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Historiography Of Coptic Art - Coptic Wiki


The notion of “Coptic Art” is relatively recent. It became established only slowly, and not surprisingly it is still used with some quite diverse meanings.

In the nineteenth century, when the archaeology of the ancient civilizations was being established, it could hardly have been foreseen that a Christian minority merely tolerated in prosperous Muslim Egypt would deserve a period of its own in art history. True, outside of art, the Copts were credited with certain merits: the surge of Christian monasticism in the third and fourth centuries, which spread into the West and the Middle East; a few renowned churches and monasteries; and the preservation in some of these places of precious scriptural and patristic manuscripts.

But given the history of this minority, it was unclear what works of art it could have produced. The Copts were a people who, since the fourth century B.C., had been kept down by the Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine occupations, and who under the Muslim domination had been reduced from 7 million to scarcely 1 million people. They had survived only by clinging to their traditions and Christian practices, all the while devoting themselves either to menial labor or, in a few exceptional cases, to professional work of a subordinate rank. The interlude between pharaonic art and the art that began to take shape under the Muslim aegis seemed to deserve nothing more than the modest title “Coptic period,” with no pretentions to being art.

A New Concept

Nevertheless, toward the end of the nineteenth century, numerous pieces of art and decorative articles, unearthed from the upper strata or environs of ancient sites, were verified by their position as being later than the principal object of the excavation, but they were not Hellenistic, Roman, or Byzantine. They could not be ignored, though some scholars, influenced by their emotions, did so. Moved by these discoveries, other art historians began to reevaluate what they could not classify as either pharaonic, Roman, Byzantine, or Muslim art.

The new concept of what may be described as Coptic art became evident in Alfred J. Butler’s important inventory of Coptic churches (in 1884).

Gaston MASPERO also advanced this new concept. He opened a hall of Coptic objects in both the first and the second Egyptian Museums in Cairo, where he grouped principally decorative sculpture in relief, but he also included small pieces of all kinds that had been accumulating through the years in storage.

The identification “Coptic” made headway. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, several collections of decorative textiles were assembled in various museums and by amateur collectors. These textiles were mostly fragments, but some were complete or almost complete; they were easy to transport and acquire; and they came from official or clandestine digs.

Various DATINGS were proposed for these items: at first, the eighth and ninth centuries, and later, due to discoveries of objects in a more classical style, the Byzantine period. It was thought that the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT in the middle of the seventh century had dealt the deathblow to all production of Coptic decorated textiles. Edouard Gerspach, of the Gobelins Museum in Paris, furnished the first technical studies of this weaving in 1887 and 1890, concentrating principally on tapestry.

Owing to the attention thus accorded them, acquisitions of these textiles became the object of avid research both by Alfred Gayet at Antinoopolis, at the urging of Emile Guimet, and by the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in the vicinity of Asyut.? Various capitals and other principal centers of scholarship in Europe eagerly sought to acquire them. The quantity discovered was so great that Emile Guimet exhibited a significant number from his museum at the Paris International Exposition of 1900, where this exhibit was one of the main attractions. Thus the value of Coptic decorative textile art was established and enhanced by exhibits, sometimes raising controversies at the Guimet.

Nevertheless, if the title “Coptic” had become accepted, establishing the existence of a Coptic technique, the name was limited to one isolated genre despite the many pieces in other unearthed and exhibited.

The term “Coptic” doubtless attained a higher status with the appearance in the first quarter of the twentieth century of two catalogs: one from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London by Albert Franck Kendrick (1924), and the other from the by Rodolphe Pfister (1932). Both catalogs were based on solid historical criteria; the Louvre catalog included chemical analyses of the colors. A first step forward had been taken, but the tapestries and other Coptic decorated textiles continued to occupy the foremost rank in Coptic art as if nothing else existed.

Coptic architecture and its background were almost entirely ignored. In fact, as late as 1963, the Byzantine scholar Kurt Wessel, in a well-illustrated volume on Coptic art, remained supremely ignorant of this important art form, even having written in 1962 that Coptic architecture as such did not exist. Concurrently, official scholarly circles scarcely considered the relations between the genre of the Coptic textiles and that of Coptic architectural decoration, not to mention other objects in other techniques, such as CERAMICS, METALWORKS, GLASS (decorated or plain), ornamented leather, WOOD, and PAINTING (mural or panel).

