The functional objects and sculpture made of wood in Egypt from the fourth century into the Middle Ages. By virtue of its geological past, Egypt originally had plentiful and varied supplies of wood, but it was rapidly used. Shortages were already evident in the pharaonic period. Ptolemaic rulers put into operation a policy of afforestation, and they regulated the felling of trees. These measures were continued by Byzantine emperors and Arab governors.
According to the forestry zones drawn up in the second half of the twelfth century by Ibn Mammat, general controller of the Egyptian ministries, the wooded resources of the country were in the regions of al-Bahnasa, al-Ashmunayn, Asyut, Akhmim, and Zus. These regions probably corresponded to the wooded regions of earlier periods.
Nevertheless, the shortage of wood was accentuated from the fourth to the seventh century, probably owing to the general impoverishment of the country under Byzantine rule. Afforestation declined along the coast, which meant that timber had to be sought farther and farther inland. The luxury trade, using imported wood, was essentially centered in Alexandria. Inland areas had to depend on local supplies.
The collection of Coptic woodwork in the Louvre Museum, Paris, is the only one that has been systematically studied, by the Centre Forestier Tropical. The relatively large number of objects (380 approximately) and their variety provide much information.
Kinds of Wood
Native Species. Tamarisk (Tamarix sp.) was found in most areas. It was used for decorative friezes or objects (for personal use such as kohl pots and seals). The Egyptian sycamore (Ficus sycomorus), next in importance, could be carved or painted. Acacia (Acacia sp.) yielded big beams from which lintels with carving and inscriptions were made. The kariti, or butter tree (Vitellaria paradoxa), and a variety called nilotica, supplied wood for such objects as friezes and combs. The jujube tree (Ziziphus sp.), very common in Egypt, was used especially in the Copto-Arab period.
Willow (Salix sp.) and carob (Ceratonia siliqua) were seldom used except in some friezes and a lintel. Fragments of reeds, in place of rushes in the Greco-Roman period, were used to make calami (reed pens), hundreds of which have been brought to light.
Imported Species. A number of woods were imported from the Middle East. Pine (Pinus sp.) was used to carve some friezes; beech (Fagus sylvatica), cedar (Cedrus sp.), spruce (Picea orientalis carr.), lemon wood (Citrus sp.), and oak (Quercus sp.) were used for other pieces. Box (Buxus sempervirens), which grows in Europe, western Asia, and North Africa, was already being used in pharaonic times (perhaps in the longifolia variety) to make small precious objects such as statuettes and boxes.
Olive wood (Olea europaea) was used for such objects as three seals and a box lid. Ebony (Diospyros), whose name is derived from the Egyptian word hebeny, probably had to be imported from tropical Africa through Ethiopia and Nubia. It is attested in a comb from Idfu. Only one species from a more distant region, jacaranda from India (Dalbergia latifolia), was used, in a small panel from the tenth to twelfth century.
The activity of craftsmen in general and in the domain of work in wood in particular is difficult to discern because of the lack of adequate epigraphic and archaeological documentation. In addition, the subject is complex, including carpenters, joiners, cabinetmakers, and sculptors. Each category of craftsman, in fact, demanded specific technical and economic structures in the choice of materials as well as in space for workshops and types of clientele.
Only some carpenters’ names have come down to us on stelae, one of which, preserved in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, presents an adze placed under an aedicula (shrine) with a pediment. Another stela in the same museum mentions a carpenter priest. Papyri tell us that Dayr Epiphanius at Thebes had established contracts with carpenters for the repair of a cart and the construction of a door.
The inscription situated on the left upright of the entrance to the south church at Dayr Apa Apollo, Bawit, exhorts the pilgrim to pray for the soul of Joseph the sculptor. Among the rich sculptures in stone are mingled pieces of carved woodwork, for which Joseph was perhaps also responsible.
Carpentry. Traces of tools—saws, chisels, knives, and drills— are numerous on the surface of wooden objects, when, of course, they have not been carefully polished down. Egypt has yielded a good number of tools in bronze or iron, dating for the most part from the Roman period, whose forms have endured to the present day. They include hammers, graving tools, augers driven by a bow, gimlets, planes, saws, and axes. Coptic stelae sometimes mention the dead man’s profession as a carpenter; one of them, preserved in Cairo, offers the image of an adze between two ankhs.
The carpenter’s work consists not only of squaring and preparing pieces of wood but also fitting them together. Mortises and tenons were the most common means of assembling panels for furniture and architecture. But nails were used to fasten veneers, as, for example, on a lintel in the Louvre, in which two panels in tamarisk wood were nailed to the main beam of acacia. Smaller objects in general were held together by pegs or nails.
In place of assembly by mortises and tenons, carpenters frequently used grooves and tongues, a system that allowed a strengthening of the whole object. A coffer in the Coptic Museum in Cairo is formed of carved panels joined by this method and reinforced by tenons and pegs. Doors such as a ninth-century one from Dayr Apa Apollo in the Louvre and doors of churches in Cairo were also constructed in this fashion. The casing is formed of laths connected by mortises and tenons, enclosing panels that may or may not be decorated.
Screens and balustrades, such as those in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, and the State Museum of Berlin, appear as veritable trellises, formed of laths mitered together and often covered with incised geometric motifs. This type of structure, which appeared long before in windows and furniture, was common in the Arab period under the name mashrabiyyah. Pulpits, doors, and furniture were made of polygonal panels joined by grooves and tongues or mortises and tenons mounted in a framework or resting on a frame. The Louvre possesses two square twelfth-century panels composed of mortised hexagonal elements, covered with arabesques forming a Greek cross. The underlying frame serves to integrate the hexagonal elements.
Small rounded utilitarian objects, such as ointment boxes, kohl tubes, or castanets, in the pharaonic period were shaped by rotation by means of a drill and bow. The introduction of the lathe in the Hellenistic period meant that they could be turned more efficiently. Turning was also used for balusters. Balusters strengthened at each end by tenons inserted into the uprights of the frame were used to make balustrades, such as are in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, or important pieces of furniture.
Balusters sawn lengthwise in two or four pieces were incorporated into mashrabiyyah screens, to be seen from the front, or attached with nails or pegs to furniture, such as the fifth-century coffin of Aurelius Colluthus from Antinoopolis, in the Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels.
Owing to its scarcity, wood must have been very frequently reused, although that is difficult to detect. Two weaver’s combs preserved in the Louvre bear the marks of reuse and of ancient repairs, evidence of the carpenter’s daily work. The surfaces of the breaks were pierced with mortises to take the pegs. One of them was even reinforced at the level of the handle by two plaques of bronze fastened by rivets.
