Coptic art in the Coptic museum
Coptic art began to emerge in Egypt around 300 A.D. In form, style, and content it was quite different from the art of Pharaonic Egypt. How’ did this come about? Broadly speaking, there were two causes. The first is that indigenous Egyptian art had been in contact with the art of the ruling elite, a Greek educated minority, for many centuries. The second is that the Pharaonic religion, a major source of inspiration to Egyptian artists for three millenia, had given way to Christianity, a new religion with an entirely different message.
By around 300 A.D. three-dimensional art had almost completely disappeared in Egypt. In fact, the last free-standing sculptures to be produced were those of Roman emperors (usually in the stone known as porphyry). Sculpted figures in early Coptic art, whether of stone, wood or ivory, were carved in a sort of exaggerated raised relief. They usually faced the viewer directly, but they could also be half turning to one side. Over the centuries these figures seem to have become flatter and more like conventional relief. The shift from three-dimensional representation probably also had an effect on two-dimensional art. Whereas the usual method of representing the figure in ancient Egypt had been a combination of profile and frontal, Coptic art abandoned the profile and turned the figure around to face the viewer. It is w’orth pointing out that a great deal of sculpture was originally coated with painted plaster, which would have shown many details that have since disappeared.
The most striking stylistic features of Coptic figurative representation are the exaggerated rounded or oval eyes under relatively thick eyebrows, and the contrapposto position (i.e. where the weight of the body is thrown onto one leg). Garments are often represented with details of pleats and folds. The figures range from the tall and slim to the short and thickset. Facial expressions range from the non-commital to the somber.
The content of art usually reflects the principal interests of those Who produce it. A dominant interest in many ancient societies was religion. By the time Coptic art began to emerge Egypt was rapidly becoming a Christian country, but the old indigenous religion and that of the Greek-educated ruling elite had not yet entirely disappeared. Indeed, there is a substantial amount of Coptic art that features episodes from Greek religious thought, in particular the sculpture of Ahnas (in the Coptic Museum) and textiles. The use of such motifs in a Christian context presents something of a problem. Why would Christians want to perpetuate these symbols of a superannuated faith? No definitive answer can be given. It seems more than likely, however, that the transition from paganism to Christianity involved a certain amount of overlap. It is quite possible that it took Christian artists sometime before they developed an appropriate artistic language to illustrate the main articles of the Christian faith. Equally, certain pagan themes may well have been ‘de-paganised’ and recycled to convey messages in keeping with Christian values, e.g. Dionysus became a symbol of immortality, Heracles of patience and endurance. It has even been suggested that the theme of Leda being ravished by Zeus impersonating a swan was a popular w’ay of depicting the Incarnation! Indeed, the very use of such themes, it has been argued, is itself a symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism.
In terms of its social origins Coptic art is perhaps best characterised as folk art. The only major cultural centre in Egypt with any claim to international standing, such as might attract leading artists and provide employment opportunities sufficiently long-term to encourage them to open up studios, was Alexandria. It has been suggested that the best quality workmanship originates from Alexandria on the premise that metropolitan taste would probably require a certain standard of workmanship. The rest of the country presumably also developed its own taste, for which the standard would have depended on the artists available locallv. Absolutely nothing is known about these artists. It has sometimes been suggested that poor quality workmanship represents an unsuccessful attempt to imitate the metropolitan standard.
This is possible. It is, however, equally possible that Egyptians outside the capital were quite happy with their taste and the quality of workmanship required to satisfy it. (A.A. &.G.G.)
The largest collection of Coptic artifacts belongs to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. With its 16,000 pieces, this museum represents the most significant collection of Coptic art in the world. The first exhibition of Coptic art was installed in Cairo during the nineteenth century in the ‘Salle Coptc’ at the Boulaq Museum. In 1908 Marcus Simaika Pasha founded the Coptic Museum on behalf of the Coptic- Church. He chose for it a unique spot in Old Cairo, interesting from many points of view – historical, archaeological and religious – within the great Fortress of Babylon and surrounded by Cairo’s oldest churches. With the support of Patriarch Cyril V he brought artifacts from churches, monasteries, houses and private collections into the museum.
The Old Wing of the museum is a fine piece of architecture consisting of a series of large rooms, roofed over with old decorative timbering and containing beautiful mashrabiya. The walls are overlaid with fine slabs of marble, arches and tiles. In 1931 the Egyptian government recognised the importance of the Coptic Museum and attached it to the state. Thus the greater part of the magnificent Coptic collection in the Egyptian Museum was transferred to the Coptic Museum in 1939. In March 1947 a large New Wing was opened, its style similar to that of the Old Wing, with carved wooden ceilings and picturesque fountains. The Coptic Museum, like many other Egyptian museums and monuments, enjoyed serious attention and care when the late Dr Ahmed Kadry was chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation. Much of it was renovated and modern methods of exhibition were introduced. President Mubarak opened the restored museum on 8th March 1984. An ongoing international project, the ‘General Catalogue of the Coptic Museum’ was initiated in 1986 to compile an up-to-date catalogue of all the objects in the museum. It is hoped that the other projects to renovate the whole of the Old Wing, the manuscripts library and the lower floor will be continued and that a centre of Coptic Studies will be established at the Museum.
The rich and unique collection at the Coptic Museum attracts more than 120,000 visitors each year. The exhibitions are arranged according to media. Each of these sections is described in the following pages, with details about the themes represented in Coptic art and culture.
The stelae of Terenuthis
The objects exhibited in the left-hand (eastern) part of Hall 18A are limestone gravestones (or stelae). Hundreds of stelae were discovered in Terenuthis, a mainly Graeco-Roman pagan cemetery. Apart from a few exceptions they fall into two types: (1) the orans depicted frontally and often flanked by two small jackal-like dogs representing Anubis, the lord of the necropolis, or by Horus (the falcon), the life-giving solar god as well as Anubis; (2) a second type depicts a figure reclining on a kline and holding a cup in the right hand. Many of the stelae are framed by an architectural structure of two columns carrying a triangular Greek pediment.
The stelae of Terenuthis are essential to the understanding and evaluation of the origins of Coptic art. For this reason a special section has been created to display them.
Unlike textiles and minor arts a relatively large proportion of Coptic sculpture and wall painting comes from known provenances; the most important sites are Abu Mina, Saqqara, Ahnas, Oxyrhynchos, Antinoe and Bawit. However, since many excavations at these sites took place in the 19th century, documentation is often lacking. Furthermore, the re-use of older architectural elements makes any exact dating of Coptic sculpture difficult. The majority of the monuments have been reduced to fragments, mostly architectural carvings, separated from their original context: niches, pediments, friezes, lintels, consoles, columns, and capitals. All Coptic sculpture was originally painted: colors completed the sculptor’s program.
During the 4th and 5th centuries pagan mythological scenes, such as Orpheus and Eurydice or Leda and the swan, continued to be represented alongside Christian themes. The cross, supported by erotes or angels, is a central clement of Coptic sculpture. Often scenes of the Christological cycle appear isolated, such as the Madonna and Child and the Holy Virgin with the saints. Scenes from the Old Testament are also incorporated in sculpture, for example, Daniel flanked bv two lions, or the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace. At the monastic sites of Bawit and Saqqara there was a clear tendency towards geometric and floral architectural sculpture with niches and friezes. Aspects of daily life, such as the grape harvest or fishing in the marshes, are not uncommon in Coptic sculpture. Corinthian, basket, and composite capitals Were developed in a rich variety of abstract styles, especially discernable in the basket capitals of the 6th century. Coptic funerary stelae show a remarkable variety of abstract symbolism. Many of them represent an architectural facade.
