A Coptic art and architecture span no less than ten centuries, from the third century to the thirteenth. This is a remarkable length of time, inasmuch as the conditions in which they were born and developed would seem to have worked against a consistent development over so long a period. This article surveys the sculpture, painting, architecture, ceramics, and textiles of Coptic Egypt. See also ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENTS OF CHURCHES; BONE AND IVORY CARVING, COPTIC; BOOK DECORATION, COPTIC; CERAMICS, COPTIC; GLASS, COPTIC; METALWORK, COPTIC; PAINTING, COPTIC; PORTRAITURE, COPTIC; TEXTILES, COPTIC; WOODWORK, COPTIC. For the art and architecture of cities and monasteries see under the name of the city or fo the monastery, which is listed as DAYR. . . .


In the first century B.C. the 7 million Copts were by far the largest population of the time and of the area, but three centuries of Ptolemaic rule (332 to 31 B.C.) had dispossessed them of their lands as well as most of their rights. The elite had been unseated and the ancient pharaonic pantheon had been submerged beneath new Greek gods. The Egyptians received but a few crumbs from the table of those in command: small pieces of land with their humble farms, the crafts of rural artisans, and certain subordinate positions in the administration. Only the pagan clergy, whose duties and culture most nearly approached those of the Macedonian ruling class, was able to maintain its position. The population as a whole was composed mostly of fellahin (farm laborers) and small craftsmen, destined to nourish and serve the occupying forces and pay taxes to them.

This state of affairs both worsened and improved slightly under the Roman occupation (30 B.C.-340 A.D.). After his victory over Mark Antony’s and Cleopatra’s rebellion, Octavian denied Egypt the status of a Roman province and reserved the country’s production of grain for Rome, for which it became the imperial granary. He established the tax of the annona (grain), which placed in his hands the essentials for nourishing and maintaining the people of Rome, the source of his imperial power. Egypt was thus bled white. In comparison to the other Roman provinces, the Egyptians were governed by a separate statute, and for a long time they could not attain the rank of Roman citizens.

Nonetheless, certain advantages left from the preceding Ptolemaic rule remained intact: the small landholdings as well as the activities of the ateliers in the villages and small towns. Such ateliers were located near one or several temples of a size proportionate to that of the community and still served by the priests of the pharaonic religion. For the most part, representations of the Greco-Roman gods replaced those of the Egyptian gods, but behind these figures bearing foreign names and even new attributes, the Egyptians continued to honor in their minds and hearts the divinities from pharaonic times. Further, the subordinate duties of the administration were increasingly confided to the Egyptians, with resulting possibilities for their advancement.

Thereby, the traditions of millennia were perpetuated in the techniques of the craftsmen and the agricultural civilization so firmly anchored near the Nile, and the priest, who was always more or less a scribe, found it easier to write his language (a language inherited from pharaonic times with some administrative terms added) in Greek characters rather than in demotic Egyptian. In the third century A.D. the anomaly of the Egyptians’ position began to disappear. Among those Egyptians recruited as auxiliaries of the Roman legions, veterans gained Roman citizenship on personal grounds and thereby received the right to own and transmit property and acquire high positions in the village.

At the end of the third century, Christianity, which had probably been established at Alexandria during the first century and had spread gradually westward and southward, brought a new and vigorous possibility for religious buildings and representations. This occurred not only in its churches, still few in number, but also through the development of monasticism. Christianity continued to expand during the fourth century, as it achieved official acceptance, and contributed in an important way to the elevation not so much of the standard of living as of a civilizing spirit.

Therefore, in a milieu where material misery reigned more acutely than anywhere else, a small elite never ceased to keep its head above water, and thanks to the new and ardent élan of Christianity, this group did not hesitate to enrich its productions with architectural and decorative value.

Period of Diverse and Tendencies (First to Late Third Century)

The Greeks, and later the Romans, were attracted by the still numerous manifestations of pharaonic art. In religious architecture, the political rulers encouraged the building of temples to Egyptian divinities by presenting themselves as, if not successors, at least the representatives of the god Horus, from whom the Egyptian dynasties were said to descend. Hence, along with the temples, a mammisi (birthplace) of the god Horus was erected, which perpetuated his divine power through the new rulers.

They kept the general plan of the pharaonic temples and modified mainly the façades by constructing walls of intercolumniation with engraved scenes; this in effect overburdened the front of the building. But the introduction of the three-zoned Corinthian capital, in which the acanthus leaf was replaced by the palm and various other plants of Egypt, was an artistic success; the only success among these transformations, it was much more an Egyptian assimilation than it was a borrowing.

The exterior and interior walls of temples were laden with scenes and hieroglyphic inscriptions, valuable for the knowledge of the liturgy but serious obstacles to the soberness of the work. The poses of the figures sculpted in relief suffered from the attempt to inject into a two-dimensional art substitutes for the third dimension: foreshortenings that resulted in discordance and a turgidity of forms that acted as a trompe l’oeil. The spectator is constantly shocked while perusing the walls of the great temples of Dandarah, Idfu, and Philae. This hybrid style, which may employ the Greek tunic even to clothe subjects from the pharaonic tradition (as in vintage scenes, for example), is also found in tomb decorations (as in the tomb of Petosiris at Tunah al-Jabal in Middle Egypt).

Sculpture inherited these turgid forms from the Ptolemaic period, but during the Roman era, it turned toward the robust realism of the time in both religious and civil statues.

The same may be said of painting as in the Rape of Proserpine found in a funerary chapel from the Roman period at Tunah al-Jabal. A certain number of funerary objects—treated in a harmonious fashion in the best examples, but more often rather awkward and coarse—bear witness to an attraction, particularly for the Romans, of the rites of Egyptian antiquity. These items may be grouped into two typical categories. The first comprises the linens of mummies; a linen in the Louvre shows a Roman full-face, clothed in a toga, on a boat connecting the two worlds. He is juxtaposed to his own mummy, which is wrapped in bandages, standing, and being introduced into the underworld by Anubis, who places his right arm around the mummy’s shoulders in a protective gesture.