Sculpture. Although carving in the round played practically no role in Coptic sculpture in stone or wood, it was employed for making small, everyday objects such as toy dolls or horsemen or figurines of a magical or apotropaic character, numerous examples of which are preserved in the Louvre.
Relief sculpture, however, was important. Examples of very high relief are a fifth-century console with Daniel among the lions and a fifth-century piece showing the capture of a city, both in the State Museum of Berlin. A vigorously modeled low relief adorns the fourth-century lintel of the Church of al-Mu‘allaqah in the Coptic Museum, Cairo. Friezes of scroll pattern from Dayr Apa Apollo and Saqqara, from the sixth to eighth century, are low reliefs on a flat plane. Sunken carving (intaglio) forms the figures and inscriptions on seals.
Reliefs were achieved by cutting away the background to reveal the motif, which might be further carved in relief, as on a sixth-century lintel in the Louvre, or left on a flat plane, as on a sixth-century comb showing Daniel in the State Museum of Berlin. The flat-plane technique was very often combined with engraving, which allowed the marking of details. The engraving was equally used by itself for decorating such small objects as combs, spindles, and boxes.
Combs were frequently decorated with latticelike cutwork. The central zone presents silhouettes of people or animals with schematized angular profiles. Interlacing work or geometrical tracery treated in-network was been employed in veneers, as on a sixth-century lintel from Dayr Apa Apollo in the Louvre.
Decoration on Wood. The majority of the architectural sculptures were intended to be enhanced by painting. Traces of color on many reliefs in stone may still be seen, for example on the south church of Dayr Apa Apollo. Numerous panels and friezes in wood present either the remains of a whitish wash or important colored areas showing black, blue, green, ocher, red, and rose, as in a fifth-century Virgin of the Annunciation, in the Louvre, and a fifth-to- sixth-century frieze in the State Museum of Berlin.
Certain precious objects were covered with a veneer of ivory, mother-of-pearl, wood, metal, leather, or glass. Some games of the Roman or Coptic period were covered with ivory rods adorned with “pointed circles,” a motif much used by the Copts that goes back to the Middle Empire. A sixth-century box for weights in the Louvre is veneered with cut leaves of copper fixed by rivets, showing putti (cupids) holding a medallion occupied by an eagle and adorned with geometric motifs or engraved inscriptions. Another box for weights in the Louvre, from the seventh to eighth century, presents marquetry decoration in which triangular motifs alternate in precious wood and in ivory. There are also combs encrusted with lozenges of glass, ebony, or ivory.
Veneers were also used on elements fitted into pieces of furniture or architecture. Examples include wooden plaques whose ivory veneer is ornamented with arabesques in Copto-Arabic style and a lintel in the Louvre bearing in the center an ivory cross placed between an alpha and an omega set in a band of lead.
A curious object from Antinoopolis preserved in the Louvre, whose purpose is still unknown, bears a geometric motif made of inlays of wood and ivory, surmounted by an aedicula with an ivory pediment sheltering a cross in mother-of-pearl. A reliquary cross in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, has a wooden core covered with a band of cut leather, which allows studs of colored glass to show through; one of the studs is adorned with a painted, haloed head.
The majority of these veneers, whatever the material, as well as the body of the objects (the combs in particular) are often marked with series of “pointed circles,” either engraved or hollowed out. The Daremberg-Saglio Dictionary of Greek and Roman Archaeology affirms, with reference to a Roman disk in bronze preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Umbria, Perugia, that this motif was probably achieved with the aid of a trephine (instrument for cutting out circular sections). The motif was probably executed with the same tool in all materials. Numerous tubes and pots for kohl, and also castanets, in turned wood, frequently carry a simple decoration of incised concentric circles.
Functional wooden objects range from practical implements, such as spindles and weight boxes, to religious items such as crosses, to games and implements for grooming.
Altar. The only surviving ancient Coptic altar in wood (pine) dating from the fourth to the sixth century, comes from the Church of Abu Sarjah (Saint Sergius) in Old Cairo and is now in the Coptic Museum, Cairo. Rectangular in plan, its sides are composed of arcading (three arches on the long sides, one on the short) resting on small twisted columns with Corinthian capitals. The intercolumniations are surmounted by spandrels in the form of shells enclosing the cross; the covings are filled with foliage. The angle ties are carved in relief with vegetable motifs and animals and with crosses inscribed in crowns. The external uprights of the altar are covered with scroll patterns, a large part of which is damaged.
Boxes and Caskets. Food, cosmetics, jewelry, relics, and implements were commonly stored in boxes or caskets. Their form and decoration were naturally determined by their contents. It is not always easy, however, to ascertain the function of some of these containers. A large casket from Kom Ishqaw in Middle Egypt, preserved in the Coptic Museum, is supported by four uprights adorned with wavy lines punctuated by pearls and with a row of hearts. Each face consists of six panels fitted into one another, as well as into the uprights, by grooves and tongues, fastened by pegs.
Only one side is adorned with carving in low relief. The lower horizontal mounting is bordered with a row of hearts and a frieze of wavy lines alternating with pearls, interrupted by a row of leaves alternating with pearls. The central panel portrays a lion leaping in foliage, surmounted by a hare. The narrower side panels are edged by friezes of wavy lines with pearls and by leaves alternating with pearls, while those at the ends are occupied by lozenges and triangles filled with leaves and half-leaves. Unfortunately, the top and the lid of the casket have disappeared.
Several of these large caskets in the Coptic Museum, particularly sumptuous and covered with ivory plaques with engraved decoration of profane or mythological scenes, were intended to be offered as wedding presents.
Other smaller caskets, also in the Coptic Museum, probably served to keep toilet articles in order. They take the form of rectangular boxes, with or without feet, with hinged or sliding lids. Their decoration consists of rods and veneers of ivory simply adorned with incised “pointed circles.” Some of these examples, in the State Museum of Berlin and the Louvre, are cut from a single piece of wood and are provided with a sliding lid engraved with a cross.
Two small boxes, one ornamented with “pointed circles” in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, the other decorated with a stylized scroll pattern in the State Museum of Berlin, were provided with sockets containing coloring materials. In their present state, it is difficult to say whether this was paint or cosmetics. As a general rule, however, rouge and kohl were preserved in small round boxes or cases (see below).
A series of boxes, of very specific forms, served to protect implements for weighing. A very fine example described by Flinders Petrie (1927) consists of two parts: the body of the box, cut from a solid block, and a removable board intended to offer a second level for arranging. These two parts are hollowed out to form square sockets containing weights, coins, and tweezers, as well as into circular and rectilinear hollows exactly fitting the form of a balance: the beam, the vertical rod with ring for suspension, and two scale pans in copper.
