Wall painting, Dome of the Martyrs, Paul’s Monastery.

Coptic Art during the Ottoman Period: Documentation of the Akhmimic Style

Coptic Art during the Ottoman Period: Documentation of the Akhmimic Style

History of the Akhmimic Style

In the course of the seventeenth century, during the Ottoman period, significant innovations were introduced into Coptic art, which has led some scholars to speak of the ‘Akhmimic style.’ In order to study this style we need first to take into account the difficult situation of the Christians in Egypt during this time resulting from changes in the political, social, cul­tural, and religious life. These changes played an important role in the interaction between the East and the West.[1]

Throughout the medieval centuries, the Coptic Orthodox Church had suffered from several waves of intervention by either the Islamic rulers or European Catholic ideologies, which threatened the survival of Coptic Christian identity.[2]

In the fourteenth century, under the Mamluk dultans, only nineteen churches were recorded for the whole area of Lower Egypt, including the Delta and Alexandria.[3] The rest of the churches had been demolished or damaged by the Muslims, with or without the support of the rulers. Permission for reconstruction or restoration was never given.[4] On the other hand, the Vatican was increasingly attentive to the development of Christian Orthodox thought in the Middle East, particularly in Christian Egypt.[5]

The history of Coptic Egypt may help us to understand why Coptic art almost disappeared in the period from the tenth to the late sixteenth century. In this chapter, I will address the question of how, following that period, innovations in Coptic art came about and developed.

According to the art historians, it is very hard to investigate the factors that contributed to the emergence of the so-called the Akhmimic style and the circumstances under which this happened.

The Christian kings and emperors from the West and the North (Europe, the Vatican, and Russia) acted as protectors of the Christians and of the Christian monuments and sites within the Ottoman Empire, in particular in the Holy Land and the surrounding provinces.[6] Their influence resulted in greater flexibility on the part of the Ottomans in giving permissions for restoration and renovations of the old and damaged churches and Christian sites.[7] Subsequently, during the second half of the seventeenth century, the Copts were allowed to restore their churches.[8] At the same time, there were increasing efforts from the Vatican to attract and accommodate the Coptic Orthodox Church.[9] Then, by A.D. 1674, Catholic monks established their first mission in Upper Egypt. From then onward there was a deliberate attempt to spread the Catholic faith among the Copts.[10]

The Catholic missionaries, therefore, were eager to use the opportu­nity to help and support the poor areas of Upper Egypt in the renovation and restoration of their churches. They also assisted them in copying illu­minated manuscripts of liturgical and biblical content, and they offered their Christian decorations and paintings for use inside the churches. This explains why products of this style were valueless in comparison with the pure or undiluted Coptic art of the pre-tenth century.

Dating

The first evidence of this style is found in manuscript illumination. The earliest examples are in the four Gospels manuscript dated A.M. 1379 (A.D. 1663).[11] There are a considerable number of manuscript illuminations from different places dated to the late seventeenth century. Then, in St. Paul’s Monastery near the Red Sea, we can see the same style in the wall paintings and in the icons of the iconostasis of the main church, which were painted and decorated by A.D. 1732.[12]

The style continued with the same characteristics until the end of the nineteenth century. Some interesting developments took place later, and there were some local variations. Father Abd al-Shahid from Akhmim signed an icon with his name in A.M. 1584 (A.D. 1868).[13]

Although it is clear that the style existed from A.D. 1663, P. van Moorsel saw the second half of the eighteenth century as the beginning of this type of work, arguing that it continued throughout the nineteenth century.[14] Z. Skalova said that it started around A.D. 1700, which in fact is closer to the truth.[15]

Descriptions and Definitions

Initially, because of its varied sources of inspiration and its originally imi­tative nature, neither the technique nor the iconography was considered purely Coptic. The style consisted of elements from different areas, espe­cially from Islamic lands.[16]

Zuzana Skalova suggested that certain elements were transferred from workshops in the Holy Land. In addition, she pointed to the influence of the first printed Armenian Bible (Amsterdam, 1666), suggesting that this and other European illustrated printed Bibles became the new pattern books for eastern artists.[17] This means this style originates from religious Armenian art, based on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian and Flemish mod­els. Van Moorsel also suggested that the artists were of Armenian origin and that many of the characteristics of this new style must be regarded as Armenian.[18]