The second category comprises Romano-Egyptian portraits painted on wood and placed above the head of the mummy but still visible under the bandages covering the rest of the body. The style is “Pompeian,” dating from various periods from the second to the fourth centuries, but the rite—even the carved head of the sarcophagus being replaced by a painted portrait—is generally a borrowing by the veterans of the Roman legions. The sources of their models thus were drawn from Egypt and Rome. This is also the case on a large scale in a Roman funerary chapel at Tunah al-Jabal, where a lady is pictured almost full-face, wearing Roman clothes and with curly hair falling upon her shoulders, upon whom Horus and Toth (their names in hieroglyphics) pour the purifying ritual lustration.

The Ptolemies and the Romans also introduced into Egypt architectural programs and artisans’ techniques that were adopted by the Copts. The basilica has its antecedents at the pilgrimage center of ABU MINA in the northwest desert, as well as at Hermopolis Magna (see al-ASHMUNAYN). The arcade work has its in Rome and must have passed from there into Egypt, thanks to the direct relations created by the expansion of the grain tax. Terra-cotta was introduced from Rome, as was the building of walls by stacking rows of layer by layer upon wooden beams. Encaustic painting on wood may have had a Roman origin, as might be indicated by the Latin custom of depicting images representing the dead in procession.

The Ptolemies were responsible for the importation of sheep and the use of wool, which tended to replace the linen that had been exclusively used under the pharaohs, when clothing woven from animal fiber was considered impure and hence prohibited. Such a change was permitted by the weakening of the pharaonic religious requirements. decoration and its technical processes seem to have come from Syria, notably from Palmyra, as may be seen from the bands of decorative plant motifs on the clothing of funerary statues dating from the second century A.D.; this was perhaps due to the exchanges of Roman occupation troops within the two countries.

These diverse contributions increased the Egyptians’ possibilities for decoration inherited from their ancestors in various techniques such as ceramics and glass (with or without decoration), mural paintings (as well as painting and sculpture on plaster or wood), embossed metals, and carved ivory. Nevertheless, the Egyptians of this period did not produce mosaic. Apparently it was held in honor only in Roman circles in Alexandria or the great provincial cities. The reason probably lies in the high cost and great amount of time required by this craft, a luxury beyond the means of the Egyptians at that period, who were limited to less expensive techniques (as were the Byzantines themselves during times of difficulty).

In summary, this was a period of transition and contrast between the two civilizations that successively settled in Egypt; transition and contrast also marked the concepts, as well as the artisans’ techniques, still in existence and widespread on Egyptian soil. This circumstance suggests several observations.

In architecture, only the basilica was introduced, and it was reserved at first for Roman civil edifices (Hermopolis Magna) and later (fourth century) for imperial religious constructions. It seems that the pagan temples in the great centers and small towns kept their traditional forms. Some churches existed in Egypt before 260—as is attested by the edict of Gallenus, which returned the churches to the Christians—but their plan is not known.

Greek or Roman figures and architectural elements were justaposed with those of Egypt in rather large numbers, but many did not go much further. Actually, and this is important, the majority of these juxtapositions are to be imputed to the Greeks (for example, a cult of Isis supplied in Greek fashion with “initiation mysteries”) and to the Romans (for example, elements of funerary rites or even the adoption of representations of Egyptian gods, which might be deformed in a most disgraceful way). There was no reciprocation from the Egyptians, except, as has been noted, for the Corinthian capital, which a Greek, not seeing any acanthus leaves, may not have recognized.

“Egyptomania” flowed once again north of the Mediterranean, where the Isis cult flourished in numerous sanctuaries. The Nile god was to become the central figure, for example, in a fourth-century mosaic at Palestrina, Italy. Much earlier the portrayal of this great divinity had tempted Alexandrian artists, one of whom depicted a bust of him in a medallion dating from the end of the second century (Pushkin Museum, Moscow).

This piece, by its very delicate shadings, is a good illustration of the close dependence during this preliminary period upon Hellenistic art by the Egyptian artists, who were quite able to adapt themselves to it. The Nile was not only a god; its waters were inhabited with fish frolicking and participating in its divine life. The heavy shadows underlining the lower part of their bodies are imitated in a Pompeian manner and betray a Greco-Roman naturalism.

But in return, during this period in Egypt, the Greek and Roman divinities were, via Alexandria and the provincial centers, gradually supplanting their Egyptian counterparts except for Isis, but this was true only in the Greco-Roman milieus. Once again the Egyptians made their choices, but it was not a question of one pantheon replacing another. Artemis, Daphne, the Three Graces, Hercules, Mithra, Orpheus, Pan, Serapis, the Phoenix, Leda with the Swan— all appear from time to time.

Here and there one finds subjects borrowed from Hellenistic mythology: pastoral figures, the Seasons, the Victories supporting an imago (a Roman bust) in its crown of laurel, the Parthian horseman or hunter, and the gladiator. However, the subjects that most often recur are (1) Dionysus, Aphrodite with Cupid, the birth of Aphrodite (Aphrodite anadyomene), with or without their respective entourages of bacchantes or Nereids and Tritons; (2) dancers, alone or in pairs; and (3) a Nereid, alone or joined with another, all frequently placed in a continuous decorative scheme of plants and animals.

Such a preponderance of Dionysus and Aphrodite was certainly the result of a choice, and beneath the traits of these two gods, or in the evocation of one or the other by some figure from their retinues, it is respectively Osiris and Isis who are evoked. Certain distinctive traits identifying Dionysus or Aphrodite in Greek mythology occasionally enrich that of Egypt, but undeniably behind the Greek masks, it is the Egyptian religion and reflexes that are perpetuated. The pharaonic conceptions, not to mention the artisans’ techniques and professions, continued to underlie the ideology of the Egyptians at this time, just as the basic structure and vocabulary of the pharaonic language are to be found behind the letters of the Greek alphabet. The Egyptians surrendered, but they abandoned nothing of their ancestral mentality. (See MYTHOLOGICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART.)