The collection of stonework, which is exhibited in the lower floor of the New Wing (Halls 1-9 and 18A), illustrates with claritv the development of Coptic sculpture; its main groups are the stelae of Tcrcnuthis (Hall 18A), the sculpture of Ahnas (Hall 1), the sculpture of Bawit (Halls 3, 4 and 5) and Saqqara (Hall 6).
Almost all Coptic wall painting is monastic. Although monastic mural paintings were not intended to be great works of art, some of them, particularly those of Bawit and Saqqara from the 6th or 7th century, show a relatively high standard. The murals were applied to mud-brick walls which had been plastered and white-washed. The only technique used for Coptic murals was tempera.
The paintings of the Monastery of Saint Apollo at Baw it (6th to 8th centuries) consist of figural scenes including episodes from the Old Testament, representations of Christ the Pantokrator and the Holy Virgin and Child, often flanked by apostles; figures of monks and saints; medallions depicting the virtues; hunting scenes as well as floral and geometric dadoes.
The murals of the Monastery of Saint Jercmias at Saqqara are more or less comparable with those of Baw’it. The figures are strictly frontal and usually distinctly separated from one another. Many paintings show that they were adopted from Byzantine art, but they are nevertheless not without originality in some themes as well as in style.
The collection of wall paintings, including the frescoes of Bawit and Saqqara, is divided between the New- Wing (Halls 2, 3, 6, 7, 8 and 9) and the Old Wing (Halls 23 and 24).
Epigraphy and Manuscripts
Some manuscripts and documents are displayed in the upper floor of the New Wing (Hall 10), but the greater part of the collection is preserved in the manuscripts library. They date from the 4th to the 19th centuries and are written in Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Old Nubian, Arabic and Ethiopian; a number of manuscripts are bilingual (Coptic and Arabic). The materials used are papyrus, parchment, paper, bone and w-ood tablets, as well as pottery and limestone. The collection comprises both complete manuscripts as well as Fragments, mainly biblical, hagiographical and liturgical texts.
Documents and ostraca provide valuable insights into the ecclesiastical, social, economic and legal aspects of different periods. Some of the manuscripts are remarkable for the beautv of their illuminations and bindings. The Coptic Psalter from the 4th or Sth century which has recently been discovered is now the oldest complete biblical text possessed by Egypt. The Coptic Gnostic codices from the 4th century could be considered one of the most valuable collections of papyri in the world.
Textiles are the most characteristic product of Coptic art. The term ‘Coptic textiles’ is in fact used to designate a huge amount of textiles – tens of thousands – found in Egypt dating from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods. Most Coptic textiles derive from burials, but the 19th and early 20th-century ‘excavations’ of such graves at important sites like Akhmim and Antinoe were carried out as treasure hunts rather than systematic scientific undertakings. Many illegal digs brought thousands of Coptic textiles onto the antiquities market. It is therefore very difficult to date most of them with precision since stylistic criteria alone can be used.
Coptic textiles arc more than just colorful arid amusing objects. They provide a source of information about the social classes, daily life, beliefs and customs of the people by whom and for whom they were woven. Among the various types of textiles known are complete garments, especially tunics, or parts of garments such as tunic ornaments (vertical tapestry bands or clavi, roundels or orbiculae, and panels), curtains and hangings, cushions, covers, napkins and parts of shrouds. The major fibers used for making textiles were linen and wool, although cotton was occasionally used. Silk, mostly imported, played an important role in the textile industry. Dyes were derived from plant, animal and mineral sources, the principal dyes being alkanet (red); woad, indigo, kermes and Sudberry (blue); saffron, pomegranate, and weld (yellow); leaves of the iris plant, berries of the buckthorn plant (green); and minerals such as iron (black). Purple dye was obtained from shellfish.
Woven decoration was achieved by varying warp or weft colour as well as thread size or texture. The flying shuttle was used independently of the warp and the weft to create detail. Loop and tapestry weaving techniques were also used to create decorative effects.
Coptic textiles are notable for the richness of their decorative motifs: geometric patterns, human figures, birds, animals, fish, flora, mythological themes, Nilotic and marine scenes, episodes from the Old and New Testaments and crosses. The Coptic Museum possesses a fine collection of textiles, but the holdings do not include many examples of early textiles from the 3rd and 4th centuries. No richly ornamented tunics are on display, but depiction of such decorated garments can be seen in some of the frescoes of the museum, especially those of Bawit and Saqqara. Most interesting are the curtains and hangings. The collection is situated on the upper floor of the New Wing (Halls 10, 11, 12).
Most of the icons in the Coptic Museum were brought from Cairo’s old churches. Although the majority of them are relatively modern (dating from the 18th and 19th centuries), they are nevertheless very interesting for their themes: scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the Holy Virgin, saints and martyrs, especially soldiersaints. Some of the icons bear features of old Coptic art and many preserve the name of the painter. Coptic churches, ancient and modern, are always decorated with icons since they arc used in the liturgy of the Coptic Church. The collection is in the New Wing (Hall 13).
Ivory and Bone Carvings
During the Greek period Alexandria was one of the principal markets for African ivory. In Roman times the central market was transferred to Persia and Indian ivory became the most important luxury item while bone, a much cheaper substitute, began to be widely used as well. A huge amount of bone objects, found in the ancient rubbish heaps of Alexandria, have proved very important for the study of the Alexandrian style.
The collection of ivory and bone carvings consists of wooden bridal caskets of engraved bone or ivory plaques with naked human figures and nymphs, pyxides, bone figurines representing schematized female figures with cylindrical bodies; bone spindle whorls; pots and other objects of daily use. The collection contains the famous 6th century ivory comb depicting the Raising of Lazarus and the Healing of the Blind. All the ivory and bone carvings are displayed in the New Wing (Hall 13).
The collection of metalwork (Upper floor, New Wing, Halls 14-16) is a rich one containing objects of gold, silver, copper, bronze and iron which date from the 3rd to 19th centuries. They derive from monasteries, churches and towns and are thus either of religious character or arc intended for everyday life. The main groups are: crosses, censers, lamps, bells, bible caskets, chandeliers, church and monastery keys, liturgical implements; household utensils (bowls, dishes, pans and cooking pots); toilette objects (kohl boxes, necklaces, earrings and bracelets); musical instruments (cymbals and tambourines); medical instruments; weights and measures; and agricultural implements. Many pieces are elaborately executed and decorated using different techniques.
The majority of the metal objects can be dated only approximately on the basis of style; a few objects are securely dated, such as the famous Luxor silver treasure of Abraham, bishop of Hermonthis (c. 600) and some of the Bible caskets which bear dated inscriptions in Arabic, or objects found together with coins.
Many monuments bear witness to Christianity in Lower Nubia between the Sth and the 14th/15th centuries. The international campaign to salvage Nubian antiquities, before Lower Nubia was submerged due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam, succeeded in saving many Christian monuments, especially the frescoes, of Nubian churches. Room 17 of the Coptic Museum contains many frescoes from the Church of Abdallah Nirqi (10th century), Nubian Christian gravestones, pottery and textiles. Old Nubian and Coptic texts from Nubia are also displayed here. In the Old Wing some other frescoes from the Church of Abdallah Nirqi (Hall 22b) as well as the frescoes of Abu Oda (Hall 24) are displayed. The manuscripts library has a collection of other Nubian documents.
