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Coptic Influence On European Art - Coptic Wiki


Of all the imports from the East to the West, Coptic monasticism is one of the most important. The spread of the monastic phenomenon (its institution and spirituality) is evident from clear landmarks. Several Christian monuments in the West have led to the notion that this expansion spread into the domain of Christian iconography. However, the supporting data are unreliable, if not even imprecise. One might try to state the true relationship by limiting oneself to the themes most frequently mentioned in connection with a Coptic influence: the Virgo lactans (the Virgin suckling her child), the Devil, Saint George and Saint Michael, and the Triumph of Christ and the Ascension. The possible relations between Irish and Coptic art form a more general subject that is treated separately (see ART, COPTIC AND IRISH).

The Virgo Lactans

It is generally said that the iconography of Mary suckling the infant Jesus was established in Egypt, having derived from the ancient theme of Isis nursing Horus (Saitic epoch). However, it does not appear that the Copts inordinately represented the Virgo lactans despite the prototype found in the Isis lactans, which was doubtlessly known to the anchorites and monks of Egypt.

Near the end of the sixth century, this iconography appeared on a stela from the Fayyum; then in the eighth century, it was painted on the walls of the apses of Bawit and Saqqara. Coptic art offers one of the most beautiful examples of the Virgo lactans on the wall of cell 1725 at Saqqara.

This caused numerous historians to state that Isis suckling Horus was the model that inspired the Coptic artists (Zuntz, 1929, pp. 32- 35; Kondakov, 1914-1915, Vol. 1, pp. 255-258; Wessel, 1964, p. 17; Benigni, 1900, pp. 499ff.; Lasareff, 1938, pp. 26-65; and many others). But the very identification of certain statuettes is sometimes impossible to determine. Regarding a statuette from Beth Shean (Palestine), for example, Weitzmann entitles it “Figurine of Isis or Virgo Lactans?” (1978, p. 189). Two things prevent giving a purely Isiac origin to the iconography of the Virgo lactans in the East as well as in the West, apart from the fact that the Saitic Horus never takes his mother’s breast. The Copts depicted the Virgo lactans only during the eighth century, and then rarely, and it was almost unknown in the West before the fourteenth century.

Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the cult of Mary began in Egypt during the first centuries A.D. at Alexandria; the doctrine of divine maternity was brilliantly defended by Cyril of Alexandria at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (summer of 431). The council not only condemned but also deposed Nestorius, as he proclaimed the Virgin as the Mother of God. It is also true that the tradition of Isis lactans was perpetuated and developed, from both the typological and the ideological points of view, under the Ptolemies and Roman emperors on the very soil of Egypt. Moreover, the spread of the cult of Isis into the entire Mediterranean has been demonstrated by Tran Tam Tinh (1973).

However, all the ancient civilizations dedicated a cult to the mother and child and in all of them, the mother’s milk had a role of equal importance. This stems from high antiquity, as is witnessed by the Cypriotic mothers nursing a child, which date from the third millennium B.C. (Louvre). With the Greeks as well, the mother nursing her child existed. This was distinct from the Isis cycle and dated from even before the Hellenistic era. The Galactotrophousa (nursing lady) of Santa Maria Vetere (Campania, third century B.C.; the nursing Hera (sixth century B.C.; Archaeological Museum, Athens), the Mater Matuta of Capua (second century B.C.), and many others attest to this.

The Copts, sensitive to the tender and natural gesture of the mother giving the breast to her child, which inspired sculptors and painters, were receptive to the Hellenized Isis lactans. Thus, the passing of the Greeks was necessary in order to establish this iconography with the Copts.

In the West, from among the best known examples, one may cite the fresco of Petit-Quevilly at Rouen (twelfth century), where Mary is nursing Jesus in a representation of the flight into Egypt. It is also found on the lintel of Anzy-le-Duc, on a round ivory relief from Metz (twelfth century), and in a few rare manuscripts. On the other hand, from the beginning of the fourteenth century, in the full light of humanism, Mary tenderly nursing the Infant Jesus appears everywhere, in the most diverse materials, on countless preserved today in the museums of Europe.

Why should one be obliged to associate Mary with Isis or one of the kourotrophoi (nursing mothers)? The artists at the end of the Gothic age simply wished to emphasize the purely maternal ties that unite a mother to her son. It was more a matter of making the hieratic image of the enthroned Virgin holding the Infant Jesus upon her lap less austere. (The meaning of the nursing scene on the walls of the apses of Bawit is discussed below in the section on the iconography of the Triumph of Christ.)