The First Glimmers of Coptic Art (from the End of the Third Century to the First Half of the Fifth Century). Except for the plans and decorations of the great temples and the structure of temples in the small cities, pharaonic art had been completely submerged, to the point of disappearing, by the subjects and forms of another civilization. However, in these new forms, an Egyptian art was discovering itself. It issued from levels of society that, though not always rooted in the masses, were subjected no less to the power of the occupiers. The majority of these forces were pagan; consequently, the figures and decorations came to be borrowed (within an ambiance that still was and would long remain sacred) from the predominant religion of the Mediterranean, that of the Roman empire.

Although a Christian minority had surely existed from the second century and very likely from the first century, especially in the north of Egypt, at the beginning of this period the Christians were still subjected to a regime of persecution from which they were not to be liberated until the first quarter of the fourth century. They were not yet capable of inventing their own figurative or decorative motifs; there were scarcely any Christian subjects to be found. The mass of themes and decorations continued, for the most part, to be borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology, although some were marked with the Christian cross. This predominance of Greco-Roman mythological subjects was common to both Christian and pagan Egyptians of this period, for except in religion, they had a common outlook.

This can be seen by an appellation given them much later by the conquering Arabs: “Copt,” a word that in modern times has become a convenient label to distinguish them first from the occupying Romans and then from the Byzantines. This name is all the more appropriate for both Christian and pagan Egyptians because they spoke the language of pharaonic times (taking into account its evolution to that moment), but with the Greek alphabet substituted for demotic. One may ask if this was the result of the religious freedom, without economic improvement, introduced by Constantine.

Greco-Roman elegance and often picturesque grace were hardly perpetuated in Hellenistic art except in Alexandria; the works excavated in the rest of the country—and thereby produced by Copts, who were for the most part pagan—display pronounced and significant distortions. A sort of detachment emerged in Egypt in relation to the classical imperatives, and one can see therein the first signs of a new perspective. Because it first and most evidently appeared in sculpture, this medium may serve as a guide for analyzing the others.

Sculpture. With the exception of some magic dolls and a multitude of figurines of mixed mythology (such as Aphrodite-Isis- Hathor, Eros or Hercules, and many others), statuary was extremely rare; there were only a few pieces among the Coptic productions. This was common throughout the Mediterranean. Though statuary had taken root earlier in Egypt than elsewhere and was to continue for centuries, three-dimensional representation gradually went out of style. Nonetheless, one may cite a limestone statuette of an auxiliary of a Roman legion in the Louvre, Paris: he was a typically Egyptian face, but the necessary short Roman haircut characteristic of the later third or beginning of the fourth century.

Statuary was replaced by relief in Coptic sculpture in very clear stages; each stage was marked by exemplary items in limestone, a unique situation in the productions of this period. It will suffice to outline the succession.

The birth of Aphrodite in an archivolt from AHNAS AL- MADINAH (Coptic Museum, Cairo) breaks from the Hellenistic norms regarding the grace of the goddess. Her body leans without stress against the background of the veil she holds in her hands; the veil falls in folds with supplely arranged lines, all of which might create an illusion as to the style. The face is not emphasized, but the waist, scarcely curved above legs bent in a seated position, is of a length that, while creating an elegant effect, contradicts all art known of the Alexandrian epoch and elsewhere.

A further development is evident in the Dionysiac piece (Louvre) perhaps originating from Shaykh Abadah (ANTINOOPOLIS), also in Middle Egypt. The remnants of Hellenistic grace have disappeared. In the slightly concave surface surmounted by a fragment of broken pediment, a Dionysiac figure shown full-face disengages himself violently from a vinebranch. His nudity exaggerates the movement, which is translated by a sort of disappearance of the legs and the increased proportions given to the upper part of the body and head with its fixed and insistent look. This is an astonishing illustration of vigor as strong as that of the juice of the grape.

The first evolutionary cycle ends and at the same time initiates another with an Eros on a dolphin, waving his torch between two Nereids in the mythic waves under a pediment broken by a mask, now located at the Civic Museum of History and Art in Trieste. The natural proportions are more respected except for—as is often the case—those of the medallion necklaces and earrings of the Nereids. Their conventional faces enhance the somewhat sly smile of the Eros.

But if their forms and poses are nearly acceptable, only two delicate ribbons attach them to the flat background. Herein one finds an opposition of the surface to the background, to the advantage of high relief, at which the Copts stopped for the moment, and which prepares, as will be seen, for a new direction in Coptic relief.

These three examples of figures were chosen from among many others representing these same developmental stages. They are numerous and often of good quality in the Coptic Museum at Cairo, more isolated in other museums.

A veritable proliferation occurred in the ornamental decorations of the temples, which were still largely pagan at this time. Those coming from excavations of Oxyrhynchus in Middle Egypt have been grouped in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. For the greater part, they are vegetal or geometric motifs, which, though simplified, are still close to the Alexandrian models. Most often they are found in the friezes and capitals. A chronology established by E. Kitzinger (1938, pp. 181-215), who made comparisons with a capital dating from 390 from Gethsemane (now at Jerusalem), allows us to date the ensemble of the decorations from the Egyptian site by their analogy to similar elements from regions nearby and of like spirit.

Several modifications to the Corinthian capital are found both in the Gethsemane capital and in the Egyptian pieces, such as the tendency for the leaves of the second zone to cover those of the higher zone, the stylizing of the foliage to the point of abandoning naturalism, the elongation of the acanthus leaves, and the termination of the acanthus leaves in a point. This last characteristic was transferred to the decorative friezes of acanthus leaves, whose angular aspect was transferred, in an analogous way, to the geometric motifs (such as meanders or Greek key patterns) that enlarged the artists’ repertoire.

This slight departure from naturalism occurred as well in the softer materials such as ivory, bone, and wood, for objects routinely used in both liturgical (representations of Nereids and Erotes, garlands and boughs) and secular (unguent boxes, decoration on spindle-whorls) situations.