In my opinion, the main inspiration for this style were the illuminations in the manuscript of Beatus of Liebana, a monk who lived in Liebana, Austrica, in northern Spain in the late eighth century.[19] This manuscript, which con­tained a commentary on the Apocalypse, was highly appreciated in the monastic community over the centuries. Moreover, it was made famous by a number of copies after the ninth century. These were used by the Catholic missions in Africa and Middle East. The style of painting in the Beatus man­uscript is known as Mozarabic, because it was of Arabic inspiration.[20]

The Catholic missionaries in Upper Egypt, in their attempt to find suitable decoration for the illumination of Coptic manuscripts, to a certain extent imitated the illuminations and ornaments of the Beatus manuscript. Accordingly, many of the illuminations incorporated Catholic concepts. The style then developed within the Coptic churches in some areas of Egypt. Several theological and doctrinal problems appeared in paintings of this style, because it incorporated different elements from the Byzantine, the Greek, and Roman Catholic artistic traditions. As a result, this led to problems in defining iconographical aspects and the identity of the artists.

The style existed in book illuminations, in wall paintings, and in icons over more than two centuries (1663-1890). It becomes clear, therefore, that we are not just dealing with a workshop or an artist! In addition, we have no evidence for one artist producing paintings on all kinds of materials. In general, this was a phase in the religious politics of the Vatican toward the Coptic Orthodox Church. The specific details of the procedures in every kind of painting show some defects in the way of preparation and the treat­ments of colors.

In particular, in the field of icon painting, there were three different kinds of substrates: canvas, paper, and over prints. In all cases, the wooden supports for the icons were set at an angle, rag papers (which were cheap) were used as a substrate instead of gesso, and gelatin was used as the bind­ing medium. As a result, the colors became opaque and after some time the icons became dark.

This technique for painting icons—the use of glue tempera[21]—was not used in Coptic painting before this time. The colors and pigments are pale and opaque owing to poor quality and impurity. All icons of this technique are without varnish, which results in the quick deterioration of the uncov­ered paintings. The colors, which no longer followed traditional Coptic symbolism, were selected at random. The painter used flat colors, which made the themes unreadable.

In this style, the ornaments sometimes become main subjects. The inscriptions are illegible, with very random locations. After long practice, the workshop or its painters started to add some shadow to the solid colors.

The hand of this style shows a very strange canon of human figures. It also presents the paintings in two dimensions with a flat background in almost one solid color. In many cases, plants and/or geometric ornaments were used in the design. The explanatory inscriptions are in two languages, Coptic and its Arabic translation. The features of the faces are very strange, and often distinguished by almond eyes, mustaches in men, and straight noses.[22]

The same ornaments that were used in the wall paintings and in the icons, consisting of geometric and flower motifs, were subsequently applied in the illuminations of the manuscripts. A number of illuminations of this style are known, while some specific developments may be discerned that may be attributed to different hands in the same manuscript. This means that there was a scriptorium with different styles. The images in the man­uscripts show the influence of the Catholic mission in Egypt during the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, which is very clear from the ms. Coptic Museum, no. 28, bibl. 99, and ms. Coptic Patriarchate, no. 50, bibl. 204, both dated A.M. 1405 (A.D. 1688/9).[23]

The Artists of this Style

Unsigned wall paintings found both near Akhmim and in St. Paul’s Monastery near the Red Sea are by the same hand. This painter was identified only in 1990, when his name, Mattary, was found on a triptych in the Museum of the Monastery of the Syrians in Wadi al-Natrun.[24] Mattary painted icons, triptychs, and ciboria.

There are many paintings of the same style, which is now known as Mattary’s style, in different areas: in Old Cairo in St. Barbara’s Church, in St. Mercurius’s Church, and in the nunnery of St. Mary in Haret Zewilla, Cairo, as well as in Wadi al-Natrun, in the Monastery of St. Bishoi, and in the Monastery of the Syrians. In Akhmim there are many works in this style in several churches and monasteries. Some damaged works can be found in the Red Sea monasteries. Although there are several works by Mattary in the churches of Old Cairo, there is only one ciborium there. The rest of the ciboria produced or painted by him must have been made for Akhmim, as three of his ciboria can be located in the monasteries of this area.[25] In addition, we can identify the same hand in the illuminations of some manuscripts.