Five of these boxes for weights, still holding part of their contents, are preserved in University College, London. The sliding lids are adorned with “pointed circles” either grouped or in rows. These, like the five preserved in the Louvre and the one in the Cairo Museum, show that variation could occur: square, rectangular, or round hollows, sometimes provided with a diminutive lid; a system for fastening, with or without a copper lock; inscriptions invoking God or the saints. On the finest examples, the lid is adorned with a cross in relief, sometimes housed within an aedicula and dotted with “pointed circles.”
One of the examples in the Louvre has inlays of wood and ivory. The ends of several boxes in the Louvre are covered with veneers of copper with engraved or carved decoration: interlacing work, wavy lines, and two winged putti supporting a crown containing an eagle. A box of the sixth to the seventh century in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is quite original not only for its oval form but also for its system of fastening, on the long sides by means of hinges and a metal clasp.
Liturgical objects and relics were generally deposited in coffers. An example found in the tower of Dayr al-Suryan, Wadi al-Natrun, but certainly from the choir of the Church of al-‘Adhra’ in this monastery, is rectangular and rests upon four small, shaped feet. The ebony body (early tenth century) presents on its long sides Christ and the Virgin surrounded by holy personages standing under arcades. Originally inlays of ivory, the greater part of which has disappeared, filled out the silhouettes, as did the inscriptions identifying them. The pine lid (twelfth or thirteenth century), equipped with bronze clasps and hinges, is adorned with two square panels in a frame of scroll patterns. One contains a Coptic cross, the other a bird; they alternate with two friezes of fretwork and crosses.
A large sixth-century casket preserved in the State Museum of Berlin belongs to the same category. Square in form and resting on four square feet, it is surmounted by a flat lid adorned in encaustic painting with a bust of the young Christ the Savior placed in a medallion. The sides present, two by two, the four archangels and the saints Luke, Thomas, Faustus, and Cosmas. It is possible that other painted panels, now isolated, in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, and the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington, D.C., belonged to this type of casket.
Coffins. The mode of burial varied in accordance with the wealth of the deceased. This fact is substantiated by A. Gayet (1902) in his description of the necropolises of Antinoopolis. Most of the bodies were laid out on a plank or even placed directly on the sand, without any protection. A few senior officials, however, who had a vault constructed or excavated, were sometimes able to have a wooden coffin made for themselves. The traces of plain, undecorated coffins have not attracted the attention of excavators. A few rare, decorated pieces—very fragmentary, unfortunately—have been preserved.
The most important coffin remains are those of Colluthus previously cited. All that is left is one side consisting of three superimposed panels probably held together by mortise-and-tenon joints. Each of the two lower panels is decorated by a row of demibalusters attached to uprights framing undecorated, square areas. The topmost panel, shaped like a pediment, has its center hollowed out in the shape of a large demirosette flanked by two rows of vertical tongues of wood.
The Louvre has four other fragments of coffins from Antinoopolis, one of which, according to Gayet, was that of Thaïs, famous mistress of Alexander the Great. The one surviving side, in a poor state of preservation, consists of three frame panels enclosing incised vegetable motifs. The other three fragments, in even worse condition, are also likely to be remains of coffins. One is decorated with an ankh engraved with crosshatched motifs, with a Greek cross in its loop. The second, which has a labarum (imperial Roman standard), was probably recut at a later date according to the form of the labarum; it still retains fragments of material stuck to the edge and its underside. The third preserves a two-line inscription preceded by a cross with branched ends, which reads “May God establish . . .”
Gayet also described a coffin lid with the monogram, m g drawn in ink on it.
The scantiness of these remains clearly demonstrates that the most common custom, even for the well-to-do, was to consign bodies to the desert sand. Indeed, at the time of his excavations in 1899-1900, Gayet wrote, “Exceptionally the bodies of Colluthus and Tisoia had been put in coffins, the only such interment I have encountered among about ten thousand others” (p. 133).
The painted wooden sarcophagus discovered at Qararah, Middle Egypt, during the excavations of 1913-1914 by the University of Heidelberg poses a tricky problem of dating—either the fourth to the fifth century or the eighth century. It is exceptional not just because of its painted decoration but also because of its excellent state of preservation and its form, the face of the deceased being positioned under one end of the lid, with a little saddleback roof over it. There is a decorative foliated scroll around the base, while the shorter sides of the roof and lid are studded with medallions enclosing Umayyad-style arabesques.
The two longer sides of the roof display a peacock standing upright with a pearl necklace in its beak, a detail betraying unmistakable Sassanid influence. Since Muslims do not use coffins, the complete absence of any kind of Christian symbolism makes it more difficult to pass any judgment on the identity of the owner of such a magnificent sarcophagus.
Crosses. The existence of wooden crosses, marking the position of tombs, does not seem to have been noticed by the excavators at the time of the clearing of the necropolises, for example, at Antinoopolis or Bawit. These fragile objects were probably for the most part destroyed or carried off. Some of them, however, still preserved in museums, quite certainly marked tombs. The foot, without decoration but sometimes provided with perforations, must have been driven directly into the ground or nailed to a transverse beam to hold it more firmly.
The only decoration consists of stylized florets in low relief at the end of the branches and in the center of the crosses when they adopt the Latin form, as do those in the State Museum of Berlin, or of engraved geometrical motifs when they take the form of the ankh, as do those in the Coptic Museum, Cairo.
A cross in the State Museum of Berlin, still in a good state of preservation, carries a long epitaph, engraved on each of the branches and the foot, consecrated to the blessed Theodorus, who died in 799. One branch mentions a name (perhaps) accompanied by the sign “amen”; the other branch mentions the name of Jeremiah, which is preceded by “amen” and the name of Jesus Christ.
A stela in the form of a cross, preserved in the Louvre and recalling the ankh, is covered by an inscription engraved on the principal face and the two side faces: it belonged to a certain Pantoleus, who died in 1025. Three crosses of the same type, unfortunately fragmentary, were given to the museum of Périgueux by J. Clédat in 1904. Their provenance is Bawit, although one of them was purchased at Akhmim. Only the uprights are still in part preserved. They carry inscriptions, the most complete of which invokes Apa Ramoun, Saint Apollo, Saint Phib, and Saint Anub.
A reliquary cross of Latin form in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, deriving from Akhmim, is formed of a core of wood covered in leather. On the branches of the cross and on the foot, square spaces marked off by gilded stamping are occupied by alveoli (hollows) set with glass cabochons, alternately circular and quadrangular. At the foot of the cross, the leather widens to reveal a medallion adorned with a painted head, with a halo, wearing a beard and dark blue hair.
