The painted decoration, or illumination, of Coptic books, appears to have had its origin in pharaonic Egypt. Numerous examples from the Eighteenth Dynasty onward grace funerary texts and the papyri that accompanied mummies in their sarcophagi. Though one might think that the tradition would have been prolonged right down to the Coptic period, it was not. The Copts were too much suppressed by the Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine occupations of their country to continue to produce decorated books.
The art languished until the sixth century, when tentative efforts at book decoration reappeared. They were limited, however, on the one hand to embellishment in the form of spirals, plants, and birds, and on the other hand to the transformation of certain punctuation marks borrowed from Greek writing. The dependence on the Greek is clear enough in that the Copts cut away from pharaonic tradition by adopting the Greek alphabet, but they linked up again with that tradition through the inventive use of decoration. Such decoration persisted for the next two centuries, using ink without additional color and rarely employing the human figure. Gradually, however, color crept in, along with the outlines of heads and small human forms.
From the eighth century on, Coptic book illumination flourished unobtrusively, principally on biblical and other religious works. Color and figurative motifs increased and were often combined with rectangular cartouches (ornamental frames) usually filled with decorative interlacing. These cartouches sometimes were at the top of a page and carried a title or continued on one or both sides of a page, sometimes completely framing it. They gave prominence to either the text or a figurative scene. Sometimes, however, scenes without any frame were inserted into the text, which filled the rest of the page. An example is the Copto-Arabic Tetraevangelium in the National Library, Paris, in regard to seventy-four gospel scenes out of seventy-seven illuminations. Often the entire page was divided into six compartments arranged two by two on three registers, as in the Copto-Arabic Tetraevangelium of the Catholic Institute in Paris.
Isolated figures or scenes may fill a whole page as in the majority of the evangelists of the two Tetraevangelia. In biblical works from the New Testament these single figures may include, in addition to the evangelists, the authors of epistles, such as Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John. Illustrating the Old Testament we find scarcely more than Moses and Job with his family represented full face, side by side. In collections of hymns or the lives of saints and martyrs, the Virgin Mary or the person written about is represented, alone or with companions. Angels were often depicted, especially Michael and Gabriel and those accompanying Mary or Saint Stephen. Especially popular among the martyrs and other saints were the saints on horseback (Menas the Miracle Worker, Mercurius, Ptolemy, and Theodorus, but not George, although he was perhaps of Egyptian origin), Stephen, John and Simeon, Cyril I, Epiphanius, and the abbots Moses the Black and Shenute.
Another important subject was the cross, either the crux ansata (looped cross, or ankh) or the cross enlarged at its extremities, which was decorated with interlacing or various smaller crosses.
The style of these illuminations is in conformity with the general evolution of Coptic style, the stages of which have been traced elsewhere (see ART, COPTIC). In the thirteenth century, if the style of the Copto-Arabic Tetraevangelium in the Vatican (Copt. 9, figs. 12, 13, 98) is Byzantine, it is an isolated instance. It was rather the Muslim influence that infiltrated the Copto-Arabic Tetraevangelium of the Catholic Institute, and it predominated in Coptic book decoration as in other genres, down to the nineteenth century.
- Cramer, M. Koptische Buchmalerei. Recklinghausen, 1964.
- Reviewed by P. du Bourguet in Bibliotheca Orientalis 23 (1966):48-50.
- Leroy, J. Les Manuscrits coptes et copto-arabes illustrés. Institut français d’archéologie de Beyrouth, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique 96. Paris, 1974. Reviewed by R. G. Coquin, Bibliotheca orientalis, 34 (1977):187-90.
- Zuntz, D. “The Two Styles of Coptic Painting.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21 (1935).
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.