Egypt is relatively poor in wood. During prosperous pharaonic times fine wood, especially ebony, was imported from Kush and Punt (Africa), cedar from Lebanon and Syria. Considering the catastrophic economic situation in most of Egypt during Roman and Byzantine times, it might be expected that luxury imported wood should have been used mainly in Alexandria rather than in the rest of the country. It is known, however, that indigenous woods such as tamarisk, acacia, sycamore, lebbakh, jujube and willow were widely and skilfully used bv Coptic carpenters; imported woods such as box, cedar, ebony, liquidambar, olive, and pine were employed for fine and important works. Babylon (Old Cairo), Antinoe, Bawit and Akhmim are known to have been the main centres of Coptic carpentry.
Many churches and monasteries were once adorned with elaborate sculptures in wood; lintels, doors, panels and friezes were decorated with saints, Nilotic themes, floral and animal ornaments, geometric patterns and scenes derived from the Old and New Testaments. Smaller items of wood demonstrate many aspects of daily life: toilette equipment, combs, caskets, toys, spindles, stamp seals and musical instruments. The three famous pieces from the churches of Old Cairo, namely the door of the Church of Saint Barbara, the altar of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and the lintel from Al-Mo’allaqa are very valuable for the study of Coptic sculpture of the period between the 4th and 6th centuries. Woodwork, especially the screens, doors and panels of the 10th to the 14th centuries, reflects clearly the influence of Islamic art. The collection of woodwork is displayed in the Old Wing (Halls 22b, 24-28).
Ceramics and Terracotta
This section (Halls 29 and 30 of the Old Wing) contains fine examples of pottery made for everyday use, including huge storage jars, amphorae and wine jars, cooking pots, spouted vessels, vases, jugs, bowls and dishes as well as terracotta ampullae, lamps and figurines. Pottery is a cheap material, and a huge quantity of wares has been found in Egypt of brown, red, orange, yellow, cream and pink clay – coarse as well as polished. Many of the pieces on display have intricate designs and motifs of which animals are the most common, with hares, doves, fish, lions, gazelles and fantastic animals being represented. Human figures, mostly in the form of busts, are also painted on pottery, similar to some of those from Bawit. Characteristic of Coptic terracotta arc frog-shaped lamps and ampullae depicting Saint Menas standing between two kneeling camels. Examples of Islamic glazed pottery from Al-Fustat are also exhibited. The study of Coptic pottery has progressed remarkably in the last three decades thanks to carefully recorded excavations at many sites, especially at Abu Mina, Cellia, Athribis, Naqlun, Antinoe, and Esna.
The glass industry prospered in Egypt during Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods. Sand, lime and soda, the raw materials of glass, were adundantly available in Egypt. Glass was known in Pharaonic times, but it was not until the 1st century B.C. that it was discovered that molten glass could be blown through a hollow tube, thus allowing it to be produced in large quantities and not just as a luxury item. Blown, engraved, opaque and millefiori glass have all been produced by Egyptian glassmakers. Literary sources indicate that liturgical vessels in the Church were mostly made of glass, rather than gold or silver. The small collection is displayed in the Old Wing (Hall 30) and contains glass vessels, goblets, pots, candle holders, toilette bottles and lamps – mostly of opaque glass.
In the colour section which follows, some 50 items exhibited in the Coptic Museum have been chosen for their artistic and historical value. A photograph of each item is accompanied by specifications and an explanatory text. Dimensions are in centimetres, with height or length indicated before width, and width before thickness.
The location of each selected item in the museum is marked on the floor plans on pages 40-43. The order of items is arranged into a tour which covers each section of the museum, beginning at the entrance, and guides the visitor to each exhibit in turn.
Rectangular gravestone in high relief representing the deceased as orans, dressed in a himation over a chiton, and standing between the Egyptian gods Horus and Anubis. Two columns with floral capitals support the triangular pediment. The inscription below is in Greek.
This pagan tombstone was originally set into the front of a small tomb in the vast cemetery of Terenuthis, where hundreds of stelae have been discovered. The frontal pose with the left leg slightly bent at the knee, the pleated chiton and the himation flung over the left shoulder, the architectural frame consisting of two columns and a pediment with acroteria, and the Greek inscription all indicate a strong Greek influence. The two gods represented here – Horus (the falcon), the life-giving solar god, and Anubis (the jackal) who guided the deceased on his journey in the after-life – are among the most important of the Ancient Egyptian gods. The arched line above the deceased is either a mourning shawl or a schematized rolled-up door made of matting. The Greek inscription reads: ‘Apollos, who died before he was 17 years old; year 8, Payni 28, farewell.’ The many traces of colour show that the carving was originally completely polychrome.
Nearly square-shaped gravestone; the deceased is dressed in a chiton and himation and set within two pilasters supporting a lintel1 with a row of uraei (cobraheads). To the left is a jackal representing the Egyptian god Anubis, the guide of the dead.
This pagan gravestone also originates from the cemetery of Terenuthis, but its high relief displays some different characteristics. The deceased, as an orans, stands on a trapezium-shaped pedestal in a stiff frontal attitude. The proportions are crude and squat: the head is relatively large, the chubby cheeks narrow the eyes, the nose is thin and the mouth small. The hands and legs are clumsily-shaped while the fingers and toes are indicated simply by incised lines. The narrow pleats of the chiton and himation are schematically and sharply rendered. The black hair and traces of decoration on the pilasters show that the stela was originally coloured. The basic characteristics of this relief were adopted and exaggerated in Coptic sculpture of later centuries.
THE HALL OF EHNASIA (AHNAS)
The majority of the pieces exhibited in Hall I come from Heracleopolis Magna (Ahnas). They derive from architectural sculptures, mostly niches, pediments, and friezes. Their themes are taken from Greek mythology – Aphrodite on a shell, Dionysos, Daphne, Leda, and the swan, Europa and the bull and Pan pursuing a bacchante – and they range in date from the 3rd to the 5th centuries. Scholars have recognised two styles in Ahnas sculpture: the ‘soft’ style which is characterised by soft, plump forms, vivacious movements, large heads with wide eyes and stylized hair. The carvings of the ‘hard’ style reveal a further stage in the evolution of Coptic art, with more stylization, disproportion and stiffness: the lines are sharper and the shadows deeper.
There are transitional reliefs between these two styles. The discovery of a rich sequence of mythological subjects among the remains of a ‘church’ at Ahnas is surprising because the interpretation of this site as a church is uncertain. However, we know that a bishop of Heracleopolis Magna attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, which may indicate that the Christian community of Ahnas was fairly important.
Pagan themes may have been adopted when they had no religious implications, or even interpreted in terms of Christian symbolism. Mythological motifs continued to be used in art throughout the Byzantine and Early Islamic Periods in Egypt.
Part of a broken pediment showing Orpheus sitting with his lyre and being caressed by Eurydice. A border of interlaced acanthus foliage frames the scene. Outside the border is a recumbent lion with protruding tongue.
The subject of this sculpture has been variously identified as either David and Melodia (Bathsheba), or Apollo and a muse, or Orpheus and Eurydice. Most experts agree that the two figures are Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus appears frequently in Roman and Late Antique art playing his lyre, often surrounded by animals – especially the lion. This sculpture is a clear example of the ‘hard’ style of Ahnas in particular and of the evolution of Coptic art in general. The limbs of the figures are highly disproportionate, particularly the long body, large head, and wide eyes. The muscles are linearly treated. The hair and garments of the two lovers, the body of the lion and the interlaced acanthus reveal a trend towards emphasis on ornament.
