Coptic Sculpture In Stone

COPTIC SCULPTURE IN STONE

Figures in the round and especially architectural ornament carved in stone and stucco in Egypt from the fourth to the seventh century.

State of Research

In comparison with studies on the sculpture of the late classical and early Byzantine periods in other Roman provinces (e.g., Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria), assessments of Coptic sculpture in Egypt are still remarkably controversial; the technical literature presents an extremely confused picture. This state of affairs is due chiefly to the effect of mistakes in earlier research.

In many old excavations yielding the best-known complexes of sculpture, such as those at Ahnas, Bahnasa, Bawit and Saqqara, faulty evaluations of the architecture have led to misunderstanding of the sculpture. Thus, for example, the sepulchral character of certain buildings and their stone decoration was not recognized, and the complexes were wrongly interpreted as Christian ecclesiastical constructions (e.g., in E. Naville’s excavation at Ahnas; in J. E. Quibell’s excavation at Saqqara, particularly in mausoleum no. 1823; in E. Breccia’s excavation at al-Bahnasa).

Furthermore, numerous sculptures produced for pagan clients, especially the mythical representations in tomb decorations at Ahnas and al- Bahnasa, were claimed as Christian works, with the result that a screen of sham problems has blocked further inquiry. Finally, too little allowance has been made for the time-honored practice, especially in Egypt, of reusing older buildings or parts of buildings as well as their decorative elements for other structures of identical, similar, or even different functions.

Hence, many buildings with architectural decoration, especially churches, were wrongly regarded as homogeneous (e.g., the south and north churches at Bawit, the main church at Saqqara, the transept basilica at al-Ashmunayn). Older, reused pieces led to a too early dating of the buildings, as in the main church of Dayr Apa Jeremiah, Saqqara, and the Great Basilica of Abu Mina. Thus research has been seriously impeded through ideas of alleged Christian and alleged ecclesiastical decoration, not to mention alleged fixed points of dating.

Since sculptures of Egyptian provenance acquired through the art trade are almost without exception provided with false statements on the place of discovery, any connection with the original location is destroyed; any clues as to the topography, genre, and chronology as well as the iconographic and formal context are suppressed.

These uncertain circumstances generate mystification and make it easy for the forgers to dispose of their goods. The field of figurative sculpture in particular has been grievously confused by the large number of modern or counterfeit works purported to be authentic. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the reliefs allegedly deriving from Shaykh Abadah, which since the early 1960s have been thrown on the market on a huge scale and have given rise to a wave of illusory problems on the question of “pagan or Christian.”

The authentic models, that is, the pagan tomb reliefs, come from Bahnasa. The information on the old excavations may be meager or ambiguous. In any case, it is wise to base judgments on the old discoveries of sculpture of assured provenance.

The most significant collections of sculptures are located in the Coptic Museum, Cairo; the Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria; the Louvre in Paris (particularly from Dayr Apa Apollo, Bawit); and the State Museum of Berlin (cf. Wulff, 1909, pp. 24-47, 65-78, 309-15; Effenberger, 1976).

The stock of sculptures on archaeological sites and in the late classical and early Christian buildings still extant in Egypt has thus far received attention and been documented only in particular cases. Some of the papers dealing with the stone sculpture of this period give little or no attention to the output of Alexandria or dependent workshops, or indeed to marble sculpture generally.

This self- restriction entails a penalty. Decisive factors in the repertoire of form and type and in development are overlooked; clues for dating and the opportunity for synthesis are missed. It is not only important to establish when, where, and to what extent marble sculpture was extant, known, or representative. For the complete picture, it is also instructive to know what types and forms of marble sculpture were not adopted further inland.

Materials

The materials of sculptured works in Egypt in the late classical and early Byzantine period were porphyry, granite, marble, limestone, sandstone, and stucco. In the Middle Ages, the materials were limestone, sandstone, and stucco.

Porphyry. The indigenous porphyry from Mons Porpyrites was worked in special workshops, probably located in Alexandria; it appears to have been exported in the third to the fifth centuries in the form of finished products essentially for imperial requirements. Imperial burials in porphyry sarcophagi came to an end with Marcian about 450, but production could have continued in other types of products.

