla of Iconium was venerated in Egypt, especially at a sanctuary in the Libyan desert near that of Saint Menas (see above). This Thecla does not seem to have passed into the Coptic liturgy, which mentions only the other two saints. A second Thecla was the mother of the martyr Apollonius. She herself was martyred along with her brother, Saint Isi, and his friend Paul. Her feast day is 4 Kiyahk. A third Thecla is associated with Saint Maqronius, who may be a double of the martyr Saint Macrobius of al-Ashmunayn (de Fenoyl, 1960, pp. 97, 130). Her feast day is 1 Baramhat.

Saint Thecla of Iconium is represented in a painting in the funerary Chapel of Peace at the oasis of AL-BAGAWAT in the Western Desert. She appears alongside Saint Paul, the Virgin, and other biblical figures but is in the Byzantine style of the sixth century, which was appropriate at that time in an oasis to which Constantinople exiled undesirables. The painting should not, therefore, be considered Coptic.

Clearly Coptic are her representations in low-relief, along with those of Saint Menas, on ampullae for miraculous water from his sanctuary at Abu Mina. One saint occupies each side. Their association was probably due to the proximity of their two sanctuaries (Leibbrand, 1976, col. 432). Like Menas, Thecla stands in the orant position. Three of these ampullae, in the Louvre, are important for their large size, about 6 inches (15 cm) in contrast to the much smaller ampullae found along the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, and as far away as England. Two have the common globular form, one rests on a foot (Metzger, 1981). All three present the saint standing barefoot, wearing a robe from the waist downward (except perhaps for one ampulla), her bust uncovered, and her hands (tied) behind her back. She is menaced on either side by one or two wild beasts: lion, bear, and wolves, heads of lions or forequarters of a lion or bear.

Apart from the two kinds of representation of Thecla of Iconium in association with Paul or Menas, there are representations of a Saint Thecla alone. On a stone panel in the Brooklyn Museum, the standing saint, robed only from waist to ankle, raises high a Greek cross, which she holds by the ends of the crossbar. She is attacked on one side by a wolf, on another by flames. The style is that of Coptic relief sculpture of the ninth century, with a flattened surface, sharply carved hollows, and a horror vacui that makes the panel resemble a printer’s plate. It is a question, however, which Thecla is here portrayed. Is it Thecla of Iconium or one of the two Theclas in the Coptic liturgy? The artist either had in mind the disciple of Paul or he adapted her iconography to his portrayal of one of the other saints.


  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte, pp. 50, 179. Paris, 1967. Fenoyl, M. de. Le sanctoral copte. Beirut, 1960.
  • Leibbrand, J. “Theckla von Ikonium.” In Lexicon der christlichen Ikonographie, Vol. 8, cols. 432-36. Rome, 1976.
  • Metzger, C. Ampoules à eulogie. Musée du Louvre. Notes et documents des musées de France 3. Paris, 1981.


The Twenty-four Elders

According to the book of Revelation (4:10, 5:8, 7:11), twenty- four elders are seated on twenty-four thrones, clothed in white, holding harps, and wearing crowns of gold, which they take off when they fall down to worship God. They may have derived from an apocalyptic passage in Isaiah (24:33), or they may represent the twelve tribes of Israel combined with the Twelve Apostles. The Copts have venerated them since the seventh or eighth century and commemorate them in the Copto-Arabic Synaxarion as 24 Hatur. Coptic folklore has adopted them for magical purposes. Their names, which correspond to the letters of the Greek alphabet, were recited for protection against the evil one.

One of the earliest representations of the twenty-four elders in Coptic art is a wall painting of the ninth or tenth century in the apse of the church in DAYR ANBA HADRA in Aswan. Each elder is identified with a letter of the Greek alphabet. Today only small fragments of the upper part of the figures on the northern wall of the apse are visible. The elders also appear in a tenth-century painting on the eastern wall of the sanctuary of Saint Takla Haymanot in the Church of Sitt Maryam (al-Mu‘allaqah) in Old Cairo, but it is much damaged. Other iconographical representations include a thirteenth- century mural in the Church of Saint Antony in Dayr Anba Antuniyus, an eighteenth-century mural in the subterranean Church of Saint Paul the Theban in DAYR ANBA BULA (Monastery of Saint Paul), a nineteenth-century mural in the Church of the Holy Virgin in the Harit al-Rum, Cairo, and twentieth-century murals in the Upper Church of the Holy Virgin at Rod al-Faraj, Cairo, and the Upper Church of the Cathedral of Saint George, Giza. Icons (panels) of the twenty-four elders are rare. An eighteenth-century icon in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, has the names of the twenty-four elders written in Arabic. A Byzantine icon of the twenty-four elders belongs to the Church of Saint Mercurius in Dayr Abu Sayfayn, Old Cairo.