It was not that discoveries in these domains were lacking, for the excavations had furnished abundant items. But the museums and collectors invariably restricted themselves to decorated textiles, and every reference to Coptic art meant, even among the best informed, nothing other than Coptic textiles. This limited view is still frequently met. Even today, when speaking of Coptic art, beginners scarcely think of anything beyond decorated textiles.

Four Endeavors

However, there were four endeavors (one already noted above), guided by a larger vision, that were to be decisive in expanding the notion of Coptic art. These were based on a complete reclassification—built around the success of the classification of Coptic decorated textiles—of other heretofore left in isolation or treated with a disdain hardly compatible with a healthy notion of archaeology.

The first endeavor, Maspero’s initiative, has already been mentioned. Taking a lesson from the facts, he had proceeded to group decorative items in stone that he considered to be Coptic in an exhibition hall and also in the storerooms of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; with these articles he exhibited other, smaller objects that he thought could be related to this collection. Thereby he proved to be a precursor. The substantial catalog of these items prepared in 1904 by Josef Strzygowski recorded the results in a masterful fashion. By setting these architectural elements—sculpted or painted—in juxtaposition, Maspero revealed the ties of Coptic architecture to Coptic decorative art.

Following closely upon Maspero’s initiative, was the second endeavor. The French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo excavated from 1901-1903 at BAWIT in Middle Egypt and published its findings about the monuments it discovered and their decoration. The institute was able to to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and to donate to the Louvre, a substantial group of architectural decorations from a single site. The excavations resumed by Jean Maspero in 1912 added to this group.

Beginning in 1907, Georges Bénédite, conservator of the Egyptian Section of the Louvre, operating from the same premise as the institute and Maspero, but applying it to other genres, increased the number and variety of objects in the Coptic collection by massive and repeated purchases made during nearly twenty years in Egypt.

In 1908 occurred the third endeavor, when the Coptic collector MURQUS SIMAYKAH began to assemble and constantly increase examples of every Coptic genre. In 1920 he founded the privately owned Coptic Museum, which he opened to the public.

The fourth endeavor was that of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, which, either by purchases or excavations, notably in the region of Asyut, assembled a varied collection of Coptic articles. These were described in the imposing catalog of Coptic and Byzantine objects that appeared in 1914, edited by O. K. Wulff.

Classification and Acquisition

In the history of the notion of Coptic art, the following period, from 1910 until the 1960s, was a time of reflection and classification. Meanwhile, acquisitions continued, mainly in the principal official collections already in existence.

A clear debate about Coptic textiles produced the first attempts at classification. Representations of persons and decorative motifs based on plants and/or animals were, for the most part, considered to be of Greek, Roman, Hellenistic, or sometimes Byzantine origin. This was a period when archaeological excavations still pursued prestigious and picturesque discovery at the expense of studying the site and its environs. Purchases of objects from clandestine diggings—the by-products of a search for organic or calcareous sediments useful for fertilizer—offered no firmer scientific certainty.

As yet, the dating of an object could be based only on style and its evolution. In this regard, comparisons with classical art and its own modifications over the centuries could offer approximate dating. It is on such information that Wulff and W. F. Volbach in Berlin, A. F. Kendrick in London, and R. Pfister in Paris based their thinking; Pfister confirmed his data with analyses of the colors and their respective origins. Three periods came to be distinguished: an almost classical and Roman period (third to fifth centuries), a Byzantine and Christian period (six to seventh centuries), and an antique Muslim period (seventh to eighth centuries). The substitution of lac (a dye made from an insect imported from India) for madder to make the red color needed to obtain purple notably supported Pfister’s hypothesis about the antique Muslim period.

In Cairo, important progress was made in assembling and enlarging the collections by the transfer of the Coptic collection in the Egyptian Museum to the Coptic Museum, which, by royal decree, had become a national museum in 1931 and henceforth eligible to receive and catalog all Coptic items deriving from excavations, official purchases, and gifts.

