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Coptic Portraiture - Coptic Wiki


The tradition of portraiture that developed in pharaonic Egypt and in continued in Coptic Egypt among many other elements of pharaonic and classical art. Portraits were created in stone, in textiles, and especially in paint— on wood panels, on fabric, and on walls. Most of these were associated with funerary art.

Portraiture of the Third and Fourth Centuries

The dry climate of Egypt preserved artistic work in perishable materials such as wood and textiles. Thus a great number of portraits on wood and cloth remain from the late Roman and proto-Coptic periods. They belong almost exclusively to funerary art, since they were attached to mummies. Mummies provided with portraits were discovered primarily in the Fayyum and its environs and more rarely in Antinoopolis. Many of these “mummy portraits” were paintings done in tempera or on wooden panels or on a linen shroud. An extensive category consists of masks, or molded, divided into groups according to material and typology (Grimm, 1974).

These portraits were placed over the face of the mummy in such a way that the deceased appeared to be alive and looking out of a window. This impression was enhanced by the custom of setting the mummies upright and presenting them for a long time in the house, perhaps in a kind of ancestor room. Frequently burial took place many years later.

In the first and second centuries these Romano-Egyptian portraits, some showing just a bust, some a full figure, had a naturalistic style, but in time they became marked by a certain stiffness. Strongly expressive physiognomies occur more and more rarely as in a portrait by a leading master painted about 300 now in Würzburg (Drerup, 1933, p. 62, no. 26, pl. 16; Parlasca, 1980, p. 23, no. 497, pl. 121, 1). Many portraits are of modest quality with no individual character.

From the end of the third century, the unquestionable expressiveness of many portraits is attained more and more through new means. The faces are generally typecast and have simplified linear contours. Above all they are dominated by unnaturally large, boldly emphasized eyes, as in a late fourth-century portrait of a boy in a private collection (Parlasca, 1980, p. 63, no. 655, pl. 155, 2). An example of a shroud portrait is Ammonios in the Louvre, Paris (Coche de la Ferté, 1952, pp. 16ff, ill. 17; Parlasca, 1977, no. 422, pl. 105, 2).

Examples of fourth- century masks are a bust of a woman probably from near Thebes now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (Grimm, 1974, pp. 94ff, pl. 111, 4) and a shroud with a molded mask from Dayr al-Bahri in the Museum of Fine Arts (Grimm, 1974, pp. 95ff, pl. 112, 2). Three (of a projected four) volumes of all known mummy portraits and fragments have been published (Parlasca, 1969, 1977, 1980).

The forerunners of all these mummy portraits are the anthropoid coffins and shrouds of pharaonic and Ptolemaic times, which were connected with the worship of Osiris. Egyptians believed that every dead man became the murdered Osiris, of the underworld, and by virtue of that identity participated in Osiris’ resurrection. It was evidently still known at the threshold of the Coptic period that mummies equipped with painted portraits or masks were connected with this pagan belief in resurrection (Parlasca, 1966, pp. 206ff).

It is certainly no accident that there are no Christian portrait mummies. (The portrait of Ammonios in the Louvre is no longer thought to be Christian.) There was no natural continuity of these pagan beliefs into the Christian-Byzantine period, which is called Coptic. But these Romano-Egyptian portraits can be called proto-Coptic because they already show the unrealistic, expressive style of Coptic Christian art.

In this proto-Coptic period, there are only a few “adapted” Christian clay coffins. Possibly these exceptions arose even before the final prohibition of pagan cults, at the end of the fourth century. (Parlasca, 1966, pp. 210, 291). Only in recent times has a so far unique example of a Christian painted sarcophagus become known. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, obtained parts of a simple wooden sarcophagus, on one long side of which the deceased—a six-year-old boy named Ammonios—is represented lying on a couch. On both sides appear four childlike pages.

The complete absence of pagan symbols (wooden coffins in the imperial period always bear motifs from the world of the Egyptian cult of the dead) shows that the boy belonged to a Christian family. The upper part of the dead boy’s body stands out clearly against the background. The field left open in the mattress-pattern has the effect of a nimbus. The style of the painting, especially the stylized portrait, suggests a late fourth-century date. It may be roughly contemporary with the late mummy portraits.


  • Coche de la Ferté, E. Les Portraits romano-égyptiens du Louvre. Paris, 1952.
  • Drerup, H. Die Datierung der Mumienporträts. Paderborn, 1933; Neudruck, New York and London, 1968.
  • Grimm, G. Die römischen Mumienmasken aus Ägypten. Wiesbaden, 1974.
  • Parlasca, K. Mumienportrats und verwandte Denkmäler. Wiesbaden, 1966.
  • . Repertorio d’arte dell’Egitto greco-romano, ed. A. Adriani. Series B: Ritratti di mummie, Vols. 1-3. Palermo, 1969; 1977, 1980.
  • Thompson, D. L. Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Malibu, Calif., 1982.


Portraiture of the Fifth to Ninth Centuries

Coptic Christian portraits, like Byzantine portraits, showed the bust in a frontal position, which distinguished them from Romano- Egyptian portraits, almost always shown in three-quarters view. People attached to them the value of a presence of the deceased, but they were not icons to be venerated as channels to the spiritual world.