Part of a pilaster with the bust of a bearded Nile god wearing a band decorated with rosettes and quatrefoils. An erote holding a duck perchs on his shoulder.
The Greeks and Romans personified the River Nile under the name Nilus and depicted him as a reclining God, often surrounded by erotes. A popular festival in celebration of the Nile inundation was observed by pagans and Christians alike for many centuries in Egypt. The lotus flowers that flank the composition symbolize marshes, suggesting that this sculpture was part of a pilaster. The elongated eyes which slope sharply from the eyebrows towards the cheeks suggest that the sculptor was trying to achieve a particular perspective, and may indicate that the sculpture was originally placed at a considerable height. The facial features of the god, his headdress and the band of alternating rosettes and quatrefoils across his body are crisply executed; but his body, especially the chest, has been carved with a softness reminiscent of Graeco-Roman sculptural traditions.
In the centre, the goat-hoofed Pan pursues a dancing bacchante playing the clappers. An acanthus interlace borders the scene. Outside the border, on both sides, are two lions with foliate acroteria.
The style of this pediment is similar to those found at Baalbeck. The broken gable is a regular feature of Ahnas sculpture: the triangular outline of the pediment is interrupted at the apex by a lunette-like element.
Pan and the bacchante are set at a slant in the centre of this crisply-chiseled carving. The figures are relatively well- proportioned; but the hair, the eyes, the folds of the dancer’s dress, the fur on Pan’s goat legs and the acanthus leaves are all schematically rendered. The treatment of the wind-blown mantle over Pan’s shoulder and the inclusion of his pipes in the lower left-hand corner of the lunette suggest that the sculptor was trying not to leave vacant areas in the carving.
Two nude erotes, holding a wreathed cross, occupy the centre of this sculpture. An acanthus interlace borders the scene.
Although somewhat unsatisfying aesthetically, this relief is nevertheless impressive. The heads with their triangular faces are elongated by the stylized hair, and the eyes have lost most of their sensuality through similar stylization. The disproportioned lower limbs are squat and the pose they assume is grotesque. The scene derives much from one which was common in Roman and Byzantine art, in which a garland wreath is carried aloft by two victories. The wreath was frequently used in Roman – especially imperial – art to symbolize victory. Here, the choice of wreath enclosing the symbol of Christianity, the cross, is significant. The sculpture would have been inserted into the top of a niche in a church or a monastery. Its style seems to be related to the Ahnas sculptures, and it may belong to the transitional phase between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ styles.
A facade enclosing a cross with Alpha and Omega on either side of it. On each side of the facade appears a crux ansata surmounted by two Greek crosses. The Greek inscription is a conventional invocation to God.
The fine relief of this stela shows a remarkable aesthetic sense combined with originality and symbolism; it invokes the triumph of the cross with its redeeming and resurrecting powers. The letters Alpha and Omega, the bunches of grapes and the vine leaves are considered to be symbols of Christ. The schematic shell motif within the arch symbolizes the rebirth of the deceased in a new life. A pair of doves, symbolic of peace, can just be detected beneath the central cross. The architectural feature represents a sanctuary or the Gate to Paradise. The Greek inscription across the top reads, ‘One God, the Helper’, and the name of the deceased, Apa ‘Biham’ or ‘Abraham’ (?). Most Coptic funerary stelae are of vertical design; the horizontal composition of this stela is relatively rare.
The external rim of this famous niche features a slightly protruding frame and two adjoining colonettes with simplified capitals. In the upper section, Christ is enthroned in a mandorla carried on wheels with flames licking at its base. At the sides of the mandorla are the heads of the four creatures symbolizing the Apocalypse: the eagle, ox, lion and man. The Archangel Michael stands to the left, Gabriel to the right. In the lower section the Holy Virgin, holding the infant Jesus, sits enthroned and flanked by the twelve apostles as well as two local saints. The simple colours are unusally bright.
This attractive niche was brought from one of the chapels of the Monastery of Apollo at Bawit. The two-zoned composition it exemplifies was popular in monastic painting. The moulding around the niche’s external rim is decorated with a series of small identical busts painted onto medallions, representing the Virtues. Christ is shown bearded, carrying an open book in his left hand and raising the right in blessing. He wears a long-sleeved robe with a cross on his chest, a cloak and sandals. Beneath, separated by a brown band, the Virgin sits on a bejewelled throne with a cushion, her feet resting on a footstool. On her lap she holds the infant Jesus, shown haloed and holding a scroll in his left hand. The twelve Apostles and two local saints are seen haloed, bearded and holding books; Peter holds a key in his left hand, and Paul a staff surmounted by a cross in his right hand. The mud and plaster used in this niche, although cheap materials, together with the bright colours give it a certain charm.
Two-zone type basket-shaped capital decorated with plait-work, peacocks, fruit bowls, crosses and ram heads.
A chevron-patterned band surrounds the base of the capital. The lower section resembles a flat wicker basket executed in sharp relief. The corners of the upper section are decorated with the fore parts of rams with the spaces filled alternately with a peacock surmounted by a cross and a bowl of fruit. The crests and tails of the peacocks are schematically carved. The suggestion that these ‘basket’ capitals were an Egyptian invention has been rejected by the majority of scholars, who believe that they derive from capitals of Justinian’s time carved in Constantinople and Ravenna. Needless to say, some of the capitals from Bawit and Saqqara show thematic variety and skill unsurpassed by Byzantine court art.
Composite capital carved with stylized acanthus leaves still bearing traces of green colouring.
The base is decorated with rosettes, quatrefoils and meandering patterns.
The capital’s base is formed into a shallow ’basket’ carved with quatrefoils and meandering patterns. These different elements are in harmony. Acanthus branches spring from the base, and in the lower section they are arranged in sets of three, of which the middle one is the largest. They retain little of their natural appearance as the tips droop pronouncedly. The other branches are longer and more stylized, leaving a considerable part of the background visible, where the dark green paint enhances the effect of the relief.
■ THE HALL OF SAQQARA
All the monuments in Hall 6 originate from the Monastery of Saint Jeremias at Saqqara. Most of them date from the period between the 6th and 8th centuries. They bear witness to the splendid monasteries and churches that once existed in Egypt.
The limestone capitals vary in shape and decoration, but all are deeply carved with foliate designs. Some have vines or vine leaves arranged within entwined tendrils; others are decorated with acanthus leaves or branches from which spring a number of large palm leaves. One capital showing acanthus branches twisted as if by the wind is fascinating. Some capitals still retain bright colouring.
The niches displayed in this Hall show typical monastic paintings. The niche to the right of the pulpit depicts the enthroned Virgin suckling the infant Jesus, her head turned slightly towards Him. This motif derives from depictions of the Egyptian goddess Isis suckling Horus. Many other architectural features – such as lintels, niches and friezes showing interesting detail – are also exhibited. Monuments from the Monastery of Saint Jeremias represent an indispensable source for the study of Coptic architectural sculpture and paintings.
Basket or vase-shaped capital carved with vine leaves and bunches of grapes. The interlaced stems are painted in red, the leaves in brown.
This elegant piece is one of the most beautifully sculptured Coptic capitals, comparable to the best of its kind in the Byzantine Empire. It resembles a convex vase profile with eight vertical flanges decorated with delicate vine scrolls. A band composed of pearl and geometric patterns surrounds the base of the capital. The colours complete the sculptor’s work, providing precision and detail which enhance the effects of light and shadow, and highlighting the motifs on the plain background. The well-preserved colours provide additional evidence that Coptic architecture was painted.