The latest surviving imperial portrait in porphyry is a sixth-century head probably of JUSTINIAN in the Church of Saint Mark, Venice. Whether the great porphyry column shafts in the conchs of the sixth-century Hagia Sophia in Istanbul were expressly prepared for this building is uncertain.

Granite. Granite appears to have been scarcely worked into building elements at all after the fourth century. Most of the granite components in late classical and early Byzantine building in Egypt, may be instances of reused materials from the ancient Egyptian, Ptolemaic, and imperial Roman periods.

Marble. Marble, which was much sought after, was not found in Egypt (apart from a very inferior kind) and had to be imported by sea. This means of transport was considerably cheaper than land transport. Nonetheless, the immense quantity of marble material brought to Egypt is astonishing.

Late classical and early Byzantine marble artifacts are today to be found primarily in Alexandria, at Abu Mina, and in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. However, many hundreds of marble pedestals and bases, column shafts, and capitals were reused in Islamic buildings, especially of the Fatimid and Mamluk periods. This occurred particularly in Cairo but also in Middle Egypt. The marble must also have been taken from buildings of the fourth to sixth centuries.

This rich store allows us to conclude that the kind of marble used was, as a rule, Proconnesian marble, from the island of Proconnesos in the Sea of Marmara near Constantinople. Securely datable artifacts of the third century, especially capitals, are extremely rare, and assured works of the sixth century, such as impost capitals, are attested only in small numbers.

The great mass of the marble artifacts in Egypt comes from the fourth and fifth centuries. The conclusion is natural that the extensive importation of marble was connected with the newly founded eastern Roman capital of Constantinople. It is an attractive conjecture, but as yet unattested in terms of sources, that here the Egyptian grain fleet played an essential role. It had to deliver large consignments of grain annually to Constantinople, and it could have loaded marble among other things as ballast and cargo for the return journey.

Expensive finished imports from Constantinople seem to have been relatively scarce but can be attested at least up to the second quarter of the sixth century. Essentially, the rough-cut forms imported were probably fashioned or decorated in Alexandria and from there marketed in the country. The Corinthian marble capitals with a central, wreathed cross on the abacus are quite certainly local works that are found neither in Constantinople nor in other provinces. Whether there were qualified marble workshops outside Alexandria in the fourth to sixth centuries is not known.

Limestone. The cheap, common, and easily worked stone in the interior was limestone and, in Upper Egypt, sandstone. It was in these types of stone that the extensive local stone sculpture production of Egypt, commonly described as Coptic sculpture, was wrought.

Stucco. Large capitals ornamented in stucco—such as, for example, the imperial exemplars in Tunah al-Jabal—appear to have been rare in late antiquity (for example, various types on the church of Akhbariyyah and a beautiful single piece in the church of the Dayr al-Baramus, Wadi al-Natrun). Stucco was also used for the keystones in cupolas and conchs and for the detailed decoration of the plain surfaces of limestone works (such as the cornice fragment in the transept basilica, at al-Ashmunayn).

The attempt in the Tulunid period to introduce the stucco style, originating in Samarra, into the wall decoration of a church such as that of Dayr al-Suryan, Wadi al-Natrun, appears rather restrained and in its general effect unassuming.

Forms

Freestanding figures, chiefly portrait statues and busts of emperors and officials, were made in porphyry down to the sixth century. There may have been some extremely rare examples in marble or local stone, for example, a portrait in the State Museum of Berlin, probably of a pagan priest from the Roman period. Recumbent lions in the round were not intended as freestanding objects but to guard doorways. Some furniture, such as decorative stands for water jars and table supports with figured decoration were made of marble.

The largest category of sculpture was architectural: door jambs, lunettes, door lintels, gables for niches, cornices and friezes, pedestals and bases, columns and pilasters, capitals, latticework screens and windows, and posts. Most tomb reliefs were for architectural decoration. Most of this architectural work was in marble or local stone, but imperial buildings had decorations in porphyry.