The other icon painter was Father Abd al-Shahid from Akhmim.[26] The particular development that the new style underwent in the hands of Father Abd al-Shahid was very limited. He applied the new style only in icons on wooden panels, for which he used slightly different materials. He was working in one site only, the Akhmim area. He painted one triptych for the church of St. Cyriacus and Jullieta in Tahta. Father Abd al-Shahid signed one icon in Akhmim, but most of his works were collected from the neigh­boring churches and can now be found in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. We have no evidence either that his works were transferred to Cairo, or that his workshop was based in Cairo.

The deacon Yuhanna from Haret al-Rum, Cairo, illuminated some manuscripts.[27] Deacon Yuhanna should obviously be distinguished from Yuhanna al-Armani, as the deacon was only a scribe and book illuminator who became a priest.

Unfortunately, we have no information about these painters. Some scholars, however, identified Mattary as an Armenian[28] who came to Egypt through the Holy Land. This is far from certain, however.

The Locations of this Style

It thus becomes clear that the Catholic missionaries in the Akhmim area of Upper Egypt established the style, and that it spread from there to certain other places. Most of this art is in the Red Sea monasteries, in particular St. Paul’s Monastery, where the style is found on the wall paintings, the domes, and the iconostasis of the Cave Church as well as in some manuscript illu­minations in the library.[29] Other examples re in the churches of Old Cairo: Abu Sayfan and St. Barbara, in the Coptic Museum, the Coptic Patriarchate Library, the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun: the Syrian Monastery, St. Bishoi’s Monastery, and St. Macarius’s Monastery.

The following pages provide some tables for the classification of most of the paintings of this style.

1. Wall-paintings

Place

Subject

Paintings

Colors

Date

1. Red Sea: St. Paul’s Monastery

Dome of the Martyrs

Equestrians, martyrs, geometric decoration with Coptic and Arabic inscriptions

Brown, yellow, green, white, red, and black

A.D. 1713

– Dome of the Twenty- four Elders of the Apocalypse

Christ on the throne in mandorla, with the Cherubim and the Twenty-four Elders standing around the throne

Red, yellow, green, white, and black

A.D. 1713

There are more than thirty paintings on the walls of the church, of archangels, the seven angels with trumpets and several martyrs and fathers of monasticism; all are in the same style and by the same hands

2. Akhmim area: al- Shuhada’s Monastery

The vault of the Sanctuary

Angels within vegetal decorations and colors

Red, black, white, yellow, and blue

without

 

 

2. Icons (ciboria, triptychs, and flat icons)

  • Ciboria: all the ciboria found only in the area of Akhmim[30]

 

Place

Subject

Paintings

Colors

Date

1. St.

Thomas the

Hermit

Pantokrator

Christ in mandorla surrounded by cherubim with the Crowned Virgin and saints on the opposite side. Blue background

Red, black, yellow, green, blue, and white

Without

2. St. Mercurius’s Church (three ciboria)

Pantokrator

Christ in mandorla surrounded by cherubim and the Crowned Virgin on the opposite side.

Yellow background

White, red, yellow, green, and black

Without

3. al-Malak’s Monastery

Pantokrator

Christ in mandorla surrounded by cherubim and the Crowned Virgin on the opposite side. Blue background

Red, white, green, blue, black, and yellow

Without

4. St. Bakhum’s

Pantokrator

The Christ in mandorla surrounded by cherubim and the Crowned Virgin on the opposite side. Yellow background.