Stone pulpit with six steps. The rounded upper edge at the back is decorated with a cross in the middle of a shell, surrounded by a Coptic inscription.
So skilfully were the parts of the ambon fitted together that it appears monolithic from the front. The Coptic text around the shell reads: ‘The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen’. It is very probable that each old Coptic church featured a pulpit. But stone pulpits like this one, which was found at the main church of Jeremias’ Monastery, are very rare in Egypt; indeed this one could be the oldest in-tact example in stone. The prototype could well be the steps ascending to the shrines in the jubilee courtyard of the step pyramid complex of the 3rd Dynasty of Pharaoh Zoser at Saqqara, which is not far from the remains of the Monastery of Saint Jeremias. The design of pulpits found in mosques (minbar) derived, apparently, from the Coptic pulpit
Two fragments of a frieze composed of several carved segments showing a grape harvest scene. The first section features a man playing pipes and another crashing cymbals, the second two labourers, one lifting a basket full of grapes, the other carrying a basket on his back.
This frieze shows figures entwined within stylized vine-scrolls, representing a scene from daily life. While the vine-scrolls are derived from Graeco-Roman Dionysiac symbolism popular in Roman and Early Byzantine art, the grape-gathering motif originated from the murals decorating Ancient Egyptian tombs. The relief is of medium depth. The disproportionate limbs of the figures, the linear treatment of the muscles, the stylized curled hair and the large staring eyes do not affect the charm of these vignettes, which are full of individuality and movement.
A plaque with border framing a relief depicting the Three Hebrews in the Furnace standing in attitudes of prayer. A fourth figure holds a large staff surmounted by a cross in his right hand.
Old Testament themes occur relatively seldom in Coptic art in comparison to those from the New Testament. An exception is the tableau of the Three Hebrews in the Furnace which appears frequently in Egypt and in Nubia. Here, all the figures are barefoot; two of them raise their hands in an orans position, the third holds his hands before his breast in prayer. The three young men wear Phrygian caps, tunics that hang down to the knees in the shape of an M, and chlamydes. The fourth person wears a long tunic which reaches his ankles; the long staff in his right hand is surmounted by a cross, perhaps to indicate that the Three Hebrews were rescued by the power of the Cross. It is very probable that this sculpture was once installed as an ornament in a wall of a church or monastery.
Part of the lower end of an archivolt decorated with a fishing scene: a man in a skiff fishes; two birds nest on papyrus and lotus Rowers. A border of heart-shaped foliage with pearls frames the scene.
The fine relief was carved using a relatively flat technique. The individual elements are well- proportioned, though not in relation to each other. Nevertheless, the composition does not lack harmony. The details of the relief, especially the birds, the nest holding the eggs and the squatting fisherman, are vividly portrayed. The heart-shaped foliage design is of Greek origin. In Coptic art Nilotic scenes occur mostly on textiles and in wooden friezes – they are very rare in stone. This relief is particularly significant as it preserves with unusual clarity a traditional Ancient Egyptian motif nearly three thousand years old. Fishing in the marshes was a scene popularly depicted on the walls of the nobles’ tombs, especially during the period from the 5th to the 18th Dynasties.
Sculptured frieze fragment showing a startled animal, perhaps a gazelle, wearing a bell and a girdle, looking back in fright at a threatening lioness suckling her young. To the right is a raging lion, also looking back over its shoulder.
The narrow vine-scroll border above the scene consists of large bunches of grapes with a small leaf, alternating with a small bunch and large leaf. In the main scene an acanthus branch with large leaves forms scrolls, while offshoots of pointed leaves gracefully surround the animals. The motif of leaf-scrolls entwined with animals gained widespread popularity during Roman and Early Byzantine times; it was used in architectural sculpture, wallpaintings and textiles. This fragment probably belonged to the frieze on an external wall of a Coptic church. The raging lion may symbolize evil. The sculpture is extremely well-preserved. The scene does not attempt to appear natural as the emphasis on ornamentation had reached its climax.
Large wallpainting representing Adam and Eve before and after their fall from grace. To the right they are depicted innocent and unashamed, to the left fig leaves hide their shame.
Mural painting was characteristic of Coptic religious architecture for centuries, but this scene of Adam and Eve is unique in Egypt. Although the style of this polychrome fresco is naive, its significance lies in its theme and charming folk-art style. Adam and Eve are depicted in two moments of a narrative, before and after their disgrace. To the right they are naked, just before eating the forbidden fruit which they still hold in their hands. To the left they appear ashamed after having eaten the fruit. Adam raises his right hand as if to reproach Eve, while the serpent is depicted next to her.
The thick vegetation with fruits symbolizes the Garden of Eden. The emotion conveyed by the expressions on Adam and Eve’s faces is impressive. The Coptic text above the figures refers to the story of their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Conically-shaped capital broadening into a quadrilateral wickerwork band. A panel showing the tree of life is carved on each face.
This huge marble capital has been skilfully executed with delicate plait work. The foliate panels on the four faces of the capital break the monotony of the large wickerwork band. Similar capitals exist in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Almost all the marble imported by Egypt in Late Antiquity was from Proconnesos in Constantinople. The capital is hollow, suggesting that it was re-used as a baptistery in later times.
The left-hand page shows the end of the Apocryphon of John and the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas; the right, part of the composition ‘On the Origin of the World*. Such works originated under the influence of gnostic theology and were apparently translated from Greek into Coptic.
In 1944, a peasant accidentally discovered the famous Nag Hammadi Library when he found thirteen papyrus codices in a jar at the foot of Jabal Al-Taref in the region of Nag Hammadi. These manuscripts, written in Coptic, now provide the most important source of Gnosticism, a complex religious movement which, in its Christian form, gained prevalence in the second century. The Library has both Christian and non-Christian characteristics. Egyptian and Jewish components are unmistakable; philosophic and neoplatonic orientations can also be traced. The central element is the ‘Gnosis’, supposedly the revealed knowledge of God by which man can be redeemed. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library represents an important contribution to the history of religion, philosophy, book manufacture and the study of Coptic dialects and paleography.
The Gospels in Arabic, with title written in an elegant oriental kufic style on two pages, which are ornamented with intricate blue and gold patterns.
In the 9th and I Oth centuries, the Copts began to translate the Scriptures from Coptic into Arabic; many manuscripts present bilingual biblical texts in two adjacent columns: Coptic and Arabic. The title of this manuscript consists of four phrases, two on each page, separated by a geometric design of four polygons with crosses and surrounded by interlaced borders and rich foliate decoration. According to the text on the title pages, this volume was kept in the library of the Coptic Patriarchate, but it could be borrowed if necessary for a period not exceeding five days. The graceful angular calligraphy in kufic script and the blue/gold colour scheme characterise the valuable manuscripts of the Mameluke period. By that time, Coptic ornamentation had assumed an Islamic flavour; the National Library in Cairo possesses many beautiful Mameluke Korans with illuminations similar to those in this Gospel.
Tapestry with plain background contrasted with a dark-skinned piper wearing a red kilt and a green garment over his left shoulder. The vertical panel to the left is decorated with warriors and dancers, and in the centre, riders and dancing pairs.