The Coptic Museum possesses numerous other crosses of various forms and sizes. They are engraved with representations of angels or saints. Sometimes Christ appears in the form of a portrait located within a medallion or as crucified, a late iconography.
A pendant in the Louvre in the form of the ankh must have been used in a collar or bracelet. It was probably hung by means of a cord through the perforation wrought in the ring.
Doors. Because of the scarcity and cost of wood, few ordinary people could afford the luxury of a door; most had to be content with a piece of rush matting or a curtain, as is still true today in rural areas. A considerable number of doors of late date (tenth to thirteenth century) are still in situ in the churches of Old Cairo or Wadi al-Natrun. They provide access to the choir and the sanctuary and are often set in a large screen also of carved wood, marking off the sanctuary and concealing it from the faithful.
Smaller doors must have belonged either to window apertures cut in such screens as in the Church of Cairo, to reliquaries like the one in the Brooklyn Museum decorated with a praying figure, or to cupboards, such as the remains of a doorframe in Dayr Epiphanius, Thebes.
The smallest doors often had only a single leaf, while the massive entrance doors of churches were double. Their jambs were fitted with a hinge at the top, and the bottom carved from the solid block; the leaves consisted of panels of varying sizes connected to each other by tongue-and-groove joints.
Doors were secured by means of either a simple latch, or a lock with a wooden or iron key, of a design that seems to be of Greek origin and is still in use today. There is a fixed wooden element with teeth that engage in the perforations of a movable element set across the opening. The long-handled key has similar teeth to allow it to push back the teeth of the fixed element and thus engage it in a cavity shaped for this purpose. Such keys come from Dayr Epiphanius and monasteries of the Wadi al-Natrun. H. E. Winlock and W. E. Crum (1926) are of the opinion that such a lock system made its appearance in the Greek world as early as the sixth century B.C. under the appellation “Laconian lock” and spread throughout the Mediterranean basin from then on.
A number of uprights decorated with cross motifs, inscriptions, or simply with multisectioned panels set within frames, in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, and in the Louvre, should probably be regarded as fragments of doors.
Undoubtedly the most important example from the fourth to the seventh century is the sixth-century door of the Church of Sitt Barbarah in Cairo now in the Coptic Museum. The lower section has been damaged by moisture, but in the center of each of the upper panels there is still an evangelist carved in relief topped by a bust of Christ wearing a crown, supported by two angels and flanked by two apostles. The lower frieze depicts Christ on a throne surrounded by the twelve apostles. The oblong panels on the back are covered by a lattice of vine fronds sprouting from vases, like those of Maximian’s sixth-century throne in the National Museum of Ravenna.
A door leaf probably dating from the eighth or ninth century, now in the Louvre, was discovered by Clédat in the north church of Dayr Apa Apollo. Unfortunately, it is in very damaged condition; it originally consisted of ten rectangular panels framed by friezes of incised foliated scrollwork.
The churches of Sitt Barbarah and Abu Sayfayn in Old Cairo and Mar Jirjis’s chapel near Abu Sayfayn once had screens equipped with doors (now in the Coptic Museum, Cairo) that are made up entirely of small panels decorated with Fatimid-style arabesques that frequently depict people or animals. The same architectural and decorative features occur on the doors of the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun, which at times attain a level of great richness. The ivory- encrusted tenth-century doors of the Church of al-‘Adhra’ at Dayr al-Suryan, combining the representation of figures of Christ and the Virgin accompanied by saints with complex geometric ornamentation, are enhanced by a Syriac inscription naming the person who commissioned them and their date of execution. Even though Islamic influence was already predominant, it was not until the thirteenth century that Coptic art finally cut itself off from its roots, giving way both to the Islamic style and to the Byzantine tradition represented by the cedar door panels of the Church of al- Mu‘allaqah in Old Cairo, now in the British Museum, London. Four of the panels are decorated with Ayyubid-style arabesques. Six others illustrate episodes from the life of Christ: the Annunciation and the Baptism, the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Descent to Hell, the Ascension, and Pentecost.
Musical Instruments. Coptic textiles and sculptures abound in representations of musicians playing for dancers. Fortunately, some of the actual instruments have survived, although their fragility has often reduced them to fragments.
A seventh-to-eighth-century lute found at Qararah and preserved in the University of Heidelberg Egyptian Institute has a wooden sound box with hollowed edges. Its long neck terminates in a tenon for the attachment of the strings (now disappeared). At half its length there is a groove occupied by a bridge. The board of the drum, which was either of wood or of skin, has not been preserved. The form of this lute appears to be entirely new and seems to have no historical antecedents in pharaonic Egypt.
The simple or double flutes of reed, in the Egyptian Institute and the Coptic Museum, Cairo, which are very common, are the direct descendants of pharaonic flutes. Formed from a single stalk of reed, they are simply perforated by a series of holes on one face.
A clapper in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, in wood or ivory, has a handle adorned with stripes and ending in a small fixed board, made of one piece. Two other movable small boards, attached by a string or rivets, clash against the central board. Fragments of another are in the Louvre. Clappers were never portrayed. It seems that they were used as an alarm or to indicate the different activities of the day in Coptic monasteries.
Pairs of castanets are made of a piece of wood in the shape of an arm, a bottle, or a pineapple, turned on a lathe, split into two and hollowed out inside. One extremity is pierced or provided with hinges in bronze to bind the two halves together. Castanets, preserved in the Louvre and the Coptic Museum, appeared toward the second century, but we do not know whether they are of Greek or pharaonic origin; their use continued down to the Arab period.
Crotala are pincers in bronze, more rarely in wood, between whose branches are inserted two small bronze cymbals. Examples are in the Louvre; the Coptic Museum, Cairo; and the Municipal Collections, Freiburg, West Germany. These instruments, introduced into Egypt by the Romans, appear commonly in the hands of dancers on the textiles, bronzes, and stone sculptures of the Coptic period (see MUSIC: Musical Instruments).
Screens. A wooden screen or wall was fitted up in front of the sanctuary to separate the faithful from the most sacred part of the church. Many have disappeared, particularly the oldest, but there are screens from the Arab period, still in place, that have the same form. Such screens rise to about one-third of the height of the vault or the ceiling, so that the upper part of the apse remains visible from the nave. The center is pierced by a door and the side spaces by doors or windowlike openings. The top piece is most often formed of one or two rows of painted icons of recent date.
The most ancient traces of screens do not seem to be earlier than the ninth century. These are fragments of woodwork in the Louvre carved with scroll patterns that, according to H. Torp (1970), would be the evidence for the screen of the sanctuary of the north church of Dayr Apa Apollo.