Painting and Pottery. The Coptic penchant for colors also deserves some discussion. Unfortunately, neither the walls of the pagan temples nor Christian monuments furnish as many examples of painting as might be desired. Almost nothing of colored decoration has remained from the pagan tombs and nothing from the temples.

Nor can the Egyptian Christians be credited with the decoration of a tomb at Antinoopolis, or of the catacomb of Karmuz near Alexandria (known only by a recent sketch), or of a third tomb discovered in 1964 in the Wardyan quarter of Alexandria; all three are examples of Alexandrian Christian art. This scarcity is not surprising, since Christianity was not yet widespread in Egypt. Moreover, first evidences of mural paintings have rarely survived.

The omission of another genre of painting, manuscript illumination, is somewhat surprising. It is known that in Alexandria at the end of the third century, Origen used scribes and tachygraphers to disseminate scriptural or catechetical texts. One manuscript of the Gospel of John, almost complete in Sahadic Coptic and dating from the middle of the fourth century, has been conserved in the library of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt at London. Like the Gospel fragments dating from the second century and the volumes of Gnostic and Manichaean texts from the fourth century, this item contains no illuminations of any kind.

The pagans at the time accompanied their magic writings with rude drawings at least, but nothing of the sort is to be found among Christian and Gnostic books. One must conclude that, as in other countries, there was a rupture, caused not by a religious interdict— since the carved figure still persisted—but rather by the loss of a craft that, although ancestral, was no longer in fashion.

There is, however, more information about two other domains that employ color: painted pottery and, above all, decorative textiles. Painted pottery perpetuated a technique inherited from ancient times for everyday objects and manifested a search for elegance and variety, along with a desire for embellishment by means of colored decoration. Here, the themes have become frankly Greco-Roman; they transpose plants and animated beings of nature into a colored design, which may or may not have been conserved in the vases. The style closely approaches the Alexandrian harmony and brilliance. The terra-cotta figurines have already been mentioned in relation to the statuary.

Textiles. Coptic textiles are rich in decorative elements, used mainly to adorn the frame around predominantly mythological scenes. To these may be added pastoral subjects. Alexandrian subjects were still used; their forms were rough but pleasant. Only one piece among tens of thousands of recorded Coptic textiles can be dated with near certainty, thanks to a coin from the fourth century found close to it, and it marks a turning point. It is a medallion on a purple background in which squares with geometric motifs around a rosette are connected to each other at angles with white thread.

This medallion, and others of similar interlaced floral motifs that decorate the front of vestments, seem to have inaugurated in Egypt the use of the flying shuttle, but as yet only in a purely decorative manner. The flying shuttle, perhaps borrowed from Syria, is a shuttle independent of the weft threads forming the background through the warp. It allows a new thread of weft to skip, shot by shot, over one or more consecutive threads of normal weft during the weaving, so as to cast straight or curved lines and outline the traits of the face, the contours of limbs and muscles of a figure, or the detail of an object. It thereby makes the introduction of color easier eliminates the process of “shading”—that is, trompe l‘oeil to indicate the modeling—and opts for the return to two dimensions on a flat background. Its use continues to suggest, but prevents imposing, the illusion of depth, projection, or shadow. In this, it departs clearly from Greco-Roman art and frankly renews its ties to the painting of the pharaonic era.

During this period, the two procedures—flying shuttle and shading—continued to coexist so that color gradually became more important. Such color may be seen in numerous mythological scenes. For example, it is found in a square depicting a Parthian horseman framed by a border of canthari (jugs with handles) and medallions, a piece in the Louvre Museum dating from the fourth century, in which yellow and white lines enhance the figurations against a purple background. At the end of the fourth century, color, including purple, clearly predominated. The square portraits of Dionysus and Ariadne in the Louvre are good illustrations of this use of color, though they still remain faithful to shadings in color to render the nuances and shadows.

Metal work. Finally, it must be noted that metal was little used during this period, with the exception of small jewels in silver (earrings, rings, and bracelets), some rare liturgical objects (such as a censer decorated in high relief with the four symbols of the evangelists, now in the Louvre), and some lamps, of which certain ones are of symbolic animal figures such as the dolphin and the dove.

Architecture. In this overview of media, meeting places— notably religious—must be mentioned, for they represent a form appropriate to religious communities. It has been established that in this period, the pagan temples (which at first were still numerous in the villages) were abandoned for the churches, whose style was apparently not yet fixed. The historian JOHN OF NIKIOU mentions a circular martyry erected in honor of Saint MARK, the presumed founder of Christianity in Egypt, during the second century near the eastern shores of Alexandria; another martyry was dedicated to Saint Metra in the same city. This circular plan must have remained an isolated instance.

Given Alexandria’s close connections to Rome and judging by what followed, the basilical plan must have gained a very early foothold in Egypt for Christian gatherings, both in the villages and in the cities. At this stage, even in its simplest form, the Egyptian basilica must not have departed from the Roman model. It is still found in reduced dimensions in the crypts of the churches of Abu Sarjah and Abu Sayfayn in Cairo. Perhaps one original trait of this plan may be seen in the Church of Mar (Saint) Mina, located not far from Cairo; that is, the back has three apses that prolong the nave and two aisles, in possible imitation of the pagan Ptolemaic temples.

Overview. From the foregoing discussion, many observations follow.

In the mixture of three religions—pharaonic, Greco-Roman, and Christian—the first two predominated throughout this period. However, there is one striking peculiarity: if the pharaonic themes disappeared, their significance was still perpetuated in the Greco- Roman representations. In craftsmanship, Hellenistic harmony and picturesque elegance—already stylized at Alexandria—were freed in the productions of the Egyptian population (pagan or Christian) under the effect of a vigor that departed from the usual forms in order to emphasize an idea or movement.

In sculpture, relief predominated as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, but with a more striking contrast of the surface to the background. In textiles, a new technique, the flying shuttle, came to confirm the renunciation of an illusory three-dimensional rendering of forms and allowed the rediscovery of the ancestral Egyptian tradition of two-dimensional figures.