The Ascension and the Triumph of Christ

The liturgy of the Ascension is based on the reports of Luke (24:50-53), Acts (1:9-11), and Mark (16:19). Although references to the Ascension as a holiday—either independent of or as a part of Pentecost—came into existence rather late, it holds an extremely important place in the history of Christian iconography. However, the iconographical complexity of the Ascension has sometimes led historians to label as an Ascension what is, in fact, a Triumph of Christ.

The famous lintel of al-Mu‘allaqah (Coptic Museum, Cairo), dating in all probability from the fourth century (Sacopoulo, 1957, pp. 96-116; Jouguet, 1957, p. 100; Christe, 1969, pp. 77f.), would be the first known scene of the Ascension. A central motif depicts Christ beardless and enthroned in a mandorla, which is supported by two angels with wings outspread, suspended in the air. In his left hand, Jesus holds the book of judgment decorated with a cross, and he lifts his right hand in a gesture reminiscent of the benediction (mutilated fragment).

Below the mandorla, the symbols of two evangelists can be distinguished: the lion and the ox (the other two, man and the eagle, do not appear on this lintel, probably due to lack of space). To the left of the central motif stands a woman clothed in a maphorion (cloak), her eyes fixed on the celestial vision; at each side are twelve figures holding either a cross with a long lance or a book engraved with a cross. Finally, two curtains, symbolizing the separation between heaven and earth, enclose and frame the scene.

If one accepts the limit of A.D. 430 set by M. Sacopoulo for the creation of the lintel, the introduction of the vision of Ezekiel and Mary into the iconography of the Ascension belongs to Egypt rather than to Syria, as Dewald maintains (1915, pp. 287-91), since the Gospel illuminated by the monk Rabula was executed in 586, as the colophon attests as to both date and origin. The Palestinian formula of the Ascension as illustrated by the illuminated Gospel and the AMPULLAE of Mouza takes its origin from the mosaics of the church erected on the Mount of Olives (Male, 1922, p. 88).

This, however, does not indicate a sole Syrio-Palestinian origin for the Western iconography of the Triumph of Christ so common in the twelfth century on the tympana of Western churches, for the Coptic lintel precedes by at least one century the productions of the ampullae and the Gospel of Rabula.

One finds repeated at Bawit the two principal ideas already expressed on the lintel of al-Mu‘allaqah: the figure of Mary, recalling the mystery of the Incarnation, and the vision of Ezekiel relating to the themes of the Apocalypse. As Y. Christe explains (1969, p. 76), the extreme iconographical complexity of this lintel resides in the fact that it depicts, at once: (1) an Ascension-Parousia [second coming of Christ: “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11)]; (2) a vision of Saint John; and (3) a reminder of the prophet Isaiah’s theophany.

Christ enthroned presents an element that, in effect, does not relate directly to the Ascension but rather to the vision of Isaiah: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Is. 6:1). The figures of Bawit are, in sum, a synthesis of several symbols that recall the Incarnation, the Ascension as a prelude to the Parousia, and the final glory of Christ, which is suggested by the four figures of the vision of Ezekiel.

Moreover, the Copts seem to establish a close relationship between the eucharistic prayer and a reminder of the vision of Ezekiel. In Egypt, the Virgin is represented as the Theotokos (Mother of God), who, having conceived by the grace of the Holy Ghost, gave birth to God incarnate; she recalls the sacrifice of Christ. In the apses of several chapels of Bawit (chapels 6, 17, 42, 45, and 46), Mary always appears in the lower register, flanked by the apostles or local saints, or both, while praying and nursing the Infant Jesus.

She may be hieratic and frontal as the Hodighitria Virgin, or gesturing like the Syrian Virgins of the Ascension, her face turned upward toward Christ (Bawit, chapel 46). The figure of Mary on the frescoes of Bawit and Saqqara makes it in some sense improbable that the Copts wished to depict an Ascension. According to C. Ihm (1960), the presence of the Infant in the Coptic iconography conserves the memory of the close relation made in the primitive church between the Ascension and the Incarnation, events celebrated in a single holiday at Jerusalem. The Virgo lactans of chapel 42 at Bawit illustrates a passage from the book of Isaiah (7:14-15).