The screens of the churches of Sitt Barbarah and Abu Sayfayn in Old Cairo date from the Fatimid period. That of Sitt Barbarah, preserved in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, is adorned by forty-five panels and a central arcade. It is carved with scroll patterns representing scenes of hunting and of war, horsemen, musicians, and a multitude of animals—lions, jackals, camels, griffins, deer, and birds of all kinds. The antique character of the patterns and the realism of the figures allow us to date it to the end of the tenth century, a period of religious tolerance under the first Fatimids that encouraged the creation of works of high quality. The screen of Abu Sayfayn, in a more abstract style with a tendency to the elimination of figures and the withering of the decoration, must be dated between the end of the eleventh and the course of the twelfth century. Sixty-six panels, as well as the central arcade and the lintel, are adorned with geometrical scroll patterns populated by birds, animals, and crosses. Sixteen other small panels are carved with figures of standing monks, holding a book in their hands; of mounted saints; or of angels holding the cross.
A screen is preserved in the chapel of Saint John the Baptist, Cairo. Thirty-eight panels are covered with interlacing work or with floral scroll patterns reduced to geometrical form. Forty panels treat in sketchy fashion figures of monks or saints carrying a book. The even more accentuated geometrical form of the elements of the decoration and the workmanship of the figures lead us to date it to the end of the Fatimid period, which is marked by the progressive abandonment of images and the deforming of the Byzantine models.
The churches of Old Cairo possess other screens, from the twelfth to the eighteenth century, consisting essentially of panels of geometric forms varied with arabesque decorations in wood or ivory. These are the churches of al-Mu‘allaqah, Abu Sarjah, Sitt Barbarah, the Virgin in Dayr al-Daraj in Babylon, Saint Theodorus, Dayr Abu Sayfayn, Dayr Anba Shinudah, and those of the Virgin at al-Damshriyyah, Harit al-Rum, and Harit Zuwaylah. In the screen of the Church of Abu Sarjah from the twelfth to thirteenth century, five panels with figured scenes have been inserted that date from the tenth century: the Nativity, the Last Supper, a mounted saint, and two saints.
Churches and chapels in the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun possess numerous screens, all of the Arab period.
Seals. Seals, in metal or in wood, were intended either for marking an object or for marking a soft clay or wax closing. These uses, which date from pagan antiquity, allow us to distinguish several types of seals among the examples in wood from the Coptic period.
Stamp seals in the form of a medallion served to mark the stoppers of jars for wine. They also marked loaves of bread, a custom that is still very much alive in the Coptic church. At Antinoopolis the marks of seals have been found on potter’s clay fixed to braids that held a mummy’s shroud in place. Some stamp seals with a medallion were provided with a handle. They carry, engraved or hollowed out, a monogram, the Christogram, other inscriptions, or figures of birds, felines, and other quadrupeds. Some cylindrical seals present medallions at both ends, often each bearing different motifs.
Small, rectangular stamp seals (between 2 and 8 inches [5 and 20 cm]) are marked only on a single face, the other being occupied by a handle that is full or perforated. The smallest may have been used to stamp the closing of vases, but they could also have been applied to tiles, bricks, or stucco.
Also rectangular are large stamp seals measuring between 16 and 24 inches (40 and 60 cm); they have heavy perforated handles.
It appears that they were used to mark the closing of the doors of granaries or to imprint heaps of flour in order to prevent theft. The majority of these rectangular seals bear the names of the proprietors or perhaps of holy personages. Some bear invocations to God. One series presents typically Egyptian figures: a hand, a crouching monkey, ostrich plumes, a solar disk.
Spindles and Spindle Whorls. Although it is possible to spin without an implement, the spindle seems to have appeared at a very early period, at the same time as the first weaving techniques (see TEXTILES, COPTIC). It might have been just a plain wooden stick, but most of the time it was fitted with a whorl of wood, bone, ivory, stone, or baked clay. As is often the case with such humble tools, the spindle has undergone very little development. From Middle Empire models and the New Empire examples discovered at Dayr al- Madinah, Luxor, one concludes that the sticks were provided with a whorl in the form of a flattened disk.
During the Roman and Coptic periods, whorls were very often double, the lower flattened whorl of wood supporting an upper, round one in a different material such as stone or bone, often decorated with incised or carved lines. The latter is often fitted with an iron hook for attaching the end of the thread. Several examples, two of which are in the Louvre, consist of a stick with a disk at one end carved out of the body of the stick at right angles to it: stick and disk are decorated with incised or hollowed-out concentric circles.
Stelae. The position of each tomb was, as a general rule, marked by a stela in stone. Nevertheless, there are also stelae of wood, examples of which are much more rare. At Dayr Apa Apollo, these stelae consisted of a long piece of wood roughly squared, held at the base by a small plaque nailed transversely. The upper part, which rose above the ground, carried in engraving a short invocation or a wish addressed to the deceased.
Three examples, of very different types, belong to the Louvre. The stela of Cyrus, who died at the age of eight on 7 Tubah, offers simply a Greek inscription on a panel with a roughly rounded top. The stela may have come from Akhmim. A panel from Dayr Apa Apollo in a much more elaborate style, with a curved top and equipped with tenons at the extremities and mortises at the base, presents a decoration common in stone stelae. An eagle with outspread wings, placed below a band of interlacing work, is encircled by an inscription mentioning a certain Banus. Stelae in the form of a cross, in the Louvre and the Museum of Perigueux, carry inscriptions engraved over their entire height.
Toilet Articles. Utensils for personal grooming have been found in large numbers. They are the very personal objects that accompany the deceased in their last resting place.
Combs in ivory or wood are the most common. At Antinoopolis some were even placed on the dead person’s chest. While combs in the pharaonic period had only a single row of teeth, from the Greek period onward there were combs with a double row of teeth, which continued in use down to the Arab period. The large widely spaced teeth at one end served to disentangle the hair; the fine, close-set teeth at the other enabled it to be cleaned and smoothed. Some examples, however, have only widely spaced teeth.
The rectangular central zone was given ornamentation, often on both faces—low- relief carving, openwork, and engraved or painted decorations. Motifs include people, animals, vegetation, geometrical decorations, and crosses. Some combs show encrustations with glass roundels.
Study of the so-called liturgical combs led F. Swoboda to distinguish two geographical zones of manufacture according to the form of the combs. Combs from Italy, represented by a few examples in the Louvre, are wider than they are high. Combs from North Africa, including Egypt, are higher than they are wide.