Red, yellow, green, black

Without

 

 

  • Triptychs
    a) Works by Mattary

Place

Subject

paintings

Colors

Date

1. The Monastery of the Syrians, Wadi al- Natrun

Four desert fathers

St. Antony the Great and St. Macarius the Great, with two disciples

Red, blue, green, yellow, white, and black

Without

St. Pasti and St. Ghalinikos (one shutter is missing)

Bishops St. Psati and St. Ghalinikos are standing frontally, unknown monk on one shutter

Red, blue, green, yellow, white, and black

Without

2. St. Macarius’s Monastery, Wadi al- Natrun

Crucifixion. (covered with printed icon on paper)

Christ crucified in the center flanked by the three women and St. John; the two robbers crucified on the two shutters

White, red, blue, yellow, and black

Without

Virgin with Child, and St. George and St. Mercurius

Virgin in the center carrying Christ, and St. George, St. Mercurius on the two shutters

White, red, blue, green, yellow, brown, and black

Without

3. St. Bakhum and his sister Dalusham the martyrs, Akhmim

Holy Family and two Archangels

St. Mary carrying the Child and standing next to St. Joseph, the Holy Spirit as a dove over them

Red, blue, yellow, white, and black

Without

 

4. St. Thomas the Hermit, Akhmim.

Holy Family and two Archangels

St. Mary carrying the Child and standing next to St. Joseph; two Archangels on the two shutters

Red, blue, yellow, green, white, and black

Without

5. St. Barbara’s Church, Old Cairo

Four Martyrs

St. Aba Kyr and John with St. Barbara and St. Juliana

White, red, yellow, green, and black

Without

6. al- Mu‘allaqa Church, Old Cairo.

Virgin with

Child

The Virgin carries Christ in the front; two Saints on the two sides

White, red, green, brown, and black

Without

7. St. Mary’s Nunnery, Haret Zuwayla, Cairo

 

Archangel Michael and four other Saints

Archangel Michael in the center panel; each shutter has two different themes: the first has the Annunciation and St. George; the other has St. Mercurius and another martyr (?)

Yellow, brown, blue, orange, and black

Without

St.Victor the

Martyr

One Shutter of a triptych represents St. Victor the Martyr

Red, blue, yellow, green, white, and black

Without

8. St.

Anthony’s

Monastery,

Red Sea

Virgin

with Child,

and two

Archangels

in the two

shutters

Virgin carrying Christ

in the middle, two

Archangels on the

two sides

White,

red,

green,

and black

Without

 

b) Works by Father Abd al-Shahid

1. Church of St. Cyriacus and St. Jullieta, Tahta

Archangel Michael and three martyrs, and the Annunciation

Archangel Michael in the center; on the two shutters three martyrs, and the Annunciation

Red, yellow, green, brown, and black

Without

Crucifixion

Christ crucified in the center, flanked by the three women and St. John; the two robbers crucified on the two shutters

White, red, green, yellow, brown, and black

Without

 

 

  • Flat Icons
    a) Works by Mattary

Place

Subject

Paintings

Colors

Substrate

Date

1. Monastery of St. Bakhum and his sister Dalusham, Akhmim

St. Bakhum and his sister Dalusham

The two Saints are standing frontally, holding crosses in their right hands

White, red, blue, yellow, green, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

2. Dayr al- Naghamish, Akhmim

Crucifixion

Christ crucified in the center with three women and St. John standing under the Cross

White, red, green, orange, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

Holy Family

The Virgin carrying Christ and standing next to St. Joseph frontally. Reddish background

Red, blue, white, green, yellow, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

3. Church of St. Cyprian and St. Justin, al- Maragha, Tahta

Virgin with

Child

Virgin enthroned with Child, two angels are crowning her and two angels standing beside the throne. Green background.

Red, white, green, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

Two

Archangels

Archangel Michael holding a cross-staff and Archangel Gabriel holding a scroll standing frontally in the background.

white black, green, and orange

Canvas on wood

Without

4. Church of St. Mary, Juhajna, Tahta

Crucifixion

Christ crucified between the two robbers, the three women and St. John standing below. Green background.

Yellow, green, red, white, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

Archangel

Michael

The Archangel Michael standing frontally with the devil under his legs. Reddish background.

Red, white, green, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

5. Monastery of St. Thomas the Hermit, Akhmim

 

St. Thomas the Hermit

The Hermit standing frontally, holding the Catholic rosary and wearing the Coptic Schema. Reddish background.