A pharaonic origin came to be ascribed to the four evangelical symbols, and this was seen as a Christian continuation of the four sons of Horus placed at the four corners of the sarcophagus of Osiris on Judgment Day (Ellis, 1930, p. 116). But their placement is unknown. Were they looking at Osiris or at the horizon? An answer could enlighten us as to the particular way in which the Copts depicted the four figures turning away from Christ. In any event, the four figures were a subject of the Copts, who depicted them everywhere in Egypt: at Bawit, at Saqqara, at Saint Simeon of Aswan, at DAYR AL-SHUHADA, at DAYR AL-ABYAD, and in the central cupola of DAYR AL-AHMAR of Suhaj, as well as in a chapel entirely devoted to the animals of the Apocalypse at the Monastery of Saint Anthony in the Thebaid.

According to Gabriel Millet (1945, pp. 55f.), the figure of Christ associated with the four figures of the vision of Ezekiel was first transmitted to the East, specifically into Armenia, and then to the West, specifically into Italy. Jean Ebersolt has explained very well the relations that existed throughout the Mediterranean long before the Crusades: “At that time the Jews shared the traffic of Oriental trade with the Syrians . . . Papyrus, that precious conveyor of ideas, came from Egypt to Marseilles, where the ships had just unloaded their cargos of oil and other liquids . . . From Syria there came wine . . .” (after the Historia Francorum of Saint Gregory of Tours; Ebersolt, 1954, p. 24).

In a paper presented at the thirteenth Congress of Orientalists at Hamburg (1903, pp. 1-39), Ebersolt stated: “It is in Italy, especially at Rome, that we find the most important colonies. From antiquity, satirists already complained about the invasion of Rome by the Syrians” (p. 3). Today it is thought that the transmission of the principal Middle Eastern themes to the West was effected progressively and almost naturally, as the Middle East attracted Gaul and vice versa. What is more controversial is the direct relationship between the Copts and the West that has been too easily established.

J. Hubert (1967, p. 74) was the first to invoke Coptic influences for the Abbey of Jouarre, founded around 630 thanks to the monastic apostolate of Saint Columban. The of Agilbert, a great man of the seventh century, situated in the north crypt of Jouarre, relates to our subject. The most interesting part of that tomb is the panel depicting the head of Christ in majesty surrounded by the four evangelical symbols. The most striking detail of Jouarres iconography is the position of the four figures in relation to Christ, as they are turned in the opposite direction.

According to Hubert, the style and iconography of this tomb go back to Coptic Egypt: “The artist of Jouarre must have been a student at a Coptic atelier, having fled upon the invasion of Egypt by the Arabs” (p. 77). Unfortunately, the absence of any text about the installation of a Coptic atelier in France does not permit us to confirm this hypothesis. There is no mention whatever in the most ancient texts recounting the founding of the monastery of Jouarre, as, for example, in the Life of Saint Columban, edited by the hagiographer Jonas de Bobbio.

The position of the four figures of Jouarre, no matter how impregnated they may be by Coptic art, still remains an isolated case in Western iconography. Is this alone sufficient to imagine the displacement of a Coptic atelier into the West after the Arab invasion?

B. Brenk also notes a very strong Coptic influence at Jouarre (1964, pp. 99-100): “The form and the theme are intermingled with Coptic elements. ” But he admits the impossibility of explaining

it, and concludes that the “how” remains unknown: “. . . but the sculptor of Jouarre saw Coptic sculptures or iconographs.” This is a hypothesis difficult to contest, but who is to say that there was not a European monk among the team of artists at Jouarre who had undertaken the long trip to the Holy Land and Egypt? The Gallic bishop Arculfe was in Egypt around 670 (Ebersolt, 1954, p. 32), as were many others coming by ship from Narbonne or Marseilles, such as the friend of Sulpicius Severus, Postumianus (Sulpicius Severus, pp. 7-163).

Ascensions from the Orient were not accepted by the West before the twelfth century. Beginning with the eleventh century, iconography received a new Byzantine contribution. Christ in His majesty surrounded by the four figures, at Saint-Jacques-des- Guérets recalls in many respects the Ascension-Parousia of the fresco of the Church of Saint Sophia of Ochrid (Coche de la Ferte, 1981, p. 212).

But from the twelfth century onward, the intimate relationship of the two themes of the Ascension-Parousia is fully developed on the façades of churches throughout Burgundy and Languedoc, including Charlieu, Chartres, Bourges, Saint Trophime at Arles, Cahors, Carrenac, and many others. The tympanum of Charlieu and the fresco in the Abbey of Lavaudieu were related to the compositions at Bawit by E. Mâle (1922, pp. 34f.): “This great composition which appears to us as a creation of the twelfth century was already 700 years old when it was discovered painted in fresco on the wall of one of the chapels of Bawit in Upper Egypt” (p. 34).