Up to now it has not been possible to identify a “liturgical” comb from a secular one, for the presence of a Christian symbol does not necessarily entail a liturgical use but simply a protective purpose for the one who possessed it. Nevertheless, it is tempting to think that the sixth-century comb in the State Museum of Berlin depicting Saint Thecla and Daniel among the lions could have served a priest preparing to present himself at the altar.
On several stelae in the Louvre and the Coptic Museum, Cairo, combs are represented sheltered under an aedicula symbolizing a chapel. The funerary context invites us to see here a reminiscence of the rite of liturgical cleanliness, required of the priest, then of the deceased, prior to appearing before God. On a bas-relief in the Coptic Museum the scene of the bath of the Child is surmounted by an enormous comb engraved with three crosses, in keeping with the toilet of the newborn.
Among existing secular combs, some may originally have been offered as wedding gifts. Others without doubt have never been used.
Painting around the eyes with kohl is a very common and ancient practice in Egypt, by reason of its protective function against dust and insects. Statues of the pharaonic period still preserve around the eyes green traces that suggest the use of malachite. From the Roman period on, malachite was replaced by powdered galena, a gray or blackish substance, which was mixed with a medium. Laboratory tests have discovered traces of galena in the kohl boxes belonging to the Louvre.
Small sticks of bone, wood, or bronze were used to mix and apply the kohl. The forms of the kohl boxes are inherited from those of the pharaonic period. The materials are stone, faience, bronze, wood, and in particular stalks of reed, which naturally lent themselves to the purpose of boxes. From the Greek period on, wood, shaped or turned on a lathe, was the sole material used for kohl boxes. Some boxes are in the form of tubes, resting on an annular foot and provided with a stopper, which has often disappeared. They are simply adorned with concentric engraved lines or with bands painted in red, green, and yellow. Other tubes are covered with a network motif engraved on a background of dark paint.
The strangest boxes, in the form of more or less potbellied amphorae, rest on small pedestals with four feet, cut from a solid piece of wood. They are adorned with a network of engraved lines, small tongues, stylized vegetable motifs, or crosses. Some are backed by small plaques, the verso of which presents figured decorations: goddesses, dancers, birds. The stoppers are generally conical or carved in the form of heads, as are examples in the University of Mainz, Institute of Art History. The handles of the amphorae or the perforations made in the plaques were intended for the passage of leather thongs, which allowed the boxes to be carried or hung up. Examples are in the Louvre; the University of Heidelberg; the University of Mainz; and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.
Two examples with a double tube, in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, and the University of Heidelberg, are hollowed into the back of cases originally closed with a sliding lid, in which the kohl sticks must have been arranged.
In addition to making up their eyes, the Egyptians painted their faces with red ocher, traces of which have been found in small, round boxes. Fibers of wool mixed with this matter perhaps indicate the use of pads for application. These ocher boxes are turned and have a wide rim pierced with holes, which correspond to perforations in the cover. Leather thongs threaded through the holes held the covers in place. These covers, surmounted by a central knob for gripping, are engraved simply with concentric circles.
Mirrors, aids to beauty, were in ancient times formed of disks of metal cast and then polished and provided with a handle in wood or ivory. From the Roman period other types appear, made of plaster or wood, set with a round piece of silver-plated glass. The Coptic Museum in Cairo possesses an example still in a fairly good state of preservation.
The rectangular wooden support, provided with a handle, is hollowed into a circular socket occupied by a round piece of silver-plated glass fixed by a filling of stucco. The Louvre has only four of these supports, in which the glass has disappeared, but one can still distinguish on the edge of the frame traces of painted decoration: undulating black lines dotted by red and white points, and large black and white points.
Toys and Games. The only games that have survived appear in the form of rectangular tablets of wood with three steps, which increase in size from the upper level to the lower. The surface is covered with a veneer of ivory, which has very often partly disappeared. Each step is provided with series of perforations. The examples known at present—one in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, one in the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, two in the Louvre—all show the same series of perforations, except in the central spaces of the upper steps: two rows of four, two rows of five, and four rows of ten perforations. The top step is often provided in its center with an ivory knob. The presence of two series of perforations may imply a game for two players, who had to finish at the common goal formed by the central perforations.
As E. Drioton thought, it is not impossible that the form of these games and their rules were inherited from the ancient pharaonic game of senet, which resembles the games of checkers and chess. The same author, however, also compares them with games, dating from the beginning of the Middle Empire, that continued in use in the form of “bucklers,” then of “frogs.” These games belong to the same type as two other specimens of board game, one from the twelfth century B.C. found at Susa and one from the fourth century B.C. found in Ur.
The game must have been played with pegs and counters, marked with points in bone or ivory, which have been found in large numbers. On the back of the gameboard was fitted a drawer closed by a sliding cover, intended no doubt for storing counters and pegs. One of the examples in the Louvre, deriving from Antinoopolis, presents on this face an engraved cross with forked branches, flanked by two alphas and two omegas. The name “God” inscribed vertically is not necessarily contemporary with it.
The tombs of children at Antinoopolis have yielded two kinds of toys: horsemen and dolls. Other types of toys do not seem to have been identified on other sites. The horsemen appear in two forms. In one, a figurine without feet is held in place by tenons between two small plaques, very probably suggesting the two sides of the same horse. On the lower part of these plaques are mounted four wheels fixed by thin rods and tenons. Only the outer faces of these plaques have been carefully smoothed and covered with red, white, and black painting that details the saddle, the harness, the hair, and the eyes, as in examples in the Louvre.
The other type can be reconstructed on the basis of fragments recovered. The horseman, similar to the preceding one, is provided with two legs, which allows him to be mounted on a single plaque, both faces of which are smoothed. The horses are stylized in the extreme: very simplified silhouettes, without hooves or tails. The horsemen are roughly outlined by means of a series of excisions effected with a chisel or a knife. The two arms, crossed on the chest, appear to hold the reins. The face is cut in two planes that meet at the nasal axis. A small skullcap forms the headdress.
The same characteristics were applied in the manufacture of dolls. They are presented standing on a small pedestal, the feet and legs veiled by a heavy garment with blunted angles. Some cross their hands at the level of the waist; others carry a child in front of the chest, either in a strictly frontal position or slightly twisted.
Weaver’s Combs. Weavers used special combs to compress the threads of the weft and to maintain the regular spacing of the warp threads. These combs were mostly carved from a hardwood, such as box, which allowed the thrust involved to be transmitted with less risk of damage. They consist of a rectangular block with a handle, projecting from the middle of one of the long sides, that is carved from the same piece of wood. The opposite side has a row of teeth with the gaps between beveled on the working surface to prevent damage to the weft threads during use. They often show signs of wear, and many of them have teeth missing. Some broken ones appear to have been repaired in antiquity by means of bronze ligatures. One comb in the Louvre was probably made from broken fragments fitted together by tenons and pegs.