If certain genres are not, or are hardly, represented in Coptic productions—such as mosaic, statuary, and illuminated manuscripts—the Copts cannot be reproached for following the styles of the time, nor for renouncing certain techniques, either beyond their means or of no use to them. But the mass of their production manifests a strong concern with the visible interpretation of reality and shows changes powerful enough to hint at a new and positive vision.

Mastery (Mid-Fifth to Late Seventh Century)

In the middle of the fifth century, when the majority of the Egyptian people had become Christian, the Council of CHALCEDON, which condemned doctrine, separated Egypt from the rest of the Christian world. The church of Egypt lost both its upper-class audience and its possibilities for relations beyond the country’s frontiers. But from a national point of view, it profited from a sense of Egyptian self-consciousness, and even though buffeted by diverse currents, the church affirmed its own traits with a great vigor that also affected the domain of art. This art, save for certain exceptions destined for extinction, was to evolve for two centuries in its own, practically Christian, country while accentuating even more its distance from the occupying Byzantine power and knowing that it could depend only upon itself.

The church became increasingly organized as the number of its faithful grew and adopted the basilica as the architectural plan of its religious edifices, although the general plan and a few details were inconsistent with some pharaonic and Ptolemaic characteristics.

During this period, new tendencies appeared in several genres. For the sake of clarity, the discussion below will present general themes first; it will proceed with a description of the plastic arts and conclude with a description of arts employing line and color.

Coptic Themes. In this period Christian themes made their appearance, clearly but in a limited way. Christ was almost always depicted as an infant in His mother’s arms. His role as the Savior was not emphasized until the seventh century, and this was done in a special manner. One may ask if other interpretations of Christ existed; but this can hardly be true, for even with limited examples of other interpretations, some would have had to survive. We deduce this from the relatively numerous portrayals of the Virgin, who is always depicted with her Son. Activity in Egypt had prepared for and accompanied the definition of the divine maternity of Mary, which was proclaimed at the Council of EPHESUS (431) and promoted by the head of the Coptic church, CYRIL I, patriarch of Alexandria.

The ardent devotion to this aspect of Christian doctrine was not affected by the condemnation of monophysitism twenty years later, nor by the resultant separation of Chalcedonian Christianity from Egypt. It is not impossible that this veneration of the Virgin constituted the transformation, sincerely Christianized, of the ancestral veneration given Isis, mother of the god Horus-Ra, and this in a country where the family is deeply rooted. It is no less significant that episodes from the childhood of Christ survived until recently in the murals of the stone monasteries of DAYR and Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit. Several depictions of the baptism of Christ rightly insist on the role of the Savior sent by the Father.

In the seventh and eighth centuries, in contrast, Christ in glory appears several times above the Virgin and the apostles in the devotion cells at Bawit in Middle Egypt; in one panel portrait, He stands, protecting the abbot of the monastery. The back of the choir in the South Church at Bawit portrays Him presiding at the Last Judgment in the middle of His apostles. The absence of any representations of the Good Shepherd is understandable in a country with so little grassy land for sheep to graze upon. Except for the apostles in this painting of Christ in glory, martyrs, whether Western or Eastern, other than Saint Menas or Saint Thecla, scarcely attracted the Copts’ devotion.

The Copts directed their veneration rather to Coptic monks, and especially to the great founders of the monasteries: Saints ANTONY, Apollo of Bawit, PACHOMIUS, of Tabennese, MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN, JEREMIAH, and a host of others. The angels and the archangel MICHAEL, for their part, are constantly present. One may discern here a piety for which speculation had little attraction, but which, rather, permeated everyday existence with a sacred and protective ambiance.

Some rare subjects from the Old Testament were held in high esteem. They probably derived from the influence of the Roman catacombs: Abraham’s sacrifice, Jonah and the whale, the angel with the Three Hebrews in the Furnace. (See BIBLICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART.) Certain Christian symbols enjoyed more favor: the Greek cross, the crux ansata (cross in the form of an ANKH), the Alpha and Omega, and the phoenix. (See SYMBOLISM IN COPTIC ART.) Nevertheless, some objects of a magical nature may have appeared as protectors against demonic attacks, as happened in a chapel of Dayr Apa Apollo. The devil was not portrayed, though his personage was frequently mentioned in the texts, notably monastic ones.

One quite unexpected aspect of iconography is that the motifs decorating vestments, furniture, and utensils continued to be borrowed from mythology, and so it remained until the eighth century. Only a few gods were held in honor—Dionysus, Aphrodite, Daphne, Artemis, Hercules, the Nile god (above all the first three), or the allegorical figure of the orant (praying person)—but these reappear frequently. The same may be said for their respective retinues of bacchantes, dancers (male and female), Nereids, or simply erotes (cupids). The figures of these retinues may appear in groups or alone and may accompany the gods or be isolated from them.

No doubt one might suppose that there was a pagan survival and syncretism of the two religions, but this was not the case. Just as Dionysus served as a mask for Osiris, and Aphrodite as a mask for Isis during the Ptolemaic period, for the Christians, Dionysus and Aphrodite evoked respectively the vine of the and the soul being reborn from the waters of baptism. Their retinues or companions may act as substitutes in the same role. Thus, pagan symbolism became Christian symbolism, occasionally identified by a Christian emblem such as the cross, but most often in need of none.

Sculpture. During the preceding period (the late third to the early fifth century), sculpture departed from the classical tradition; this was suggested in the decoration of a capital of the Church of Gethsemane, dated from 390 by E. Kitzinger, who recognized it among the fragments of from Oxyrhynchus displayed at the Greco-Roman Museum at Alexandria. This is a very important landmark because, on the one hand, it signifies a revolutionary tendency emerging in the Mediterranean world, and on the other, it shows that this tendency, though relatively isolated in the Middle East, was adopted on a grand scale in a relatively important sanctuary of pagan Coptic Egypt. The tendency was further reinforced in Egypt in two arts that employ color decoration, ceramics and textiles, by a progressive replacement of the illusion of modeling by the use of lines that merely suggest it.