In 1928 the Louvre opened two Greco-Roman halls—one of which was called the Bawit Hall—exhibiting articles from Egypt that could be considered Coptic, that is, Egyptian-Byzantine. The majority consisted of a series of decorative mural reliefs from excavations of the churches of Bawit, as well as several dozen items purchased by G. Bénédite. This remained only the embryo of a separate collection, but it publicly demonstrated an advance toward developing such a collection. This assemblage of objects, which represented the essential art forms of a people, if not of a civilization, finally brought a recognition of the Copts’ distinctive way of life.

However, the question arose of whether Coptic collections concerned art—with all that this implies as to depth, variety, and sound originality creating a unique aesthetic—or an ensemble of customs borrowed from the great civilizations that had successively dominated, first, Coptic Egypt, and then the Coptic community to which it was reduced.

As has been noted, INSCRIPTIONS in the Coptic language— and traceable to the Coptic people—and the manner of treating subjects in art permitted (and continue to permit) a far greater number of monuments and objects to be grouped together than history would have indicated; this number would include tens of thousands of still surviving ancient monuments and objects, as well as equal numbers that have been destroyed, as documents keep revealing.

By virtue of size alone, Coptic productions from the third to the thirteenth centuries are as considerable as they are varied, far exceeding those of other regions under Roman, Byzantine, and later Muslim domination. Indeed, this is the only group of artistic objects to constitute a patrimony distinguished by its traits as well as by its continuity.

But a problem crucial to archaeology arose. As the number and variety of objects grew, it proved increasingly necessary to make dating more precise—insofar as possible and in a general way—and first of all, to establish the actual continuity of this patrimony.

As early as 1887 Edouard Gerspach had regarded the production of Coptic textiles at Antinoopolis as lasting from the fifth to the twelfth centuries. Common opinion soon afterward decided, perhaps arbitrarily, that this production ceased in the seventh to eighth centuries. However, in 1954, an analysis of a collection by Pierre du Bourguet confirmed Gerspach’s hypothesis and assigned a number of important pieces—until then relegated to the seventh to eighth centuries—to the centuries following, up to and including the thirteenth. In 1959, John Beckwith, beginning with some significant pieces, reviewed the entire chronology of Coptic textiles, adding other to these new data. Thus, as far as textiles were concerned, the Coptic patrimony proved to extend from the third to the twelfth centuries.

The most extensive display of this legacy was in Cairo in the Coptic Museum. All the important were represented there, some in unequaled number. These included (1) sculptures in relief obtained from transfer of objects from the Egyptian Museum and augmented notably in 1943 by items from the Nilometer in Rodah;

(2) a ceramic collection of decorated vases, of all sizes and in considerable quantity; (3) wooden furniture and chests, of which many were encrusted with ivory or mother-of-pearl; (4) the usual objects in ivory and bone; (5) mural paintings of Christian subjects;

(6) painted depicting saints or religious themes; and (7) illuminated manuscripts. In sum, there was in Cairo a veritable microcosm of Coptic art, which, owing to the enlightened administration of succeeding directors, has become an increasingly important tourist attraction.

Exhibitions Outside Egypt

A new understanding of Coptic art had emerged, but it was difficult to grasp in the scattered collections. Then, in 1960, at the urging of Volbach, the idea was born to present the reality of Coptic art at several places in Europe in a large collection. Volbach succeeded in interesting the Cultural Center of the Villa Hügel at Essen, which, in turn, made agreements with three other museums: the Kunsthaus of Zurich, the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna, and the Louvre (Section of Christian Antiquities). Four exhibitions were arranged, with items assembled from the majority of the existing collections.

These exhibitions lasted from April 1963 to October 1964 and were held at Essen—where the catalog was prefaced with a series of articles written by various specialists in the categories represented—Zurich, Vienna, and finally Paris. The first three exhibitions followed the same organization, while at Paris, in the Petit Palais, most of the items of these three exhibitions were combined with a large number of valuable pieces from the collections of the Louvre. Awareness of the ancient Coptic reality was no longer confined to Egypt, and from Europe awareness spread to the rest of the world, including Japan. The initiative of Volbach and the Villa Hügel had made history.