Characteristics and Influences

Porphyry. A special if not unique status was accorded to the imperial likenesses in porphyry. They appear to be provincial productions, in that they modified the formal complexity characteristic of works made in major centers. The shape and content of the original models were reproduced in a simplified form, heightening the expression of individual elements.

As the dissemination of these Egyptian works over wide areas of the Roman empire shows, they were officially accepted by the emperors and were considered appropriate for conveying clearly the desired message, that is, the soldierly qualities and the harmoniousness of the emperors, to people who would be unresponsive to the traditional images. From the historical and aesthetic point of view, this was a step that had implications reaching beyond the ancient world: the use of portraits of unmistakably provincial character as vehicles of imperial propaganda, probably directed especially to the lower classes of the empire.

In the period from Constantine to Justinian, when other images and ideas were created, porphyry portraits seem to have been preferred but were brought into line with the style of work produced at the imperial court. Provincial simplification and exaggeration were evidently no longer in demand for imperial likenesses, but the polished sheen of the expensive stone symbolized austerity and detachment.

The huge porphyry sarcophagi delivered to Rome and Constantinople, undoubtedly special commissions, show no specifically Egyptian characteristics in the overall design of their decoration, which after the mid-fourth century was nonfigurative, except occasionally for an Egyptian motif such as the ankh. The gigantic block of porphyry used for a sarcophagus was enough to convince everyone that the province of Egypt was at the service of the emperor.

Marble. Sculpture in marble, in keeping with the origin of the stone, was subject to continual foreign influence. Its forms and motifs were based on prototypes produced in the eastern Roman empire, especially Constantinople. This association was so close, as, for example, in the case of column capitals, that pieces from imported, rough-cut marble clearly made in Egypt, probably in Alexandria, as a rule betray Egyptian workmanship not by their type and form but only through some iconographical detail, or occasionally through a lower level of quality.

The marble pilaster capitals, however, were less closely connected with eastern models and reveal rather local forms and motifs. As a rule, these pieces must have been prepared for special architectural positions, were therefore less often brought into the country as finished imports, and may thus have offered a better starting point for local taste and local traditional forms than did the standardized column capitals.

Limestone and Sandstone. In sculpture in local limestone and sandstone, direct eastern Roman influences are rare and limited in time and place. Also, there were scarcely any direct connections with the Alexandrian sculpture in marble. On the one hand, fashionable models of the type produced in Constantinople could be completely absent in limestone or sandstone sculpture for generations, as, for example, in the second half of the fifth century the basic motif of the fine-toothed acanthus with its corresponding types and motifs.

On the other hand, correct copies, or imitations of them, in local stone are evidence that a specific choice of eastern Roman models could have been standard practice. If the criteria for this choice could be determined, important insights would be gained. In the first half of the sixth century, the most current models from Constantinople were accepted, primarily the impost capital in the special form of the impost capital of the fold type, as well as ornamental and figurative configurations with typical relief techniques.

These influences, however, appear to have remained so much locally restricted (particularly at Bawit, Saqqara, and the Fayyum) that one might wonder whether this limited selection of Constantinople models was determined by the personal needs and tastes of a particular class of client.

The rich treasury of motifs in sculpture in local limestone and sandstone drew on imperial models from the eastern Mediterranean and often continued local traditional motifs for centuries. The character of this production is late antique and provincial, with easily recognizable peculiarities that are clearly contrasted with non-Egyptian sculpture. Especially typical are “broken” gables over niches, cornices and friezes with scrolls and leaf-work, cornices with console friezes and coffer fillings, Corinthian capitals decorated in fantastic detail, and tomb reliefs with diversified architectural motifs.

The individuality of the local Egyptian sculpture of the late classical and early Byzantine period has always been recognized by the specialists but very differently interpreted. Extreme views that seek to trace the stock of models and style directly to the pharaonic heritage, with no consideration of the cultural environment of the Byzantine empire from the third to the sixth centuries, have miscarried just as much as views that the individuality reflects an artistic aspiration of nationalist Egypt, which developed in opposition to the culture of the Greek ruling class or to the government and church of the Byzantine empire.