The composition of the fresco of Lavaudieu is divided into two registers: above, Christ enthroned, surrounded by the vision of Ezekiel; below, Mary, among the apostles, which certainly reminds us of Coptic Egypt. But one must try to discover the sources of inspiration for the painter and sculptors of Lavaudieu. The hypothesis of a Byzantine influence is difficult to maintain, for the vision of the Son of Man enthroned among the four symbolic animals is practically absent from Byzantine decoration, with the exception of the Hosios David (sixth century, Thessalonica).

On the other hand, the visions of Ezekiel and Saint John depicted in the most ancient churches of Cappadocia might have served as an intermediary between the paintings of Bawit and our Roman tympana if the lower register depicting Mary and the apostles were not absent in the Cappadocian churches. That being said, in no other place, neither in France nor Italy nor elsewhere, is the complexity of the Coptic model to be found, a complexity in form as well as in meaning.

In the West, the interlaced and flaming wheels, the seraphim of Isaiah, Ezekiel in person substituted for Mary (as in chapel 45 of Bawit) are iconographical elements that are never seen elsewhere; nor does Mary accompanied by the Infant Jesus appear, and this detail brings Coptic influence into question. The fresco artists of Bawit and Saqqara invariably depicted Mary and her Son in the iconography of the Triumph of Christ, which was not the case in either Syria or Palestine. The hypothesis of a Middle Eastern prototype thus remains certain, whereas the direct influence of a Coptic model is less so.

Moreover, it is surprising that the title “Ascension” is no longer applied to the frescoes of Charlieu and Lavaudieu since they are closer to the Bawit compositions (persistently labeled as Ascensions) than they are to the Syrian miniatures or the ampullae of Monza.

The Devil

Even before E. Mâle wrote his L‘Art Religieux au XIIème siècle, an Egyptian origin was given to certain representations of the devil in Christian iconography. In the twelfth century, Western iconography of the devil became definitively fixed. He keeps a human aspect even though certain parts of his body are deformed. The skin, sometimes covered with hair, is most often dark in color, usually black.

One must not look for an origin to this black skin in the texts of the Old Testament where Satan appears as a servant of God admitted to the heavenly courts (e.g., Jb. 1:6-12). Nor is this origin to be found in the New Testament, where the devil is considered as a power of darkness, which would not suffice to explain the color black that is generally attributed to him in Byzantine and Western iconography.

P. du Bourguet (1972, pp. 271-72) offers an explanation for the word négrillon (little black boy) conferred upon the devil in the monastic accounts from Egypt: “The reason for this is furnished by the history of the last pharaonic and the traditional Egyptian beliefs. According to these latter, any enemy of Egypt, as an enemy of Pharaoh, is a personification of evil. Psamtik II/Psammetichus, who conquered the preceding dynasty—known as ‘Ethiopian,’ but in fact Nubian—made every effort to have the of this dynasty labeled as ‘the enemies of Egypt.’ The Copts inherited this tradition, and thereby associated the spirit of evil with ‘Ethiopian’” (du Bourguet, 1972).

The influence of the Vita Antonii (Life of Anthony), translated by Evagrius of Antioch (c. 390), was a determining factor in the diffusion of the theme of the fight against the devil, who appeared to the saint as a black child falling upon him. Indeed, it is in the literature of the desert that the devil appears in the form of a hideous black man and dragon. In the Acts of the Martyrs of Egypt, taken from Coptic manuscripts of the Vatican Library and translated by H. Hyvernat in 1886 (Vol. 1, fasc. 3, p. 187), one reads: “At this time Quintilian was ruler; he had a daughter. As she was sleeping, a black dragon crept inside her and lodged in her belly.” The color black attributed to the devil is found in numerous Coptic monastic accounts.

In the Apophthegmata it is related that when Abba Musa became a cleric and was clothed with the ephod, the archbishop wished to try him: “You have now become completely white, Abba Musa.” Whereupon the old man replied: “My Lord and Pope, is it true outwardly, or inwardly as well?” Continuing the test, the archbishop directed the clerics: “When Abba Musa enters the sanctuary, follow him and listen to what he says.” The old man then went in, and they reviled him and chased him, saying: “Out, Ethiopian.”

Upon leaving, he said to himself: “They acted well in your regard, you, who have skin black as cinders. Not being a man, why do you go among men?” (1976, pp. 104-105). This same feature is found in the texts of SHENUTE in the Historia Monachorum transmitted to the West by Rufinus Aquilae (Festugière, 1971), and in the Collationes of John CASSIAN (Sources chrétiennes, no. 64), where Satan is described as a black- skinned Ethiopian.