Since that time, there have been countless visiting exhibitions of Coptic objects in Europe and North America, with the emphasis on textiles. In addition, many museums on these two continents brought their Coptic textiles out of storage and, after restoration and mounting, accorded them special showcases in their permanent exhibition halls.

The question of the dating of Coptic textiles, only approximated to this time, now became acute; the 1964 exhibition at the Petit Palais had, in particular, rekindled interest in the problem. Articles from collections all over the world lent to the Villa Hügel at Essen had been grouped according to genre, with the date for each piece being that indicated by the lender. In nearly every case, there was no date later than the eighth century, and often the dates varied somewhat for similar items of the same style but coming from a different lender.

This same method of grouping was followed in the succeeding exhibitions in Zurich and Vienna. The division by category was maintained in Paris, but duplicates badly dated by such division and of little interest were eliminated; the addition of other, significant articles from the collection of the Louvre increased the artistic value of the presentation and brought valuable pieces into the limelight, arousing the curiosity of the viewers.

A substantial preface to the catalog by Pfister, du Bourguet, and Beckwith called attention to the Louvre contributions and included a summary of the Copts’ history, traced the principal lines of Coptic art and presented a well-marked chronology clearly and articulately. As a result, dates were indicated on the notices accompanying each object or on larger panels. There were differences of opinion on particular points, but the coherence of such a complete and continuous display became itself an argument for the notion of Coptic art and was striking because of its rigor as well as its novelty.

The Paris exhibition had benefited from the analyses and conclusions by du Bourguet and Beckwith regarding the extension of Coptic decorated textile production beyond the eighth century, a limit then commonly accepted for Coptic works as a whole. The exhibition expanded this limit to the thirteenth century. This was a minor revolution and returned to the position previously advanced by Gerspach and other early analysts of Coptic objects. After Gerspach, simplistic conclusions based on the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 had swept away his original idea, based as it was on good sense, as if the established customs and mentality, indeed the very life of a populous country with traditions thousands of years old, could be overthrown by a single, or almost single, blow.

In 1963, Beckwith confirmed for sculpture the brief chronology that he had formerly proposed for decorated textiles; this he presented in a large and well-chosen panorama of Coptic sculpture.

In 1964, du Bourguet, in turn, published the catalog of half of the Coptic textile collection of the Louvre, in which 1,500 pieces— complete or fragmentary, each with a commentary and photo on the facing page—were classified century by century, according to then known criteria. After a short account of the entry of various groups of pieces into the Louvre, his introduction added other data furnished by the most extensive study of Coptic weaving up to that date. The principles of the classification preceded the catalog itself.

These two authoritative publications marked a new step forward by pushing the terminal date of Coptic art five centuries forward, from the eighth to the thirteenth century. No longer could Coptic art be considered as ending with the Arab conquest. Already considerable in space by its production, it became considerable in time as well.

The variety of produced by the Copts could no longer be denied; they were comparable by their multiplicity to those of any other civilization. Nor could the duration of Coptic art to the thirteenth century be ignored.

The Question of an Original Totality

But one last problem surfaced: To what degree did an original totality emerge from the traits displayed in this collection of works, a totality whose aesthetic—if it existed—could allow the products of Coptic civilization to claim the prerogatives of an art in the proper sense of the term? In order to understand the question fully, a brief review of the periods of Coptic art is necessary.

Greco-Roman themes—dating from early in the eighth century B.C. and then increasing during the Ptolemaic period (332-31 B.C.)—became predominant, if not exclusive, after the Roman conquest of the Nile Valley. This transformation was facilitated by the detachment of the population from the pharaonic religion starting in the first millennium B.C. and their attraction to a newer religion more closely related to the changes and realities of the moment.