  • Aescoly, A. Z. “Les Noms magiques dans les apocryphes chrétiens des Ethiopiens.” Journal asiatique 220 (1932):87-137.
  • Crum, W. E. Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the British Museum, 505, no. 1223; 417, no. 1007. London, 1905.
  • Erman, A. Ägyptische Urkunden aus den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin. Koptische Urkunden, Vol. 1, no. 17, 8330. Berlin, 1904.
  • Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘n-Natrun, Vol. 3, 95. 95. New York, 1933.
  • Gaselee, S. Parerga Coptica I. De XXIV senioribus apocalypticis et nominibus eorum. Cambridge, 1912.
  • Grosjean, P. “Les Vingt-quatre vieillards de l’Apocalypse à propos d’une liste galloise.” Analecta Bollandiana 72 (1954):192-212.
  • Halkin, F. “Une liste grecque des XXIV vieillards de l’Apocalypse.” Analecta Bollandiana 84 (1966):58.
  • Junker, H. Koptische Poesie des zehnten Jahrhunderts, Vol. 2, p. 143. Berlin, 1908-1910.
  • Leclercq, H. “Les vingt-quatre vieillards.” In Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et liturgie, vol. 2, cols. 3121-25. Paris, 1953.
  • Meinardus, O. “The Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse in the Iconography of the Coptic Church.” Studia Orientalia Christiana, Collectanea 13 (1968-1969):141-58.
  • Michl, J. Die 24 Ältesten in der Apocalypse des hl. Johannes. Munich, 1938.


Virgin Enthroned

Representations of the Virgin Mary far outnumber all other Christian themes in Coptic art. They occur in virtually every medium—painted in murals and manuscripts; sculptured in stone, wood, and ivory; and woven in wool and linen. The dominant role of the Virgin in the art of Coptic Egypt is a direct reflection of the very special character of Egyptian theology as formulated by Saint CYRIL I and confirmed by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Egyptian theologians held firmly to the dogma of the triune God. They maintained that Christ had only one nature and that he was divine from the moment of birth and that, therefore, Mary was the Mother of God—the Theotokos.

Although the cult of Mary seems to have been established in Egypt well before 431, it flourished with the rise of monasticism in the late fifth and sixth centuries. The Coptic monks were particularly devoted to her cult, and from the rubble of their long-abandoned monasteries have come the most important monuments of the art produced in her service.

Painting and Tapestry

The major works supporting a study of the Virgin Enthroned in Coptic art are the apse frescoes from the Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit and Dayr Apa Jeremiah at Saqqara. Although none is precisely datable, the majority probably belong to the sixth century. Confirmation of this date is provided by comparison with the great tapestry, Icon of the Virgin, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has been firmly dated within that century (Shepherd, 1969). In the majority of the apse frescoes, as in the tapestry, the Enthroned Virgin participates in an elaborate two-tiered iconographic program, which A. Grabar (1946, pp. 207-230) has interpreted as representing a theophanic vision. In the upper tier, Christ, in a mandorla of light, represents a vision of the Second Coming. Below, the Virgin with the Christ Child in her lap is a vision of the Incarnation.

The earliest such representation to have survived in Egypt is on one of the leaves of a pair of late fifth-century doors from the church of Sitt Barbara in Old Cairo (Beckwith, 1963, figs. 97-98). Although the details are badly effaced by time, in the lower panel it is still possible to recognize the Enthroned Virgin and Child and the flanking groups of apostles. On a panel near the top of the door, a bust of Christ is displayed in a clipeus (large round shield) borne by angels. Here are already the basic elements of the theophanic vision that will dominate the iconography of the apse paintings at Bâwît< and Saqqara in the next century.

The most usual representation of the Virgin in this context is in the slightly informal pose of the Hodegetria (Byzantine type of Madonna), in which she is seated frontally, relaxed with one foot slightly forward, holding the Child on her left, as in Dayr Apa Apollo, Chapels 3 and 6 (Clédat, 1904-1906, pl. 21, and Maspero and Drioton, 1931, pl. 21) and Dayr Apa Jeremiah, Chapel F and Cells 1727 and 1733 (Quibell, 1908, pl. 55, and 1912, pl. 24 and p. 22). The tapestry icon obviously derives from a similar model. Elsewhere, in Chapel 42 at Dayr Apa Apollo (Clédat, 1904, fig. 1), her role as the Mother of God is reinforced by portraying her as the Virgin lactans (nursing). In a third version, borrowed from imperial iconography, the Virgin displays a “portrait” of Christ in a clipeus in Dayr Apa Jeremiah, Cell 1723 (Quibell, 1912, pl. 24, 2).