One of the best-known portraits in tempera on wood is that of an archangel, sometimes thought to be a woman (Coche de la Ferté, 1961, p. 26), in the Cabinet des Médailles, Paris. According to Weitzmann (1979, pp. 538-39), the basis for the identification of the personage as an archangel is, in addition to the military costume, the jewel placed on the fillet in the hair with ribbons falling to the back and the gesture of benediction of the hand in front of the chest. Generally dated to the sixth century by reason of its simple and very harmonious lines, it seems rather to belong to the beginning of the fifth century; the contrast with the following portraits is striking.

Another portrait in the Cabinet des Médailles is inscribed “Our father the Evangelist.” The absence of both a halo and the saint’s title argue against the suggestion that the person portrayed is Saint Mark the Evangelist. According to his inscribed title, he is more likely to be the superior of a monastery, undoubtedly a because of his specific vestment, and probably a former monk. The head is round, hardly elongated (which is common in Egypt), with straight hair, and he has a short beard that reaches from one ear to the other.

The ordinary dating (Weitzmann, 1979, p. 553, no. 498) to the end of the sixth century does not take account of this relatively realistic aspect of the face, or of the form of the eye socket that, without being elongated, is somewhat reminiscent of pharaonic conventions. These would indicate another dating, namely, the first half of the sixth century.

A third portrait is identified by the inscription “the holy abbot Abraham, bishop.” The face is bearded; the top of the head is surrounded by a halo; the arm holds a Gospel of Byzantine decoration of the sixth or seventh century. The eyes are striking because of their shape and impressively majestic gaze. This may be the effect of a realistic style that, in emphasizing certain features, helps to date this portrait to the sixth or seventh century. This was confirmed by Martin Krause (1971) to be 590-600, with the place being Armant, where Abraham was bishop (see BISHOPS, PORTRAITS OF).

Closely related to these panel portraits are the busts of saints in mural paintings on the walls of monasteries. An example is the head-and-shoulders portrait of at Dayr Apa Jeremiah, Saqqara (Quibell, 1905-1910). In Coptic Egypt, however, portraits of this kind were not common. But painted or sculpted busts, isolated or in pairs, but each in a medallion and always full-face, are found fairly often, such as at Dayr at Bawit (Chassinat, 1911, pl. 7; Clédat, 1904-1916, pls. 56-57).

Worthy of mention is a wood panel painted in showing Christ and Saint Menas in full length. Conserved in the Louvre, it likely came from Dayr Apa Apollo. It is a unique example of that style. The two personages, full-face and side by side, have a most penetrating gaze. But the attitude, which is very Coptic in defying the laws of the realistic style, links them closely together, magisterially making good the absence of depth. This is accomplished by Christ’s gesture as he encircles Menas’ shoulders with his right arm, and by the line of a mountain between them and closely attached to them, against which the halos surrounding each head blaze with light.

The costume of each and the decoration of the book that Christ holds would incline some to see this portrait as a Byzantine work, but nothing could be further from the truth. The forms are short and thickset; each of the heads is disproportionately large in relation to the body; and Christ’s head is more important than that of Menas. The long tunic and pallium that each wears do not have Byzantine elegance; nor do they divide into vertical folds, except at the bottom of Christ’s robe. Instead, as they rise toward the shoulders, they trace a series of curves, which are echoed first in the curves of the faces, the short beard, and the pouches of the eyes, and are emphasized by the inverse movement of the mustaches and the eyebrows and culminate in those of the halos.

The Coptic appearance is thus undeniable. It is accentuated not so much by the writing of the words, which could be Greek, as by the title Apa to designate Menas. His function is that of PROESTOS, which was adopted by some superiors of Coptic monasteries. Also, a Coptic rather than a Greek article is used.

Portraits in stone appear as busts in medallions on friezes on plant motifs or as full-length personages on stelae. An eighth- century stela in the Louvre bears a portrait of Daphne (du Bourguet, 1972). Another, showing a monk in an orant posture, of which only the upper part remains, is located in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Washington, D.C., and is datable to the seventh century (Weitzmann, 1979, p. 553, no. 449).

Half-length portraits can be found in tapestry. One fifth-century work in the Louvre represents the seasons (du Bourguet, 1964, no. B 25); another fifth-century piece in the Louvre shows nereids (du Bourguet, 1964, no. C 77). A ninth-century representation of an evangelist is found in the Detroit Institute of Arts (du Bourguet, 1968, p. 164).


  • Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée National du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
  • . L’Art copte. Collection l’art dans monde. Paris, 1968.
  • . Early Christian Art. London, 1972.
  • Chassinat, E. Fouilles à Baouît. Cairo, 1911.
  • Clédat, J. monastère et la nécropole de Baouît, Vol. 1, issued in two parts. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire, 12 and 39. Cairo, 1904-1916.
  • Coche de la Ferté, E. “Du portrait a l’icône.” L’Oeil 77 (1961).
  • Krause, M. “Zur Lokalisierung und Datierung koptischer Denkmäler. Das Tafelbild des Bischoffs Abraham.” der Ägyptischen Sprache 97 (1971):106-111.
  • Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara (1905-1910), 6 vols. Cairo, 1907-1913.
  • Weitzmann, K., ed. Age of Spirituality. New York, 1979.