From the mid-fifth to the late seventh century, this abandonment of the classical, ideal harmony was further accentuated in the Middle East. Kitzinger has uncovered two precise examples showing the development of this tendency, once again on two Corinthian capitals: one from the Church of the Golden Gate in Istanbul dating from 425-430, and the other from the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Jerusalem dating from 450-460. Here the volutes of the superior zone are continuously absorbed by the leaves of the second zone; the points of the acanthus leaves are reduced in number and placed laterally instead of vertically; and the foliage has lost its naturalism.

These traits, which also characterize the numerous fragments of the temples of Ahnas al-Madinah in Egypt, constitute yet one more step in the total separation of Middle Eastern art from academicism and picturesque affectation. A coarseness resulted that was sometimes restrained, sometimes extreme. However, whereas this style appeared episodically in the Byzantine countries and in many cases did not abandon the traditional forms, it became characteristic of Coptic sculpture, both pagan and Christian, where it was restricted to sculpture in relief and then rather quickly adopted to a flat surface.

It is not that the Copts disdained borrowing Byzantine themes, but they used them almost uniquely in architectural ornaments and in very limited numbers of which only the basket capital was truly distinctive. Moreover, the Copts did not hesitate to treat the basket capital in their own fashion. This consisted in many cases of flattening the surface in relation to the ground from which it was carved at a right angle, emphasizing the subject in a striking way.

Furthermore, the tendency that had already appeared in the preceding period of taking liberties with proportions in order to emphasize a pose, a movement, or a trait became predominant. Works of quality emerged, some of them masterpieces.

In the architectural ornamentation of the church at Bawit the high friezes with foliated scrolls, the basket capitals, a particular broken pediment sheltering a seashell—all are striking in their perfection. The rhythm of the friezes, the lace effect of the capitals, and the triumphal aspect of the decoration of the shell are the marks of a self-assured craft and inspiration. This self-assurance is also found on the pilaster of a portal from the same site, whose two sides are decorated in relief in ascending rhythm, one side with balanced geometric decorations, the other with delicate, “inhabited” stems that rise from a vase and interlace. One element of decoration rises toward Christ and the other toward an angel with flowing robes. It is a successful marriage of a return to classical forms and new tendencies, with the latter, however, destined to prevail.

These new tendencies operated in figurative art and sculpture (henceforth in bas-relief) as well as in architectural ornament. First, they can be seen in pieces now in the Louvre, once again deriving from the South Church of Bawit, where protective panels depicting a passing lion or the whale disgorging Jonah employ deep carving to detach the subjects from the surface, which remains flat elsewhere. An entire fishing scene, of another provenance (also in the Louvre), maintains the same detachment in the carving of the subjects, with the figures projected from a flat background without using deep carving, keeping the level of the outer surface flat as well. Without doubt, the greatest masterpiece of all, as proven by its great popularity, is the panel from the now destroyed church of Armant near Luxor (also in the Louvre) in which the design of a dolphin covers a short, wide rectangle.

The fish, diving from the right and carrying the cross raised upright upon its mouth, touches the borders of the supporting piece. A greater impression of relief is produced because all the elements are cut at right angles from the background and are even with the outer surface of the panel. One should also mention a wooden fragment of an Annunciation scene that shows the Virgin seated and spinning in front of the archangel, whose foot alone has survived. Her pose, full-face with her body in profile, recalls the conventions of pharaonic murals in relief and painting.

Painting. This general return to two dimensions was no less esteemed in the arts using color. Depth was suggested by grouping and contrasting dominant colored surfaces, over which fine lines were traced, either by brush in painting or by the flying shuttle in tapestry. It even reached the point that the shading meant to indicate shadows was often misplaced. This development marked a total abandonment of the three-dimensional style of the Byzantine mosaic and relief. This is suggested by the badly deteriorated scenes of Christ’s childhood, dated from the sixth century, found in the chapel carved from stone at Dayr or in a chapel at Bawit.

Bawit offers a large demonstration of this return to two dimensions in numerous devotional chapels, but examples have survived only in black-and-white photographs and some painted reproductions. A baptism of Christ may date from the sixth century, judging by the simplicity of lines and the proportion of the forms. The elongation of the body in a scene of the Three Hebrews in the Furnace and in portrayals of various monks in liturgical groupings, as well as in some scenes of guardian saints against magic, denotes a great sureness of the artist’s sight and brush control. However, several triumphs of Christ from various chapels, of which there is an example in the Coptic Museum at Cairo, opt for heavier forms.

This is also the case of a first-rate work, also dating from the seventh century, probably originating from Bawit (now in the Louvre), a wooden panel depicting the Savior protecting the monk Menas. The two figures stand side by side, and their bodies, clothed in robes that ascend in curves, direct the spectator’s eye toward the protective gesture of Christ, giving supreme importance both to this pose and to the rounded heads of Christ and Menas. This is far removed from the Byzantine style and represents another spirituality not inferior to the Byzantine and very modern.

These liberties taken with proportions are especially well realized, particularly in the decoration of ceramics, as can be seen in a bowl in the Louvre bearing a design of stylized deer and birds that traverse interlacings of ocher tones, all highlighted against a yellow background.

Textiles. Tapestries with geometric patterns, such as those in purple, vividly detached from a surrounding loopwoven background, or tapestries of Nilotic scenes and portraits bordered by geometric patterns, display great self-assurance. A departure from this pronounced detachment is found only in a few highly colored pieces treating mythological subjects. Examples are Dionysus with a follower (in the Louvre) and a Nereid holding a bowl (in the Cleveland Museum of Art), both of which use misplaced shadings, and a group of Pan and Dionysus (in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

In return, the seventh-century hanging (in the Cleveland Museum) of an enthroned Virgin surrounded by superimposed busts of apostles shows a resumption of the Byzantine style, but in a different interpretation and with different features, which places it among valuable autochthonous works.