On the Cleveland tapestry, the program in the frescoes is further enhanced by the addition of the ciborium (small columned structure) in which the Virgin’s throne is placed. Its setting, seemingly suspended in infinite space, gives an illusion of timelessness. The great wreath of fruits and flowers that surrounds the whole composition evokes concepts of rebirth and salvation. It confirms the iconographic intent of the two theophanies, the Second Coming and the Incarnation, as promises of salvation.

After the Cleveland tapestry, only one other textile with this subject has so far come to light. It is a tantalizing fragment from what must have been a large hanging in looped-pile technique. It preserves only a portion of an Enthroned Virgin. The Child is seated frontally in her lap and is praying (du Bourguet, 1971, Appendix, pl. 9).

The majority of the frescoes from Dayr Apa Apollo and Dayr Apa Jeremiah belong to the two-zoned programs described above, but there are a number of autonomous representations of the Virgin Enthroned. In three instances, she is portrayed in the Egyptian tradition of the goddess lactans, in Dayr Apa Apollo, Chapel 30 (Maspero and Drioton, 1931, pls. 42-43) and in Dayr Apa Jeremiah, Chapel A and Cell 1725 (Quibell, 1908, pl. 41, and 1912, pl. 22). In Chapel 28 at Dayr Apa Apollo (Clédat, 1904-1906, pl. 96), the Virgin once again displays a “portrait” of Christ in a clipeus. Several fragments of frescoes preserving all or part of the figure of an Enthroned Virgin, apparently also autonomous representations, were found in Chapels 1, 7, 8, and 40 at Dayr Apa Apollo (Cledat, 1916, p. 3, 51-52; Maspero and Drioton, 1931, p. 14) and in Cells 1724 and 1740 at Dayr Apa Jeremiah (Quibell, 1912, pp. 21, 23).

An illustration from a manuscript dated 895 or 898 in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, provides testimony to the survival, albeit crudely, of the traditional iconography of the theophany of the Incarnation. There an enthroned Virgin lactans is accompanied by a pair of adoring archangels.


Among the numerous sculptures representing the Enthroned Virgin, very few show any similarity to the theophanic iconography of the frescoes. The two finest and most developed examples are in the Coptic Museum, Cairo. In one (Beckwith, 1963, fig. 112) the Enthroned Virgin and Child are flanked by the usual pair of archangels followed by two apostles. In the other (Beckwith, 1963, fig. 111) two smaller-scale figures—apparently Peter and Paul— stand between the throne and the archangels. Both sculptures are so badly damaged that judgment of style is difficult. In general, however, comparison with the frescoes suggests a sixth-century date. A third sculpture with the Virgin and Child flanked by archangels, also in the Coptic Museum (Beckwith, 1963, fig. 113), is much more primitive in style. However, the large flanking columns recall the ciborium of the Cleveland tapestry as well as relating to the architectural forms of Coptic grave stelae. Another very fragmentary sculpture from Dayr Apa Apollo in the Coptic Museum preserves fragments from a similar composition. Finally, in the same museum (Wessel, 1965, fig. 6) is an extremely provincial version of the Virgin lactans, in which the flanking archangels have been replaced by tiny orants.

There are several grave stelae with simple representations of a woman, in most cases nursing, seated holding a child in her lap. These sculptures are very different from one another, but each in its own way reveals its relatively simple folk origin. None of the figures wears a nimbus and there is nothing inherent in them to justify their interpretation as Christian rather than pagan symbols. However, crosses accompanying the figures on three of the stelae, one in the State Museum of Berlin (Wessel, 1965, fig. 5) and two in the Coptic Museum, Cairo (Crum, 1902, nos. 8702, 8703), provide the needed proof that they were made for Christian graves. In these instances, however, the iconography of the Theotokos has apparently taken on a purely symbolic character to the extent that a mother and child, that is, any mother and child, could be taken as symbols of rebirth and salvation.

Two ivories, probably from the seventh century, one in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, and the other in the Museum of Ancient Art, Milan (Wessel, 1965, figs. 35, 36), follow closely the iconography of the Theotokos in the theophanic programs described above.



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