Coptic Paintings At Mareotis


Painted walls and ceilings in monastic structures of the sixth to seventh centuries in the Mareotis region at the edge of the Western Desert. They were discovered in 1911 by Evaristo Breccia, who was excavating Dayr Abu Jirja, a series of hillocks not far from the Nybariyyah Canal, about 22 miles (35 km) southwest of Alexandria. Some of the are now in the Greco- Museum in Alexandria.

Two groups of structures superimposed one above the other have been uncovered; their purpose is unknown. From the higher building, which is the more recent, only the walls have survived, from 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1/1Q2 m) high. A few fragments of show a face, the prophet Abraham, and a haloed person praying, standing in the center of a niche. The lower building, which Breccia identified as a crypt, is composed of two rooms connected by a vast bay. The ceilings are covered with paintings in imitation of wooden coffers.

The iconographical plan displayed along the walls of these two rooms must have been rather elaborate, involving different scenes with figures. On the lower register, large panels are painted in imitation of slabs of and porphyry. Above is a procession of figures among whom are an unidentified warrior-saint, Saint Abu Mina standing between his camels, a monk, and an Annunciation. This last theme, which is rather rare in the most ancient Coptic painting, was accompanied by the first words of the angel’s salutation.

Above the door, there is a bust of in a mandorla. Heavy draperies guide the spectator’s eye toward the principal niche, which has complex decoration. In the center, a person praying stands out against a Nilotic landscape of plants and flowers, in the midst of which appear two domed roofs, one accompanied by a fish and the other by a child. The interpretation of this scene is an enigma. Was it perhaps a vision of or a baptism of Christ in a very particular or an evocation of the Eucharist? The question remains unanswered.


  • Rassart-Debergh, M. “ coptes de la région maréotique: Abou Girgeh et Alam Shaltout.” Annuaire de l’Institut de philologie et d’histoire orientales et slaves. Brussels, 1983.