Other Genres. A great number of funerary stelae are generally of a stereotyped art, but some of them, though relatively flat and at first glance quite simple, are to be recommended by the nature of the portrait or symbol they contain.

Alongside these works, there are other very inferior works, which are mentioned only for the sake of information. In their accentuated disproportion they occasionally achieve boorishness through a gross deformation of Hellenistic art.

These disgraceful, sometimes brutal, works are actually rare and appear chiefly in pagan temples in a rural setting. They are limited to stone, bronze, and ivory. The fact that many of them may lack grace in no way detracts from the value of those works mentioned above—the best examples of Coptic art—that are sufficient for evaluating Coptic art and appraising its fundamental tendencies. It still is a flagrant injustice that certain scholars have seized upon the exceptions, an indistinguishable lot of largescale productions and attempts at reproducing reality, to describe Coptic art as barbaric (Wessel, 1963), and then in a rather astounding transfer classify as Byzantine certain Coptic works of value, though they employ a visual vocabulary totally contrary to that of Byzantium. This attitude must be denounced as inadmissible.

Coptic art reached a summit that in certain examples is on a level with the best, above all for those eyes that modern art had led to an appreciation of a two-dimensional restriction for representations on flat surfaces. Perhaps this art might have risen even higher. The Arab conquest put a stop to its vigor but could not prevent its energetic forces from operating for many years thereafter in new and meritorious directions.

One cannot guess what other heights Coptic art might have attained under different circumstances. At first sight an archivolt in the Louvre is occasionally considered to be Romanesque. Beneath the outer border—itself ornamented with garlands—is a rather wide arcade decorated with undulating stems, surmounted in the middle by a triple knot of stalks. The archivolt terminates with angel- musicians in high relief against the rest of the decoration. The flatness of the vegetal motifs leaves no doubt about the Coptic appurtenances of the piece, while the triple folioles of the arcade work place it in the eighth century. Such a striking and original work stands as a beacon on a road unfortunately barred.

New Directions (Eighth to Thirteenth Century)

The Muslim domination did in effect close many promising avenues. The decoration of churches as well as the construction of new ones became sluggish. In any event, pressures on the Copts brought conversions to Islam that within 200 years affected progressively almost the total population and reduced the Copts to a minority community by the end of the ninth century. Little by little the Copts’ means became no more than those of an artisan class assigned to weaving and woodwork, as the Persian traveler Nasiri Khosrow noted in the eleventh century. It is nonetheless significant that the Kabati (Copts) quickly dominated the production of decorated Egyptian textiles, a dominance that continued for a long time in the considerable territory controlled by Islam.

Wood and ebony carving have remained the Copts’ domain up to the present day. As for architecture and construction in stone, the Copts shared these specialties with the Syrians even while in the service of the Muslims, as is attested by many witnesses such as Leonce of Neapolis in the seventh century and Baladhuri, Samhudi, and the papyri of Aphrodito of Egypt in the eighth century. There can be no further doubt about this when one realizes that, under the and Fatimids, all the decorative work in wood, whether on doors, furniture, or all kinds of ornamentation, was taken over by the Copts. This is true to the extent that the style is commonly called “Copto-Muslim” whether it concerns Christian or Muslim furnishings.

The Coptic artisan class, formed by millennia of craftsmanship and representing Egypt’s autochthonous population, whether Christian or converted to Islam, lasted for five centuries more, perpetuating the tradition of the preceding four centuries and thereby assuring the survival of the mass of the laborers’ productivity in all genres. Some artisans worked primarily in construction, furniture, certain luxury fabrics, glass, and metals, serving the Muslim governors for their religious pageantry, for their administration in part, and for their army as a whole, as well as for their families. Other workers cared for the needs of the rest of the population, needs that, even with the religious differences within the Egyptian people, were to remain homogenous for a long time.

Influences emanating from foreign regions ruled by the central Islamic government made themselves felt even in works produced by Christians; these influences contributed to the evolution of the decorative themes of their works, as well as to the evolution of the Coptic style, which pursued its own unique tendencies and prevailed even in works produced for the Muslims.

This same observation can be verified for each epoch in the sequence of Coptic art until the thirteenth century, if we restrict ourselves to works attributable to Christians. Such works comprise a considerable collection in any event, since they come from the ornamentation of Coptic edifices or from items—notably textiles— found on the dead in their tombs (Muslims were buried in a simple white shroud).

Architectural Decoration. In Coptic architectural ornamentation, there were certain new traits held in common with the art of Samarra, the Abbasid capital established in 836 north of Baghdad, which Ibn Tulun ruled before becoming governor of Egypt. Copts were employed at Samarra, and one may ask if they instigated the common traits.

This is doubtful in regard to certain traits that in Egypt were confined to one site. This is true for reliefs on stucco ornamented with palmettes contained in interconnecting octagons. Such reliefs decorate the windows and doors of the haykal (sanctuary) at DAYR ANBA MAQAR, as well as those in the church of al-‘Adhra’ at Dayr al-Suryan in Wadi al-Natrun.

In this same Dayr Anba Maqar, there is a series of niches from the Fatimid period (tenth to twelfth century) in which the two branches of the arcade ascend vertically and curve inward obliquely, one toward the other halfway up so as to meet in a pointed summit. Such niches are also found in Muslim art, for example, at the Mosque al-Azhar, but nowhere else in Coptic art.

Finally, a decorative motif in mosaic in the cupola of the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, not necessarily of Muslim inspiration and even less so in the eighth century, appears to have reached the Copts, probably through Muslim intermediaries. This motif consists of a vertical series of open flowers that continuously alternate with a pair of half-flowers cut by the border on either side of the design. It passed from the Palestinian mosaic into Coptic tapestries, notably vestments, during the ninth and tenth centuries.

This motif marks the end of the influence exercised or transmitted by the Muslims to the Copts. It was in the opposite direction that the current flowed in other Mediterranean arts, with Islam creating in its turn and according to its own tendencies, but not hesitating to borrow, principally from the Copts.