Weaver’s combs come in an enormous variety of sizes depending on the sizes of the warp. They accommodate a larger or smaller number of teeth with varying spacing, according to the examples in the State Museum of Berlin and the Louvre.
The very sketchy decoration is found chiefly on one side of the block and the handle: groups of incised lines in parallels or cruciform, series of chevrons, or pricked-out circles. Two combs, however, one in a private collection, the other in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, carved with animals in relief, demonstrate that such utilitarian implements could sometimes be elaborately decorated.
Weaver’s Shuttle. Everyday, unadorned implements are rarely preserved. One example of a weaver’s shuttle is in the Louvre; two are at University College, London. One of the London pieces consists of a baton slit at the two ends. The thread, still preserved, is twined crosswise at three points on the shuttle.
The two other pieces, ovoid in shape, are hollowed out in their central part to prepare for the positioning of the bobbin. The London example is ballasted with pegs of lead, allowing for a more effective throwing of the shuttle.
Sculptured Architectural Decoration
As in the times of pharaonic Egypt, so also in the Coptic period, only public buildings in carefully squared stone received sumptuous painted or sculpted decoration. Private houses were constructed of unbaked clay, washed with white lime, and sometimes enhanced by a few paintings. The attention of the decorators was directed chiefly to the churches. Sculpted works in stone or in wood, often painted, adorn the interior as well as the exterior of the south church at Dayr Apa Apollo. They include friezes, lintels, brackets, pilasters, and panels.
Friezes. The most common decorative elements are the long friezes running right round the building, often on several levels. They reproduce in large part the same ornaments of acanthus scroll patterns or vine leaves as on stone friezes in the Louvre, the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and the State Museum of Berlin. Nevertheless, the foliage scroll pattern forming wheels occupied by flowers, fruit, or animals that appears so often in the stone friezes is practically absent in friezes of wood. The choice of this motif, which entails the hollowing out of the background to obtain a genuine lacework effect, was probably ignored by the sculptors in wood, whose material lent itself less readily to this form of carving.
These other motifs, common to all the lands of the Mediterranean basin from the Greco-Roman period on, take on a variety of invention in their treatment that is typical of the decorative character of Coptic sculpture.
Carved in relief, leaves, flowers, and fruits are either naturalized or stylized in the extreme, to the point of being no more than almost geometrical forms. The branches run through the woodwork in undulating lines or form hoops or ovals. When they are symmetrical, they often emerge from the pedestal of a vase that marks their center, a motif coming originally from the Orient. Elements alien to the nature of the vegetation represented often occupy the spaces left free. Fruits, flowers, beads, and trefoils are used, as are human or angel busts, full-length figures, fawns, or birds. The birds are constantly represented in the act of pecking the flowers or the fruits. This theme, of Oriental origin, spread throughout the Mediterranean basin from the Greco-Roman period, and was to know an extraordinary expansion both in space and time.
Naturalistic or stylized, the palmette reigns everywhere. It is used in friezes but also in borders or in framing. Although less frequent than the scroll pattern, meanders (frets) appear in the form of ribbons adorned with beads or bands occupied by florets. The spaces between the angles are occupied by vegetable or human elements. This geometrical decoration on wood includes rows of beads, waves, or denticles (small tooth projections). The same decoration on stone or in painting seems intended to imitate the technique of carving in wood, e.g., a pillar from Dayr Apa Apollo in the Louvre and paintings in geometrical tracery from the necropolis of al-Bagawat.
Figurative subjects are not wanting; they sometimes interrupt the regular connection of a vegetable or geometric frieze; for example, angels holding up the cross or busts enclosed in garlands as in the Louvre. The animal decoration seems much more frequent and varied: a lion bounding in foliage; felines following one another, biting the tail of the one in front; peacocks; or quails, as in the Louvre. More rarely, a browsing hare appears on a frieze in company with birds pecking at grapes, for example in the State Museum of Berlin.
Mythological and Nilotic scenes, in the Louvre and the Coptic Museum in Cairo, form an abundant and varied iconography, offering in turn realistic or fantastic animal representations gamboling in the midst of putti, nymphs, or goddesses.
Lintels. Some thirty lintels in wood are known at present. The majority consist of a single large beam. The decoration is situated on one of the principal faces but may equally cover the lower face where this area remains visible. Tenons and mortises, often still in place, served to fix the lintels on uprights or wedge them into the masonry. The use of veneering held by nails or the superimposition of several friezes makes it possible to give them a richer appearance. They must have belonged to the doors of churches, monks’ cells, or funerary chapels. At Dayr Apa Apollo, a lintel now in the Louvre was found in situ at the entrance of a chamber situated between the north and south churches.
The sculptured decoration of wooden lintels is analogous to that of lintels in stone. The center most often takes the form of a Latin or Greek cross, carved in relief, embossed, or inset with a strip of lead, as in examples in the Louvre, the State Museum of Berlin, and the Coptic Museum in Cairo. This cross may be placed against a shell and sheltered under an aedicula with a pediment, upheld by two columns. On a lintel in the State Museum of Berlin it is upheld by two angels. Two lintels, probably deriving from the Fayyum, are preserved at the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. In one, a cross with branches in the form of leaves is inscribed in a medallion with knotted ribbons. In the other, a cross fleury is inscribed in a simple circle.
The lateral areas of the lintels are occupied either by alpha and omega, engraved or inset in lead, or by garlands enclosing a rosette. Some pieces, however, offer more varied decorations. A lintel in the Louvre presents Greek crosses inserted among hexagonal and octagonal motifs, adorned with flowers as well as two rosettes, one in the form of a floret, the other in full flower with four petals, enclosed within garlands. The lower face is adorned with a Greek fret. An example in the same museum carries panels veneered at the extremities and adorned with fawns bounding among bushes.
Figural scenes, although less frequent, are sometimes simply limited to busts of angels, of holy personages, or of Christ, enclosed within garlands. Two angels frequently uphold the cross or the bust of Christ, as on a lintel in the State Museum of Berlin.
One example in the Louvre, with its reliefs severely rubbed away, still allows us to perceive in the central zone a seated figure faced by two other figures. At the extremities, pieces at right angles are adorned—one with Moses, perhaps, receiving the tables of the law, the other with Saint Menas as an orant (praying figure) between camels, a single one of which survives.