Fine large curtains were hung in doorways and between colonnades in Roman and Early Byzantine times, when dancers, warriors and similar figures belonged to the standard repertory of textile decoration. Here, the piper is well drawn, with emphasis on the contours of his body and facial features. The vertical panel is framed by a beehive-like pattern. Other features include small dancing figures and warriors with shields and flowing robes, three medallions, each containing a horseman, and two rectangles, each with a dancing pair. The curtain is made of linen and the decorative motifs were formed by using a tapestry weaving technique. The details of the figures were executed with a flying shuttle. The skilful treatment of the piper, the distribution of elements in the scene – with a large figure and a panel of small figures – the harmony of the colours and the high quality of workmanship all make this curtain one of the masterpieces of Coptic textiles.
Part of a larger drapery, multicoloured. Columns and arches surround a crux ansata with monogram of Christ. Peacocks and doves – symbols of eternity and peace – and the name Phoibamon are represented.
The colours are most impressive: the triple arcature possesses multicoloured columns supporting blue and pink arches. Beneath the lateral arcades a crux ansata is shown, designed as if it were of precious metal decorated with yellow and green cabochons. The loop is filled with a monogram composed of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ (X and P). One of the two peacocks flanking the cross has its head turned towards the middle arch, in which there was probably an important symbol. Two other peacocks together with a pair of doves are arranged symmetrically, a compositional type favoured in Coptic art. The Coptic name Phoibamon is woven above a band of geometric patterns. The Christian motif may denote that the tapestry belonged to a church or monastery. The loop-pile technique enhances the brush-stroke effect of the design.
Cover with polychrome band featuring marine scenes, Nereid (a sea-nymph) and episodes from the Old Testament. The edges of the band are bordered with fine stylized flowers.
Although the representation of two or more unrelated motifs within a single composition is characteristic of Coptic textiles from the Early Islamic period, the occurrence of marine and biblical scenes together is very rare. Here, to the left, the Sacrifice of Isaac is depicted. Isaac is shown on the altar, while Abraham holds a knife in his left hand and stretches his right hand forward towards Isaac; between them is a ram. Nereid, holding a veil arched over her head, is in front of the sea monster rather than astride it. A boat is shown with two figures; one is casting a man overboard, to be swallowed headfirst by a sea monster, alluding perhaps to the story of Jonah and the whale. The motifs on the band are more or less schematically repeated without intervening borders. The figures are very stylized. The significance of this piece lies in the composition of its themes.
Upper part of large multicoloured hanging, with two panels featuring identical decorations: a haloed bust within a central medallion and square frame. In the corners, nude erotes are mounted upon sea creatures and separated from each other by additional erotes carrying baskets.
One of the characteristics of Coptic textiles from the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods is the use of traditional motifs, especially motifs featuring marine and Nilotic scenes. The erotes in this scene are depicted astride dolphin-like creatures, with one mounted on a sea-horse (bottom left), and another holding a duck. The figures are executed with freedom and fluidity. The square panels are flanked by two-sided bands ending in roundels, each enclosing an erote holding a bird. The panels and bands are framed by a stylized wave-like pattern. This hanging is made of linen, with the motifs executed in tapestry weave-technique. The varied colours convey an impression of a rich and abundant life.
Comb with two rows of teeth. One side shows the Raising of Lazarus and the Healing of the Blind Man; the reverse, a saint on horseback within a garland held by two angels.
Fine combs have been discovered in tombs from the Roman and Byzantine periods; at Antinoe combs were found lying on the chests of the deceased. Combs were even used for liturgical purposes. The practical design of one row of fine teeth and one of thicker teeth was introduced by the Greeks. The oblong panel is decorated on one side with two biblical miracles. Lazarus is shown as a mummy wrapped in a shroud, while Christ stands before him holding a cross. In the representation of the Healing of the Blind Man, Christ stretches his hand towards the head of the afflicted man, who holds a staff to guide his steps. On the other side, two angels support a garland framing a saint dressed in chiton and chlamys, and riding a horse. The schematic treatment of the facial features and folds of the garments reduces the graceful swaying movement of the figures.
Icon showing unique iconography of the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. The Virgin rides a white horse and Joseph stands at the right with the infant Jesus on his shoulder.
The Coptic church commemorates the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt on the 24th day of the Coptic month Bachons, corresponding to the 1st of June. This great event continued to appeal to the imagination of later preachers; many fascinating details of the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt are mentioned in Armenian, Ethiopian and Arabic writings. The icon is set in a wooden frame decorated with a yellow floral pattern. The Virgin, Joseph and the infant Jesus are haloed. The upper right-hand corner shows a walled city depicted with houses, trees and date-palms. The Arabic text reads: ‘The Virgin is on her way to Egypt; Lord, remember in the Kingdom of Heaven he who has toiled.’ Icons referring to episodes in the life of Christ can still be seen in many Coptic churches.
This famous icon represents the visit of Saint Anthony (on the left) to Saint Paul (3rd/4th century), who lived in retreat in the Eastern Desert near the Red Sea.
It demonstrates some of the characteristics of early Coptic art.
The icon is set in a wooden frame decorated with a geometric motif. The background is half green and half gold: colours symbolizing earth and heaven respectively. The Saints’ names are written in Coptic. Saint Paul of Thebes, the anchorite, has a long white beard and is dressed in a tunic of plaited palms, with lions at his feet. Saint Anthony is wearing a monk’s habit and holding a tau-staff and scroll with an Arabic inscription. The bread-bearing crow alludes to an anecdote associated with Saint Anthony’s visit to Paul: each day the crow provided Paul with half a loaf for sustenance, but on the day Saint Anthony visited, the crow appeared with a whole loaf. The Arabic text between the two figures mentions the name of the Monastery of Mercurius, to which the icon was dedicated, and the date 1493 A.M.
Rectangular wooden Gospel casket covered with silver sheets embossed with rich foliate ornamentation. The central cross is decorated with glass cabochons; above and below runs a Coptic text from the beginning of the Gospel of John.
Sheets of silver embossed with fine floral designs cover all the exterior surfaces of this valuable casket. Four elegant vases with floral designs radiate from the central point of the cross, embossed on each face of the casket. Above and below runs a band of gilded ornamental script quoting the beginning of the Gospel of John. Each of the two side edges features tracery with fine floral designs set between gilded shields bearing an Arabic inscription. This dedicatory text mentions the Church of the Virgin Mary at Qasriat Al-Rihan, to which the casket was donated, as well as the date: I 140 A.M. This precious casket must have protected a book of great value, reflecting the piety of its donor.
Statue of a Roman eagle with outspread wings, standing majestically over the horn of plenty. In front of the left wing is a branch with graceful leaves and tiny fruits.
This imposing eagle was one of the most significant objects found among the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon. The treatment of both the horn of plenty and the leafy fruitbearing branch combined with the wing is remarkable. In Roman times the eagle, a mighty predator with unsurpassed ability in flight, often appeared as an emblem of power, victory and grandeur. Afterwards, it became a popular motif in Coptic art; the eagle occurs quite frequently in niches and in the decoration of apses and funerary stelae. The eagle was also interpreted as a symbol of Christ, although in fact it represented the emblem of Saint John the Evangelist.
The lamp’s handle is in the form of a cross mounted in a crescent. The base of the stand is composed of three elegant horses supporting a trefoil of three stylized leaves.
Bronze was widely used for everyday objects in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Different types of bronze lamps with stands were made for the church as well as for domestic use. This lamp with stand is one of the most well-preserved and elegant of its type, with a bulbous body, a round base, a broad nozzle and a lid covering the filling hole. Each part was cast individually. The base of the lamp is concave where the spike at the top of the baluster stand is inserted. Below the spike is a circular dish to catch the dripping oil. The graceful horses forming the legs of the stand are elaborately executed. Lamps with baluster-shaped stands were common in Coptic Egypt. Interestingly, the symbol that embodied national unity during the Egyptian revolution of 1919 resembles the handle of this lamp: a crescent enclosing a cross.