For five more centuries, despite their progressively reduced numbers, the Copts continued to produce art in order to accommodate the needs of their still considerable population: on the one hand, in architecture and architectural decoration, and on the other, in routinely used decorative pieces (most often in the liturgy) as well as in textiles and in ceramics.

Architecture. Architecture, in fact, was not at first hindered by the new rulers. The construction and even the maintenance of the churches were guaranteed in principle by the surrender treaty of 641. It was only in 850 that a decree of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil ordered the destruction of sanctuaries no longer in use as a result of the progressive conversion of Copts to Islam. However, except under the persecutor-caliph al-HAKIM in the eleventh century, construction only slowed but did not stop, even in the elaboration of great projects, notably the monasteries. The cupola was held in high honor and remained so.

Sculpture and Painting. This slowing may also be observed in painting and sculpture. But there were some commendable works, such as a cycle of the story of David painted at Bawit in the eighth century and the pictoral decoration of the Church of Saint Antony in the DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS, from the Fatimid period. Certain reliefs, striking by their vigorous lines, include a Christ mounted between two angels dating from the ninth century in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin.

Two pieces stand out: the Virgin of Tenderness in ivory from the ninth century (in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore), an ancestor, strikingly vivid in its somewhat coarse style, of the Russian Virgins of Tenderness; and the Martyrdom of Saint Thecla in stone, of a simple and concentrated flatness (in the Brooklyn Museum). Later, even under the Fatimids, the decoration of doors with panels depicting a person or animal in relief produced an ornamental effect imitated by the Muslims.

Textiles and Other Genres. There are other abundantly represented categories that remain to be mentioned: ceramics of various forms (sometimes animal) and with often nave decoration; metals, whether crosses (often engraved with inscriptions of personages), censers of surprising forms, or paterae with the stem in the form of a female dancer carrying a cross; glasses of all kinds, of which some are decorated (e.g., one with a horseman, in the Louvre); and above all, textiles, such as tunics, cloaks, and wall hangings, better conserved because they are more recent, all displaying a most involved ornamentation.

In most of these works, the lines of the already stylized face became less and less important, and the same may be said for the portrayal of both human and animal figures. Everything became a pretext for the invention of new forms that discarded reality to follow nothing but fantasy—sometimes of the wildest order—and succumbed to an acute sense of decoration for decoration’s sake.

Since tendency this was characteristic of Coptic art, the first attempts can be seen from the very beginning. The decorations in sculptured stone in the churches (at Bawit, for example) surrendered to this tendency in a rather astonishing fashion. One example marking this final stage is in the form of a scroll with swirling foliage, whose central fruit is nothing more than the hub of a wheel, the natural subject having become the pretext for abstract invention. In decorated textiles, it appears just as often in a profusion of fine works. In its own way, this sense for decoration joined with a fundamental tendency of pharaonic art.

In keeping with this general movement, the value of which is striking, some pieces stand out, particularly wall hangings. One of these, dating from the ninth century (in the Abegg Stiftung at Riggisberg, Switzerland) depicts in full-face a family standing side by side in a rigid orant position beneath two arcades, one sheltering an eagle and the other a peacock, both stylized. Another piece from the ninth century (in the Louvre) is a triumph of the cross, with the cross in the form of an ankh placed between two panels, one depicting the ass of Balaam (Nm. 22:21-30) and the other showing Jonah praying as he is disgorged by the whale (Jon. 2:10). These are portrayed above lions and sheep together, which are symbolic of the Christian peace announced by Isaiah. Dating from the ninth century as well is a portrait of an evangelist (in the Detroit Institute of Art) made by juxtaposing colored surfaces almost at right angles or in wide curves.

Illuminated Manuscripts. Two series of illuminated manuscripts, of which certain traits are still typically Coptic, while others have already plunged into an art that is largely Arabicized, complete this general account of Coptic art. These works decorate two Copto-Arabic books of Gospels, both in Paris. In the first series, from the twelfth century, in the National Library, the illuminations are inserted into the Coptic text and occupy the greater part of numerous pages, with the Arabic text at one side.

The pictures are remarkable for the vividness of the personages, although they are a bit cramped. In the second series, in the Catholic Institute, the illuminations are grouped in pairs in three succeeding registers on the same leaf, so as to occupy about twenty pages scattered throughout the work, with the texts distributed on the same model as the Gospel Book in the National Library. The figures and colors are more finely drawn, in a manner that would suggest a Syrian influence.

At this point Coptic art came to a halt. It succumbed because it was abandoned by both the elite and the majority of Copts, who could no longer resist social pressures for conversion to Islam. Never again did it completely achieve its particular visual characteristics. But it had made its mark, which cannot be erased. It established itself by its autonomy, by an evolution ever faithful to its imperatives, and by soaring works that exhibit a power of decorative invention which allies Coptic art to the best of modern art.


  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Petit Palais. Exhibition catalogue. Paris, 1964.
  •  . L’Art copte (collection L’Art dans le monde). Paris, 1968.
  •  . Une Assimilation abusive: Actes du XXIXe Congrès international des Orientalistes (Paris, juillet 1973). Paris, 1975.
  • Cresswell, K. A. C. Early Muslim Architecture. Harmondsworth, 1958.
  • Effenberger, A. Koptische Kunst. Leipzig, 1973.
  • Kitzinger, E. “Notes on Early Coptic Sculpture.” Archaeologia 87, 2nd ser. 37 (1938):181.
  • Koefoed-Petersen, O. Koptisk Kunst. Copenhagen, 1944.
  • Krause, M. “Ägypten.” Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst. Stuttgart, 1963.
  • Munier, H., and G. Wiet. “L’Egypte byzantine et musulmane.” Précis de l’Histoire d’Egypte, Vol. 2. Cairo, 1932-1935.
  • Wessel, K. Koptische Kunst. Die Spätantike in Ägypten. Recklinghausen, 1963.
  • Zaloscer, H. Die Kunst im christlichen Ägypten. Vienna/Munich, 1974.