Nor was this shift, in fact, an isolated movement. It followed the expansion of the Greeks, then the Macedonians, and finally the Romans in the Mediterranean world. Egypt, as much because of its territorial importance as its 7 million inhabitants or its civilization many thousands of years old, changed its course more slowly than other Mediterranean countries. This change was completed when the first Coptic productions appeared in the third century.

Thus, an almost total Greco-Roman, or even Hellenistic, influence was both natural and undeniable, though it is essential to note that the Greco-Roman ascendancy affected the themes of art only. These were reworked and inwardly transformed. The Greek gods had begun to overtake the pharaonic gods, for example, in large and small statues. But behind the forms of Dionysus and Aphrodite, the Egyptians, while adopting some attributes of these gods, continued to see Osiris and Isis. Moreover, Aphrodite was also persistently confused with Mut and Hathor.

Alongside the official art, whose modifications were evident in the great sanctuaries and principal cities, similar programs and coarser features appeared in the rural centers; these were to be seen in the smaller temples (which would become more numerous in the countryside) and in the objects and representations belonging to a given cult. Herein lay the beginnings of Coptic productions, still expressive of an artisan order, perpetuating a craft descended from a very long popular tradition and expressed in numerous objects.

This was the work of pagan Egyptians, but they could qualify as Copts because, since the second century B.C., hieroglyphs had progressively given way to the Greek alphabet (though some signs derived from pharaonic demotic writing were kept for certain sounds), and the language, while maintaining its pharaonic structure, was loaded with a small group of Greek terms borrowed first from the administrative vocabulary and then bit by bit from the religious vocabulary of Christians—words derived mostly from koine Greek. It was therefore natural to see in these Coptic productions a secondary branch of Hellenistic art, above all in the pagan works, for Christian works became preponderant only in the middle of the fifth century A.D.

This was the position held by a number of scholars. It may be explained by what preceded and is even corroborated by tendencies that are almost similar, though due to different causes, in other Mediterranean countries. For example, in North Africa, a dependency on the Hellenistic style is clear. But Roman influences modified the classic workmanship by stylizing it into a sort of abstraction at the expense of the Hellenistic harmony. As emperors from the senatorial ranks were replaced by emperors from the equestrian and provincial classes (for example, Heliogabalus in the early third century was of Syrian origin), the old aesthetic requirements weakened, and a simplification and stiffness of form resulted. In fact, one could scarcely continue to speak of style and even less of uniform style.

In Egypt, still largely pagan in the first century A.D., Greco- Roman themes became more marked by Alexandrian elegance. The human figure, whether sculpted or painted, was altered not so much by the stiffness noted above as by modifications in proportion. These modifications, small at first, were not made at the expense of elegance but rather reinforced it. They kept increasing in size in order to emphasize a part of the body or some of its lines or even only the direction of the gaze. In decoration based on animal or plant motifs, stylization mechanized the forms by sacrificing the concrete—which was reduced to a mere pretext—to decorative invention of an astonishing quality.

Very early, from the fourth century onward, a special feature often characterized sculpture in relief. The two surfaces were forcibly opposed by being cut at right angles. This opposition boldly altered the model, and by contrasting the two levels—of which the outer one was itself flattened— produced a striking effect of projecting, by means of shadow, the essential elements of the subject into the light. Very soon, an analogous procedure was adapted to artworks using color, notably in painting and decorated textiles. Here the surfaces of different colors were juxtaposed abruptly and directly, with the darker colors being suppressed to give a trompe l’oeil effect, and thereby accentuating the harmony or differentiation of the forms and other components. The result was a vigor unequaled elsewhere.

This double tendency—one toward creative disproportion to achieve emphasis, the other toward a decorative fantasy—may appear here and there in other provincial or official arts of this period around the Mediterranean. But in Egypt, this tendency was systematic and followed its own evolution. Thus, after the Arab conquest, the human figure was only vaguely suggested by a series of parallel lines, leaving no more than the indication of a pose or fixed look. This tendency also led to decorative fantasy in plant and animal forms, which soon became indistinguishable from one another.