Key decorated at the top with a modified Corinthian capital surmounted by four reclining lions, below which are four dolphins with balls in their mouths.
Although keys were indispensable instruments of security in ancient times, only a few exquisite keys have survived. This finely crafted key is undoubtedly one of the most interesting examples from Byzantine Egypt. The type of lock to which this ‘turning key’ belonged was introduced by the Romans. While the key’s shaft is of iron, the carved sections are made of bronze. It bears a corrupted text which probably refers to Saint Shenoute. the famous Abbot of the White Monastery. The delicate foliate ornamentation, the graceful movement of the dolphins, and the elegant reclining lions give this key a special splendour. It is worth noting that the niche of Bawit (Item 9) features Peter, the apostle, holding a key.
One of three pairs of earrings of the same type made of solid gold. They belonged to the jewellery of a lady who lived in Bahariya Oasis apparently in the 4th century.
In many portraits on wood or canvas found with mummies in the cemeteries of Roman and Byzantine Egypt, women are almost always depicted wearing earrings and necklaces. As indeed during most eras, women of the aristocratic class owned jewellery of exquisite craftsmanship that reflected their status, even in remote areas like Bahariya Oasis. In the summer of 1945, a blackened pottery vase covered with a pottery dish was discovered there, filled with a lady’s jewellery. Besides the gold earrings, her collection included silver objects, bracelets, a necklace and a number of bronze rings. A gold coin showing Empror Valens (364-378 A.D.) was also among the objects. Earrings of this type were known at least as early as the second century, where they are shown in mummy portraits.
A complete book of prayers in 17 folios written in Coptic and illuminated. Its first page is decorated with a cross in an interlace design of red, green and black; the page to the right features a three-sided frame in a similar pattern.
Qasr El-Wizz – with a church, a cluster of monks’ cells, a central refectory and kitchen – is the most fully-investigated monastic establishment in Nubia, where such institutions were rare. However, no Nubian monastery was comparable to the great monasteries of Egypt. This book of prayers is the most important find discovered at Qasr El-Wizz. Its Coptic text is significant for the study of the Old Nubian language, since an Old Nubian version of it was known previously. Some of the pages of the book are decorated with figures of animals such as a peacock and a crocodile. Interlace was used to decorate Coptic manuscripts at least as early as the 5th century. Monks were particularly skilful in manufacturing, binding and copying books; the illuminations of this particular book prove that Nubian monks had good taste and originality.
Rectangular gravestone with relief representing an arched entrance supported by two columns flanked by acroteria and surmounted by a cross. The Coptic inscription reads: ‘The day (on which) the blessed Paulus went to rest: Epep 12.’
Both Coptic and Nubian Christian funerary stelae were simply a means of communication between the deceased and the world from which they had departed. Their inscriptions give names and sometimes the date of death, but often only the day and the month. Many gravestones bear invocations. Nubian Christian gravestones are important for the study of Nubian culture in general and for the history of Christianity there in particular. Some hundred of them have been discovered in Nubia, inscribed in Coptic or Greek; few are bilingual. 314 gravestones were found in Sakinya, of which 80% bear Coptic inscriptions and date from the end of the 6th century to the end of the I Oth century. But Christianity survived longer in Nubia; Timotheos, who was consecrated in 1372 as Bishop of Faras and Qasr Ibrim, was the last recorded holder of this office in Nubia.
Large wallpainting showing nativity scene. The Virgin reclines on a bed next to a brick crib where the infant Jesus lies. Joseph, the three wise men on horseback, and two shepherds are also depicted.
From the 5th century onwards, Christianity began to spread in Nubia. Its churches are famous for their wallpaintings showing unmistakable Byzantine and Coptic influences. This fresco of the Nativity, like many other frescoes, was removed from the Church of Abdallah Nirqi in Nubia and brought to the Coptic Museum before the erection of the Aswan High Dam. The upper part is missing. The Virgin Mary reclines on a bed decorated with sunflower motifs and small crosses. On top of the brick crib lies the infant Jesus. Joseph sits on a cushion at the foot of the bed. Behind him are painted the three wise men on horseback; their Phrygian caps are detectable. Next to the crib, two shepherds wearing short tunics are carrying buckets. Although the proportions of the figures are unnatural and the colours faded, this mural has retained its charm.
Rectangular altar supported by Corinthian columns with modified capitals, surmounted by panels showing shells and crosses within archivolts. The panels are engraved with rich foliate ornamentation, birds and crosses.
This is the oldest Christian wooden altar found in Egypt. Of its twelve columns, eight featuring oblique fluting remain. The archivolts are decorated with stylized myrtle foliage.
A shell on two columns forms an architectural facade, frequently represented in Coptic art. The cross and shell may symbolize the rebirth of the soul after baptism, a motif reminiscent of Aphrodite’s birth from a shell. This fine altar is exhibited under a wooden dome dating to the Fatimid period, which was brought from the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa.
The bust of Christ with a crossed nimbus enclosed within a floral garland carried by two winged angels in flight. To the left is a bust of the martyr Saint Seibane, haloed. The text is Coptic.
This fresco, which deserves special admiration, was discovered in 1976 in the Monastery of Apollo at Bawit. The head of Christ is set against a jewelled cross; his elongated face narrows sharply towards the chin. His hair falls in long, waved tresses over his shoulders. He has a short beard and a drooping moustache. Slight shading beneath the wide eyes make them appear deep-set, with thick eyebrows arching above. The mouth is unnaturally small. The two angels carrying the garland are depicted in full flight. To the left is the ‘Angel of the Lord’, and to the right the ‘Angel of God’; Christ is labelled the ‘Saviour’. The appearance of the marty- Selbane, depicted haloed within a medallion, in the same lunette may be taken as evidence of the veneration shown by Coptic monks to martyrs.
Frieze fragment with Nilotic scene depicting a large crocodile, a lotus flower and a vine leaf attached to a small branch; to the right is part of another scene framed by a column and a curtain.
The dramatic contrast between the desert and the fertile Nile Valley may have been responsible for Heredotus’ observation that ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile’. Many scenes depicting fishing, fowl and hippopotamus hunting are shown in ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs and paintirtgs. The repertory of Nilotic scenes, much expanded under Hellenistic influence, continued to be represented in Coptic textiles, woodwork and stone carvings. This section is part of a frieze showing a long Nilotic scene including fish and aquatic birds. It was probably part of the ornamentation on the wall of a church.
Large lintel carved in raised relief showing two scenes from the New Testament: the Entry into Jerusalem and the Ascension. The incomplete Greek inscription of four lines above the scene is a hymn in praise of Christ.
It is likely that this famous carved panel once ornamented a door in the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa. To the left, Christ is depicted beardless and unhaloed, riding an ass; one man spreads a cloak on the ground in front of the ass while behind him another man hails Christ by waving a palmbranch. The building in the background represents the city of Jerusalem. The well-proportioned figures are executed in ‘hard’ style with stiff movements and sharp contours. In the representation of the Ascension, Christ appears enthroned in a mandorla held by two angels, with two animals symbolic of the evangelists, the lion and ox, below. Curtains symbolizing clouds hide the Divinity from the Apostles, who flank the central scene; the nearest figure to the left is the Holy Virgin. A part of the text reads: ‘Thou art Holy, Holy, Holy, and Heaven and Earth are full of Thy Holy Glory, because they are full of Thy Greatness.’ The hymn to Christ was dedicated by Abbot Theodore and Deacon George.
