In Coptic churches, the apse rounds the haykal (sanctuary) off at the east, the direction the Christian faces to pray. For this reason the apse was one of the first parts of the church building to be decorated, and its iconography had specific requirements, partly inspired by the liturgy itself. Although a complete list of all the apse programs in the Nile Valley does not now exist, it can be established that a double composition that has survived in small apselike niches—probably dating from the eighth century—in monastery cells in BAWIT and Saqqara, which are also found in apses of churches, was extremely popular.
In the upper part Christ is depicted seated on his throne or throne-chariot, surrounded by a mandorla, by the Four Bodiless Beasts, and by other angels, by sun, moon, and stars; the composition was inspired by Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 4. In the lower zone is His mother, flanked by apostles and angels, or by angels and other saints. The ranks of the apostles are sometimes extended to include local saints. Mary may be portrayed as orant, as an enthroned hodigitria (guide), as platytera (the one who is wider), or as galactotrophousa (virgin in lactation). Often the two zones were separated by a wide band in between.
There is little agreement about the meaning of this double theme. The theme has been called an ascension (Ihm, 1960, pp. 100-102), or a representation of Christ’s coming again at the Last Day, or both, or of Christ enthroned and reigning in glory as Lord of the Church (Klauser, 1961). F. van der Meer (1938, pp. 255ff.) calls the upper zone a “theophany of the trishagion,” but this title has met with little response, partly because it leaves the lower zone out of account. To interpret the double theme as an ascension has the disadvantage of assuming the influence of one particular feast—and a comparatively recent one—to have occupied a place of honor in the liturgical scheme. This can be regarded as an argument against an eschatological explanation as well.
A nonhistorical interpretation, on the other hand, is more likely to receive support, especially because in light of early Christian literature it appears less forced. Without specific reference to any particular liturgical feast, both Syrians (Ephraim and Jacob of Sarug) and Copts (Cyril and the theotokia [liturgical texts addressed to Mary]) celebrated the paradox of God’s Son, who lies at Mary’s breast and at the same time rules over earth and heaven, the One who in the heavens is borne by the chariot of the cherubim and here on earth by His earthly mother, Mary (van Moorsel, 1970, pp. 284- 86).
It has rightly been observed that this double theme appears to have been created as a conscious depiction of the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ. But for the same writer to express amazement that this theme should be found in a monophysite setting reveals inadequate knowledge of Coptic Christology (Wellen, 1960, p. 164).
Where there was insufficient space in the apse of the church or in the niche of the cell, the double theme could be depicted in a reduced form. It already occurs in small apses at an early stage, at Saqqara, for instance; but we then still find the combination of Christ (sometimes shown as a half-figure) in the upper zone, and Mary, always flanked by angels and sometimes by saints, below. In some cases the figures in the lower zone are reduced to imagines clipeatae (medallion images).
Particularly in the small apses of cells, single themes are sometimes found: the Virgin and Child, flanked by angels or saints, or Christ enthroned, or Christ shown as a half-figure. The inscriptions merely give the names of the persons and personifications portrayed. Sometimes, however, one can read on the codex that Christ is holding in his hand the trisagion (van der Meer, 1938, p. 260) or the opening words of the gospel of John (Monneret de Villard, 1957, pl. 148), texts taken from the liturgy, which refer rather to a mystery than to a church feast, such as the Ascension.
- Brenk, B. Tradition und Neuerung in der christlichen Kunst des ersten Jahrtausends. Studien zur Geschichte des Weltgerichtsbildes. Vienna, 1966.
- Dinkler, E., ed. Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, 90. 281-90. Recklinghausen, 1970.
- . “Analepsis.” In Studien zur spatäntiken und byzantinischen Kunst. Festschrift F. W. Deichmann, Vol. 3, pp. 137-41. Mainz, 1986.
- Engemann, J. “Zu den Apsis-Tituli des Paulinus von Nola.” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 17 (1974):21-46.
- Grabar, A. Martyrium, 2 vols. London, 1972.
- Ihm, C. Die Programme der christlichen Apsismalerei vom vierten Jahrhundert bis zur Mitte des achten Jahrhunderts. Wiesbaden, 1960.
- Klauser, T. Review of C. Ihm, Die Programme. Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 4 (1961):174-79.
- Meer, F. van der. Maiestas Domini. Vatican City, 1938.
- Monneret de Villard, U. La Nubia medioevale, Vol. 4. Cairo, 1957. Moorsel, P. van. Die stillende Gottesmutter und die Monophysiten.
- In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler, pp. 281-90. Recklinghausen, 1970.
- Wellen, G. A. Theotokos. Utrecht and Antwerp, 1960.
PAUL VAN MOORSEL