This movement was intrinsic and not related to the Hellenistic style. Whereas Hellenistic art lost its strength in the seventh century due to neglect of execution of forms (such as appears, for example, in the ivories of the pulpit at Aix-la-Chapelle), Coptic art was distinguished from Hellenistic art in its vigor and inventive fecundity, all the while continuing its thrust many centuries beyond the seventh, which marked the end of Alexandrian art.

Because architecture is treated elsewhere (see ARCHITECTUAL ELEMENTS OF CHURCHES), let it suffice here to note that the Coptic borrowing of the from Greco-Roman art was made with profound modifications of the model. Borrowing is not copying when it modifies; it is, rather, an assimilation and contributes to a new art. This preponderance of the idea in relation to the forms and this zeal for decoration tempt one to propose a resurgence in Coptic art of the fundamental tendencies inherited from pharaonic art but in a more moderate degree and via Greco-Roman themes.

One other influence, the Byzantine, has been proposed as having affected Coptic work and as being at the source of some of its successes. This notion has been accepted to such a degree that certain Byzantine specialists—and not the least among them— relegate these Egyptian works, when some merits are found in them, to the Byzantine patrimony.

The allegation, already too widespread, that everything Mediterranean dating from the first centuries A.D. must be attributed entirely to early Latin art is no more than an idea; Mediterranean here includes paleo-Christian art, which however, was already clearly in the third and fourth centuries. The claim that locates Coptic art in the realm of Byzantine art—while naturally rejecting everything that lacks the stamp of harmony—has no support. The only fact that one might try to advance in favor of this idea is that the Byzantine occupation of Egypt from the middle of the fourth century to the middle of the seventh century would have determined the quality of works of art. It is true that Egypt was occupied by the Byzantines before the middle of the fifth century.

However, the art that was to become Byzantine had not yet left Constantinople. Coptic genres, from architecture to sculpture and painting, and including the minor arts, notably the decorated textiles with their distinctive tendencies (some of value), had already been implanted on Egyptian soil in all their authenticity. During the period of the Byzantine occupation, Coptic art successfully maintained its driving force, while Justinian’s art was just beginning to establish itself, gloriously to be sure, but with its own particular tendencies. The only borrowing that Coptic art could have made from Constantinople is the basket-capital; this is not impossible, but the basket-capital itself originated in the Libyan art of the third and fourth centuries and thus influenced Byzantine art. Moreover, Egypt lies adjacent to Libya, and could have adopted its themes and directly. The relations between Christian Egypt and the Byzantine Empire, and therefore with Byzantine art, were never restored (even until recent centuries), except by the Syrians in the eleventh century, and this concerned only rare works of a secondary order. Furthermore, the Christian outlooks of Egypt and Byzantium, differed so much that Byzantine specialists do not claim as Byzantine works after the seventh century.

Once these prejudices can be set aside, the notion of Coptic art becomes self-evident. It is then necessary, in effect, to recognize its authenticity and its quality, both of which are based upon the variety of its in an imposing mass of artworks, and upon the marked and autonomous tendencies whose refinement and decorative invention cannot be denied. Given these facts, the output of Coptic art—even if it has not attained the level of the greatest art—must be recognized as an authentic art with all its prerogatives and—in spite of its weaknesses, which the most prestigious art has—all its value.

Some people still have reservations. However, the more than precarious situation of the Egyptians during this long period of Roman and Byzantine and Muslim domination did not prevent them from showing their originality in language and literature; nor did it keep them from triumph in founding monasticism and in aesthetic thought. In fact, it was precisely under the aegis of the church—in itself a stifling circumstance—that they were about to establish their own elite: monks and ecclesiastics, artisans of all kinds, sculptors and painters, architects and masons (to whom the Muslims turned, even outside Egypt), small landowners, and even village notables.

Copts have succeeded in imposing themselves even in other domains. Thus it is not surprising to find that they constituted their own art. Even Byzantine art historians have not hesitated—despite the improbabilities—to place Coptic works among the best examples of Byzantine production. The fundamental objection to this is that they judge all the art of this period according to classical norms. By now, if considered from a broader perspective, Coptic art could be viewed as a precursor to modern art. The conclusion is that Coptic art—modest in proportions but with full rights—merits recognition as an art worthy of the name.


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