Yellow, white, red, blue, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

6. St. Paul’s Monastery, Red Sea

Iconostasis of the Sanctuary of St. John the Baptist

Baptism of Christ in the center; three icons to the right and the left represent the twelve Apostles. Reddish background.

White, red, blue, yellow, green, brown, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

A.D. 1732

Iconostasis of the sanctuary of Archangel Michael

The Virgin with Child in the center; the three icons to the right and the left represent the twelve Apostles. Reddish background.

White, red, blue, yellow, green, brown, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

A.D. 1732

7- al- Mu‘allaqa church, Cairo.

-The Virgin with the Child.

The Virgin standing frontally and carrying Christ; the holy spirit as a dove coming from above.Yellow background.

Yellow, red, blue, white, brown, and black.

Canvas on wood.

Without

8. Coptic Museum, Cairo

Holy Family

Virgin carrying Christ and standing frontally beside St. Joseph. Reddish background.

White, blue, red, green, brown, black

Canvas on wood

Without

Twenty-four

Elders

The Twenty- four Priests seated on chairs, holding censers in their right hands.Yellow background.

Yellow, brown, white, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

St. Anthony and two disciples

Three monks standing frontally, with two lions below in the left and right corners. Brown background

White, red brown, green, gold, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

9. St. Mercurius’s Church, Old Cairo

Twelve

Apostles

(Iconostasis)

Twelve Apostles each one in separate icon, standing frontally.

Brown background

White, red, blue, yellow, green, brown, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

Crucifixion

Three crosses, Christ in the center, with men and women surrounding the crosses

Red, green, yellow, white, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace

The three Hebrews standing frontally with the archangel under a large arch, with two small men on the right side

White, red, blue, yellow, brown, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

Virgin with Child and angels

The Virgin carrying the Christ the archangels

White, yellow, red, blue, brown, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

St. George

The Saint on horseback frontally, holding a cross staff in his right hand and killing the dragon

White, red, blue, brown, yellow, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

St. Mercurius Abu Sayfayn [Sifeen, as above?]

The Saint on horseback in the foreground, holding a sword in each hand and killing the dragon (man)

White, red, brown, yellow, green, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

10. St. Bishoi’s Monastery, Wadi al- Natrun

The three Anba Makarys

The three saints are standing all together in the front. Brown background

White, red, blue, brown, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

11. The Monastery of the Syrians, Wadi al- Natrun

Crucifixion

Christ crucified between the two robbers, the three women and St. John standing below. Green background

Yellow, red white, green, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

Vision of

St.Yuhanna

Kama

The Virgin gives St. Yuhanna the three coins, with St. Athanasius the Great at the back. Gold background

Gold, yellow, green, white, red, and black

Paper, canvas on wood

Without

Virgin with

Child

The Virgin standing frontally, carrying Christ. Green background

Red, white, green, brown, and black

Paper, canvas on wood, covered with print paper

Without

Ascension of the Virgin

The Virgin ascends to heaven surrounded by angels. Printed Latin inscription on the printed canvas

Dark printed Catholic icon, majority in black.

Over printed paper, on wooden support

Without

St. John the

Baptist

The Saint standing in the foreground

Red, yellow

Over print paper, on wooden support

Without

St. Tekla

Haymanot

The Saint

standing in the

foreground

White

and

black

Over

print

paper, on

wooden

support

Without

 

b) Works by Father Abd al-Shahid

1. St.

Mary’s Church, Banga, Tahta

Embalmment of Christ

St. Joseph and St. Nikodimos embalming Christ frontally, with the Virgin standing between the two Marys in the upper zone. Reddish Background

White, red, blue, yellow, green, brown, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

 

Resurrection of

Christ

Christ rises from his tomb with a red flag in his left hand, with a small angel standing in the left corner below Christ, and the guardians with their swords standing below beside the angel. Green and orange background

White, red, green, orange, yellow, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

2. Coptic

Museum,

Old Cairo

Crucifixion

Christ

crucified

between

two robbers

on smaller

crosses, with

the three

women,

and St. John

standing

under the

Cross. Orange

background

White,

red,

green,

blue,

brown,

yellow,

and

black

Canvas

on

wood

(A.M.