Only two lintels offer great narrative scenes, treated on a single register over their whole length. A lintel deriving from the Fayyum now in the State Museum of Recklinghausen, West Germany, bears the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, treated in a style simplified to the extreme. By contrast, the fourth-to-sixth century lintel of the Church of al-Mu‘allaqah, now in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, presents classical forms that link it to the Alexandrian style, although the harshness of the drapery and of the faces sets them apart from that tradition.
The frieze, disposed on a single register, is surmounted by a four-line inscription in finely worked Greek uncial letters, in which the abbot Theodore and the deacon George address a hymn to Christ. The left part is occupied by the entry into Jerusalem, the right by the Ascension. The graphic style of the drapery and the disposition of the personages in front of gates flanked by towers cannot but recall the Greco-Roman sarcophagi called “At the Town Gates” in the Louvre or some sarcophagi with columns from Asia Minor also in the Louvre.
Corbels. Corbels are supportive architectural elements characterized by their rectangular form with beveled edging and by their flattened upper face without decoration, which were intended to receive a section of wall. Half or one-third of the corbel, roughly squared, was introduced into the wall in order to fix the element in place. Only the lower face was therefore visible and carried ornamentation.
Some examples from Dayr Apa Apollo are covered with geometrical tracery consisting of octagons and overlapping crosses, as seen in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, or of meanders, on the examples in the Louvre. Others imitate the capitals of columns and pilasters with the use of laurel leaves or vine and acanthus leaves, the extremities of which are curled back. Acanthus adorns a double corbel in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the two sculpted extremities of which are separated by the supportive area, which has no decoration.
Several examples were adorned with figured motifs or scenes. Two fifth-to-sixth-century corbels from Dayr Apa Apollo, now in the Coptic Museum, each present a holy personage, one of whom holds the book of the Gospels, sheltered by an arcade. The arcade is surmounted by a garland enclosing a cross. From the same site a corbel in the State Museum of Berlin offers under the same type of arcade a representation of Daniel among the lions, clothed in Persian costume (Phrygian bonnet, leggings, and tunic with triangular flaps); the head stands out against a conch shell.
A unique fourth-to-fifth-century corbel from al-Ashmunayn, now in the State Museum of Berlin, is sculpted in very high relief with a scene of the capture of a town. The composition is in several registers depicting a dead prisoner, trampled by foot soldiers and horsemen, and prisoners pilloried in front of the ramparts of the town, which are furnished with towers. On these ramparts appears a row of soldiers. Behind them rises the citadel, the bastions of which are surmounted by busts.
Two personages appear under the arcade of the entrance. The presence of a standard-bearer carrying the labarum leads one to interpret this assault as a symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. The very stylized rounded faces and heavy drapery bring this small monument close to the scupltures of late antiquity, for example, the fourth-century porphyry sarcophagus called that of Saint Helena in the Vatican Museums, or the fourth- century group of the Tetrarchs in Venice.
Small Columns and Pilasters. Small pillars and pilasters, essentially movable objects, served either to support arcades as in the fourth-to-sixth century wooden altar of the Church of Abu Sarjah in Cairo, or as the uprights in furniture or balustrades.
The Louvre has several of these objects, which unfortunately are separated from their context. One small column, whose capital has two rows of stylized leaves, has a shaft of two different shapes. One half is cylindrical, the other half is hexagonal. Similarly one-third of the height of another fine small column is square in section, another third is hexagonal, and the last third is circular; three groups of indentations form its ornamentation. The lower half of the shaft of another small column is square in section, while the upper half presents three oblique faces; the front face is adorned with a row of waves between two engraved lines. A small column, square in section, has a capital adorned by a flower with four petals inscribed in a lozenge and framed by flutes, leaves alternating with pearls, and indentations. Two-thirds of the shaft is occupied by a floral frieze between two series of indentations.
Slender boards served for the execution of pilasters. The shafts were usually covered by a scroll pattern, emerging from the base, that included leaves, pomegranates, and rosettes.
Panels. In the majority of cases it has proved impossible to replace panels in their original context. Only some panels from Dayr Apa Apollo have been restored to their place in the south church, which has been partially reconstructed in the Coptic rooms of the Louvre. In particular, on either side of the door of the church two sculptured “pictures” in wood were fitted in, carrying borders with leaves and palmettes or other vegetable motifs. This inlay technique, which goes back to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods allows the introduction of contrasts in materials and in colors.
Some of the panels in the Louvre and the State Museum of Berlin present at their center a perforation, which may or may not pass through the thickness of the panel, the purpose of which has not yet been determined. The center may be adorned with geometrical and vegetable motifs, such as Greek frets, conches, garlands, scroll patterns, leaves, and pearls, which for the most part delimit the spaces occupied by figured representations. But often the field is decorated with animal motifs such as birds in the Louvre and leaping lions and an eagle in the State Museum of Berlin, or human figures such as holy personages and angels, and mounted saints placed face-to-face, in the Louvre.
A series of rectangular panels, delimited by borders in the form of bands or adorned with scroll patterns, could have belonged either to movable objects or to architectural elements such as doors or screens in front of the sanctuary.
A fifth-to-sixth-century panel in the Coptic Museum in Cairo presents a cultic scene difficult to identify, perhaps the dance of Salome. A musician, seated and playing her flute, accompanies a dancer holding cymbals performing before a seated personage; behind, a bust, possibly the head of Saint John the Baptist, is placed on a stool of repentance.
Dating from the same period, a fragmentary panel also in the Coptic Museum still allows us to recognize the upper part of the scene of the Baptism of Christ. Saint John the Baptist pours water on the head of Christ, toward whom a dove descends.
The small fifth-century Virgin of the Annunciation in the Louvre still preserves part of its many colors—black, violet, and rose. She is seated on a high stool and spins purple thread for the veil of the Temple. With her large, fixed black eyes she looks at the observer, while the archangel Gabriel, of whom no more than a foot remains, makes his announcement to her.
Other panels date from the Arab period. An eleventh-to-twelfth- century sacrifice of Isaac in the Kevorkian Collection, New York, presents in a quite Islamic style the traditional scene of Abraham on the point of sacrificing the little Isaac, lying on the altar. Behind him the ram entangles its horns in the branches of a tree, which occupies the whole background of the panel, although the face of the angel sent by God to stop Abraham’s action does appear.
In the eleventh-century iconostasis of the Church of Abu Sarjah in Old Cairo, panels are inserted representing the Nativity, the Last Supper, and three saints on horseback. There, too, Christian iconography is wedded to pure Islamic decoration, made of stylized palmettes and arabesques. Other examples in the Louvre consist of panels with or without holy personages.
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MARIE HÉLÈNE RUTSCHOWSCAYA