Few Coptic representations of this type of devil have reached us. Nevertheless, a twelfth-century miniature of the Coptic Manuscript 13 in the National Library in Paris offers a good example in a scene of the Temptation, in which the seraphim appear on the right, while the devil, on the left and depicted as a black seraphim, is rejected. The West adopted the Eastern tradition, and the most illustrious saints saw the devil appearing to them as black, such as Saint of Thessaly, a hermit on Mount Joannitsa in Corinth, who in 946 saw the devil in the form of a small black man.

Saint George

The iconography of Saint George, who appears both in the East and West as the champion in the fight against the devil, also deserves mention in relation to Egypt.

In pharaonic symbolism, Horus trampling the crocodiles signifies the triumph of good over evil. The stela of Mit Rahinah in the Cairo Museum offers a good example of this iconography, which is very reminiscent of the iconography of Christ depicted on a Coptic textile deriving from Akhmim and now found in the Forrer Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The transition of the image of Horus victorious over malevolent powers to that of Saint George trampling the dragon could have happened in two ways. The first hypothesis suggests that the transition coincides with the arrival of the Romans, who depicted Horus as a knight in armor. However, the Horus-cavalier was rarely portrayed, the only known example being in the Louvre. According to du Bourguet, the second, more complex hypothesis relates to the Christians exiled to the oasis of Kharjah by the emperor Diocletian. Under Theodosius, this oasis continued to serve as a place of exile, and the Nestorians, as well as all those contesting the official doctrines, were sent there. Du Bourguet has noted that a temple of the Twenty-eighth Dynasty, named al-Hibah, is located in this oasis. On the western wall of the north hypostyle of this temple, Horus appears on the lower register; he is standing, accompanied by a lion, and is piercing the malevolent serpent with his lance. Would those exiled to the oasis of Kharjah have remembered this figure piercing the Hydra, which they had before their eyes in the temple of al- Hibah, and subsequently brought it back to Constantinople? The image of good crushing evil would thus have been adopted by the Christians, first the Copts, and then the Byzantines, who introduced it to the West. Even the name of the oasis, Kharjah, may perhaps be related to the Coptic name Jirjis, meaning George. However, the simple relationship of the names Jirjis-George cannot serve as a basis for argument; such an argument would remain very hazardous since no ancient Coptic texts yet discovered make mention of the Jirjis-George relationship. Doubtless, one should also evoke the myth of Bellerophon lifted into the air by the horse Pegasus in order to kill the Chimera. This iconographical source for Saint George killing the dragon, though apparently more removed, merits some attention since Bellerophon is depicted on a Coptic textile of the sixth century, mounted on his winged horse and piercing the Chimera with his lance (du Bourguet, 1968, p. 150).

However, if Saint George, as a type, was created in Egypt, the Copts neither sculpted nor painted it. For a time it was thought that the cavalier-saint of Bawit was Saint George, but there is no doubt today that it is properly identified as Saint Sisinios.

Saint Michael

The iconography of Saint Michael is almost absent from Coptic art. It seem surprising that the doctrine of the weighing of souls, so strong in ancient Egypt, did not strike the mystical imagination of the Copts in one way or another. Yet there is no evidence of this. A long oral tradition, transmitted to the traveling monks in the deserts of Wadi al-Natrun and Upper Egypt, might be postulated, but to our knowledge, there was no direct iconographical influence.


May it be concluded that there was no influence from Coptic art upon Western medieval art? In the present state of knowledge, it is, in fact, not so simple to support the theses or hypotheses that propose the displacement of Coptic artisans to the West (at Jouarre, for example; Hubert, 1967, p. 77) fleeing from the Persians or Arabs, as an explanation for certain iconographical or stylistic influences upon Merovingian sculpture. It must be recognized that the Copts were, and still are, a Christian disinherited minority within a Muslim country. Their destiny was to remain resolutely attached to their homeland. Their artistic production, reflecting this destiny, was modest, private, and conceived for places far removed in the hot deserts of Egypt. Neither in the Chronicle of John of Nikiou nor in the history of Egypt by the Arab historian al-Maqrizi—where nonetheless the history of the Copts occupies a large place—is there any question of a flight before the invader, which anyway would have been a liberty denied them, given their status in a Muslim country.

Though uncertainty remains about the passage of Coptic iconography into the West, there is reason to believe that certain details could have been transmitted thanks to Coptic writings and monastic way of life, which was to become the source of Christian monasticism and its manifestations in the West.


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