1584 A.D.

1868

 

Double sided icon: the Crucifixion and the Entry into Jerusalem

Christ crucified in the center between two small crosses, with the three women standing frontally below beside St. John. Christ on horseback in the center, surrounded by people; below Coptic inscription in frame

White, red blue, brown, yellow, and black

White, red, blue, green, and black

Canvas on wood

(A.M.

1614)

A.D. 1898

 

Crowned

Hodegetria

The crowned Virgin standing in the foreground and carrying Christ, with four Angels surrounding her

White, red, brown, green, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

 

Crucifixion.

Christ crucified in the center between two robbers who are crucified on smaller crosses, with the three women and St. John standing under the cross

White, red, green, blue, brown, yellow, and black

Canvas on wood

Without

 

Conclusion

Some conclusions can be drawn from the study of the Akhmimic style, both the contents and the characteristics. This style, initiated by Mattary, was prev­alent in Egypt during the second half of the seventeenth century until the end of the nineteenth century. The so-called Akhmimic style is a worldwide Catholic contribution, which is comparable to the so-called Mozarabic style. Like the Mozarabic style it consisted of different cultural characteristics and styles, helping to spread the Catholic Faith throughout the Middle East and Africa. Some scholars have considered two different styles in two separate periods, but from this study it appears that it was one style with two sequen­tial stages, from about the year A.D. 1663 to about the year A.D. 1890.

 

Wall painting, Dome of the Martyrs, Paul’s Monastery.
Wall painting, Dome of the Martyrs, Paul’s Monastery.
Illumination of St. Mark the Evange­list, Coptic Museum
Illumination of St. Mark the Evange­list, Coptic Museum
Illumination of the Revelation, Book of Beatus of Libana.
Illumination of the Revelation, Book of Beatus of Libana.
Illumination of Archangel St. Michael, Coptic Museum
Illumination of Archangel St. Michael, Coptic Museum
Painting of the Pantokrator, cibo- rium, Akhmim.
Painting of the Pantokrator, cibo- rium, Akhmim.
Painting of the Holy Family, trip­tych, Akhmim.
Painting of the Holy Family, trip­tych, Akhmim.
Painting of Thomas the Hermit, Akhmim.
Painting of Thomas the Hermit, Akhmim.
Painting of John the Baptist, the Monastery of the Syrians.
Painting of John the Baptist, the Monastery of the Syrians.
Painting of the Crucifixion, Father Abd al-Shahid.
Painting of the Crucifixion, Father Abd al-Shahid.

Fr. Bigoul al-Suriany

[1] Nakhla 2001: 12-13.

[2] Ibid: 46-47, 51, 54, 58, 82.

[3] Al-Maqrizi 1998: 404-406.

[4] Bahr 1999: 281-82.

[5] Fawzy 1967: 171-77.

[6] Nakhla 2001: 110-13.

[7] Lane-Poole 1901: 253, 278.

[8] Nakhla 2001: 15.

[9] Ghattas 1967: 16-17.

[10] Nakhla 2001: 29-42.

[11] Atalla 2000: 149.

[12] Lyster 1999: 46-49.

[13] Atalla 2000: 60-69.

[14] Van Moorsel et al. 1994: 254-55.

[15] Skalova 2003: 120-140.

[16] Most of these Islamic characters came from central northern Asia and the Ottoman Empire, in particular, present Turkey and Syria.

[17] Skalova 2003: 122.

[18] Van Moorsel 1994: 47-48.

[19] Grubb 1997: 14.

[20] Grubb 1997: 15; Nordenfalk 1988: 86-93; Huyghe 1981: 79-81, 113.

[21] Skalova 2003: 125.

[22] Van Moorsel 1994: 60.

[23] Atalla: 118-119.[please provide year]

[24] Van Moorsel 2000: 254-55.

[25] Jeudy 2004: 67-88.

[26] Van Moorsel 1994: 62-64.

[27] Atalla 1998: 154-163.

[28] Laferriere 1990: page no.?

[29] Lyster 1999: 49.

[30] Jeudy 2004: 85.

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