A sober view that takes into account the historical and archaeological facts, social conditions, and the strong survival of paganism will stress the following facts.

High expenditure for tomb construction and decoration was an age-old tradition for property owners in Egypt. The information so far available shows that a very large part of the late classical sculptural complexes known to us, Ahnas, Bahnasa, and Saqqara, was fashioned for tomb constructions. A considerable number belonged to pagan clients.

Thus the iconography of the much-cited gables over niches, decorated with Leda and the Swan, Aphrodite, Daphne, Dionysus, fauns and maenads, and Nereids and sea creatures, matches admirably with the themes of pagan imperial sepulchral art from other regions such as in Rome (Torp, 1969, pp. 106-112).

The same workshops built and decorated mausoleums for Christian clients; Christian and pagan tombs adjoined one another in the necropolis. The decoration of their tombs was both publicly representational and privately symbolic.

Late classical Egyptian tomb architecture and decoration scarcely corresponded to any mortuary work in other regions. It was highly prized and was produced in local stonemason’s workshops, which can be called necropolis workshops. This connection of the local workshops with tomb architecture explains clearly the limited range of essential types, the concomitant display of splendor, the independence from foreign models, and finally the traditionalism and a certain introversion in Egyptian sculpture. When the completely novel task of church decoration presented itself, people evidently turned to the practiced local necropolis workshops.

Local styles can indeed be detected, but more cosmopolitan stylistic movements were also present. Thus, about the middle of the fifth century, types and forms of similar character are attested in the decoration of the tomb constructions of al-Bahnasa and the church of Dayr Anba Shinudah, Suhaj. At the end of the fifth century and in the first half of the sixth, corresponding types and forms are present at Dayr Apa Jeremiah and Dayr Apa Apollo.

Building decoration in the ancient sense came to an end at latest with the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Even before that, the reusing of older pieces was everywhere becoming the order of the day. Thereafter, if there was any work that was fashioned and decorated to order, it belonged almost exclusively to the realm of tomb reliefs.

Problems of Dating and Fixed Points

There is no evidence to date precisely the figurative reliefs and architectural decoration from the period before the Arab conquest. For particular types of capitals the eastern Roman prototypes provide criteria for dating. The chronology of architectural sculpture in marble, especially of the fourth century, is still uncertain.

From this period an extraordinary amount of material has survived in Egypt, although not in its original architectural context but reused in Christian and Islamic buildings. In Constantinople, conversely, capitals of the fourth century have survived only in relatively small numbers, and there are no firmly dated buildings before the end of the century.

The chronology and development of local sculpture in limestone and sandstone still cannot be outlined with certainty. It therefore seems useful to adduce here three complexes of architectural decoration that can be dated with confidence within the fifth century: (1) from the first half of the century, the relatively few pieces originally fashioned for the transept basilica in al- Ashmunayn, (2) from the middle of the century, the remains of the pieces originally fashioned for the church Dayr Anba Shinudah; and (3) from the second half of the century, the uniquely preserved decoration in the triconch of the church of Dayr Anba Bishoi, Suhaj.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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  • Severin, H.-G. “Frühchristliche Skulptur und Malerei in Ägypten.” In Spätantike und frühes Christentum, ed. Beat Brenk. Propyläen Kunstgeschichte, Supplement 1, pp. 243-53. Frankfurt, Berlin, and Vienna, 1977.
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  • Strzygowski, J. Koptische Kunst. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiènnes du Musée du Caire, Nos. 7001-7394, 8742-9200. Vienna, 1904.
  • Torp, H. “Leda Christiana. The Problem of the Interpretation of Coptic Sculpture with Mythological Motifs.” Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 4 (1969):101-12.
  • Wessel,    K.    Koptische    Kunst.    Die    Spätantike     in    Ägypten. Recklinghausen, 1963.
  • Wulff, O. Altchristliche und mittelalterliche byzantinische und italienische Bildwerke. Part 1: Altchristliche Bildwerke. Beschreibung der Bildwerke der christlichen Epochen 2. Berlin, 1909. Vol. 3, 2nd edition, describes the sculpture of the Christian period.

HANS-GEORG SEVERIN

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