Three wooden toys: a cavalier mounted on a horse, a painted horse and a bird, all on wheels. They presumably derive from infants’ graves. The toy horse retains some of its colours.
Children in Ancient Egypt enjoyed playing many games with balls, dolls and toy animals, but wooden horses on wheels were not known until the Graeco-Roman period. The In-tact bird on wheels is very rare. The holes in the bird’s head and in the horse are probably for strings. Traces of the dark green colour depicting the mane and the saddle of the toy horse still remain; the saddle is secured with a red girth around the belly and the breast of the horse. These three toys are among the best-preserved objects of their kind from late Roman and Byzantine times in Egypt.
A panel with relief depicting a lion preying on an antelope. It originally belonged to a wooden box made of panels held together with wooden pegs.
Delicate panels decorated not only architectural features such as doors but also furniture. This fine panel with its vivid carving once decorated the middle section of one side of a wooden box measuring 89.5 x 85.5 x 61.7 cm. The lion and antelope were carved the same size; the lion’s mane and the legs of the two animals are stylized, and the antelope’s head is relatively small. Nevertheless, the scene is very impressive and does not lack harmony. Aphroditopolis and the surrounding region boasted about 40 monasteries and 30 churches. Aphroditopolis yielded Greek, Coptic and Arabic papyri that illustrated many aspects of the social and economic life of the area, both before and after the Arab conquest of Egypt. The box to which this panel belongs represents the finest object found there.
Wooden litter inlaid with ivory, bone and mother-of-pearl.
Coptic artisans possessed remarkable skill and taste in designing such attractive geometric patterns intermingled with crosses. This litter was used to convey rich women pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem. It was supported on two long poles and carried by two camels, providing perhaps the most comfortable mode of travelling by camel!
The two upper panels on the front of the door are relatively well-preserved and show the bust of Christ within a ribboned wreath carried by two angels. On the other panels are figures of Christ, Saint Mark, Christ in a mandorla, the Holy Virgin and the twelve apostles. The panels on the back of the door are engraved with vine-scrolls springing from vases.
This example is the most significant of the few existing doors from the Roman and Byzantine periods in Egypt. It was discovered between two walls during the restoration of the Church of Saint Barbara. The lower part has been damaged by damp, and the fine carving on the front panels has suffered much. The one relatively well-preserved panel – illustrated here – represents the bust of Christ in a garland carried by two angels in full flight. They are flanked by two figures, probably evangelists, set against columns with curtains. The main elements of this composition were adopted from Roman art and recall the motif of wreath-bearing victories. The panels on the back of the door are decorated with vine-scrolls issuing from vases.
Two-handled water jug of red clay with cylindrical neck, painted on one side with a bird and on the other a lion. An interlace pattern encircles the jug.
The porosity of the clay allows regular and slow evaporation from the jug’s surface that keeps its contents cool; a similar kind of water jug is still used in Egypt. The figures are outlined in black with interior detail enhanced in red. The forms of both the lion and the bird have no relationship to nature; the lion’s tail and the bird’s legs are reduced to wiry black outlines; the claws hover below the ground line. A floral design of slender branches and heart-shaped leaves with dots is shown in front of both the lion and the bird. Animals are the most common features of Coptic pottery decoration. This attractive water jug belongs to the most elaborate type.
Water jug of light-brown clay, whose cylindrical neck features a human face. One of its two handles is missing. The shoulder is ornamented with stylized grape clusters.
This jug is unusually imaginative, and it creates a humorous impression. It demonstrates the high level of craftsmanship as well as the creativeness of its potter. A kind of necklace with a central pendant in raised relief decorates the area between the face and the juncture of the neck to the shoulder. The evenly distributed grape clusters ornamenting the shoulder are also in relief. Around the body runs a band featuring a wavy line decorated with groups of three small raised circles.
Egg-shaped lamp, without handle, made of crude light-brown clay. Its upper surface is decorated with a frog, symbolizing resurrection, surrounded by a vine-scroll border.
Pottery lamps were among the most common household items in ancient times. Coptic lamps have been found in towns, monasteries and cemeteries. Frog lamps were fairly common. This lamp features a frog decorated with small dots in raised relief; the filling hole is in the middle of its body. The graceful vine-scroll border running around the frog enhances the lamp’s beauty. In Ancient Egyptian heiroglyphic script the frog-sign signified rebirth and resurrection; the frog was also associated with Heket, the Egyptian goddess of birth. One of the lamps shows a cross and a frog together with the Greek inscription. ‘I am the Resurrection’. Thus the Ancient Egyptian frog was used as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ.
Flat circular flask decorated with Saint Menas, standing as an orans between a pair of camels; above his outstretched arms a short inscription in Greek reads ‘Hagios [Saint] Menas’.
The distinctive scene stamped on each side represents Saint Menas in soldier’s uniform, standing as an orans between two kneeling camels, their heads near his feet. Greek, Coptic, Nubian, Ethiopian and Arabic sources recount different legends about him. Saint Menas, an Egyptian recruit in the Roman army, was martyred due to his Christian faith. His body was escorted to Egypt by Phrygian soldiers, who were sent to protect the Maryut region (Mareotis) against the Libyans. When they reached a certain spot in the desert, the camels refused to go further; so it was there that Saint Menas was buried. When a spring of healing water appeared there, an oratory was built over his grave, and Byzantine Emperors erected splendid buildings there. Thus the pilgrimage site of Abu Mina became the Lourdes of ancient times; people came from all over the world, taking home the holy water in small flasks like this one.
Large storage jar of coarse red-brown clay with four handles, showing floral motifs and a fish painted in black outlines with red colouring and black detailing.
Since pottery was widely used in monasteries, it is a very important source of studying the daily life of Egyptian monks. This hefty thick-walled jar was used to store either liquids or foodstuffs in the Monastery of Saint Jeremias at Saqqara. Its surface has a reddish-white coat that bears a black line design enhanced with red colouring. The fish, sketched in black, reflects the natural skill of its designer. It is depicted within a panel bordered by three vertical stripes outlined in black and with red filling. The fish is a common traditional motif in Coptic art.
This priceless manuscript represents the earliest complete Coptic psalter. Its two original polished covers, remnants of the leather spine, thongs and small bony peg, shaped like the key of life, are all preserved.
While all Coptic biblical manuscripts in museums, libraries and private collections were acquired through antiquities dealers without any information on the circumstances of their discovery, this book of Psalms was discovered by archaeologists, and all the details of the find are known. The only biblical text discovered in an Egyptian tomb, it was found in the large, poor cemetery of Al-Mudil, 40 kilometres north-east of Oxyrhynchos, a city famous in Graeco-Roman times, in a shallow grave under a young girl’s head. Her parents must have been relatively rich to have owned such a valuable volume. The practice of burying religious texts with the dead dates back to Ancient Egyptian burial customs. The codex is written in the Middle Egyptian dialect of Oxyrhynchos. The parchment leaves are arranged into groups known as quires; each quire consists of four double sheets folded to make 16 pages. The manuscript, made up of 31 quires stitched together, is one of the largest, and perhaps the oldest book using this method of binding, and thus it may well represent one of the most important discoveries in the history of books. It is also very significant for biblical textual criticism. The small peg used to lock the book is shaped like the ancient Egyptian symbol of life; it is decorated with tiny incised circles with interior dots.