The ancient civilizations of the Middle East abounded in myths, which expressed sacred truths in words. Mythological subjects were a fertile source of inspiration for artists. As one civilization succeeded another in the same area, the newer mythology gradually superseded the old, and the iconography changed accordingly. But elements of the older faith often blended with or were assimilated to the newer one or continued to exist alongside it. Thus in Roman Egypt, elements of pharaonic mythology and iconography were absorbed into Greco-Roman mythology and iconography. And in the Christian and early Muslim periods, from the mid-fifth century to the twelfth century, a great many pagan themes persisted in Coptic art.

In some instances, a pagan theme, such as rebirth, was assimilated to a Christian theme. In other instances, the pagan symbol was so often repeated that all its original religious significance was lost and it became merely a decorative device. In still other situations, the pagan symbol was retained for its magic value, reflecting the ancient Egyptian belief in the efficacy of magic, which was deemed to prevail over the new faith.


In Greek tradition, the Amazons are a nation of women warriors ruled by a queen, said to live in northern Asia Minor. Descendants of the Greek war god, Ares, they are associated with combat in such events as the Trojan War; the battle against the hero Hercules (Greek, Herakles), their enemy par excellence because he killed their queen, Hippolyta; and the invasion of Attica in vengeance against an expedition by the hero Theseus. In addition, they are linked with funeral divinities and with the cortege of the wine god, Dionysus, probably as an expression of the forces of change. A cult was devoted to them. In Egypt a demotic papyrus mentions the Amazons and their queen as allies of Petekhons (P’,-ti-Hrsw) in a military expedition to India (Volten, 1962).

In Coptic art the Amazons appear chiefly in relation to the labors of Hercules and the Dionysiac world. They are most clearly depicted in textiles; their identification remains doubtful in other media such as a small ivory carving in the State Collection of Egyptian Art, Munich. As warriors they wear a light chiton, long or short, sometimes speckled with small circles, leaving one or both breasts bare so they can wield weapons more freely. They also wear the cap of the Phrygian archers and the trousers (anaksyrides) worn by Eastern peoples. When on horseback, they are armed, either drawing a bow with an arrow fitted to it or brandishing a two-edged hatchet. The shield is on the ground, between the horse’s hoofs.

The Amazons generally appear in scenes of violence— occasionally in war, more often dueling with a hero or hunting. Representations of warfare, Amazonomachy, are, in fact, rather rare. In a textile in Jerusalem (Baginski and Tidhar, 1980, no. 13), Amazons and Greek warriors face each other belligerently, with three Amazons on horseback and two others fallen conquered. An unusual textile, from the excavations of A. Gayet at Antinoopolis (Rutschowscaya, 1984) and dating from the fourth to fifth centuries, depicts a scene with two Amazons kneeling beside a male figure who is subduing them. A textile in the Museum of Ancient Art, Milan, from the sixth to seventh centuries (D’Andria, 1968) preserves the figure of a hero grasping a kneeling Amazon by the hair, while another figure bearing a shield advances on the opposite side. This composition goes back to the shield of the Athena Parthenos by Phidias, which also served as the model for the schema of the kneeling Amazon held by the hero—when this is an isolated subject.

Far more common are the themes of the Amazon dueling with the hero and the Amazon hunting. The theme of the Amazon dueling is attested in two iconographical schemas. In the first, the Amazon riding her horse brandishes an ax while the warrior pursues her, seizes her by the wrist or by the hair, and is about to pierce her with his sword. In the second theme, the unhorsed Amazon has fallen to her knees disarmed, with her arms behind her body. The hero, seizing her by the hair, pulls her head back and prepares to stab her.

The first schema has been identified in a textile from the Benaki Museum, Athens (du Bourguet, 1964, no. 242) and in a textile from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow (Shurinova, 1967, no. 7). Several other examples that have remained unidentified or have been wrongly interpreted, may be cited, such as, for example, a piece from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Kendrick, 1920, no. 100), and another from the Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, France (Cauderlier, 1986, no. 158). The ax brandished by the Amazon, who is always in the same position, seems transformed into a cross, a portrayal that has given much food for thought (perhaps too much) to those who have studied it.

The second schema may be recognized in many examples, ranging from very legible representations (Kendrick, 1920, no. 56; Akashi, 1953, no. 12), through a progressive stylization (Shurinova, 1967, no. 86; du Bourguet, 1964, no. 177; Forrer, 1893, P IX, 8), to an almost total disaggregation of the figures (du Bourguet, 1964, F 223; Kendrick, 1920, no. 57). A subcategory constitutes those renderings that appear to be divided horizontally by the hero’s cloak.

In late examples (seventh century) of this schema, the figures are no longer in contact. In the London textile mentioned by Kendrick, it is the Amazon herself who brings her hand to her head, which recalls the original formula. The hero, here clearly Hercules, leans on his club, while a cupid in flight holds the crown of victory above his head. Although it is not easy to identify definitely the two protagonists of the scene, it seems that the Coptic artist usually tended to adopt, fix, and repeat a schema, chosen from among the great variety of material in the traditional repertoire. In this textile the artist apparently wanted to memorialize the duel between Hercules and Hippolyta, the ninth of his twelve labors, in which Hercules wrests from her the precious girdle that was a gift from Ares. Such an interpretation is supported by the fact that in other textiles this representation figures among the labors of Hercules. Moreover, the hero is recognizable beyond a doubt in both the Athens and London textiles.

The theme of the Amazon hunting, which seems most widespread in the seventh century, can be seen on textiles notably in the medallions—often in silk—that enclose two Amazons, each astride a rearing horse and symmetrically separated in relation to a central axis (von Falke, 1913, nos. 45 and 47; Wessel, 1964, no. 126; Kendrick, 1922, nos. 810-16). Wearing short chitons and long, flowing scarves, they hold their bows ready to shoot the felines pictured in the lower part of the medallion. Two dogs also appear on occasion (Kendrick, 1922, no. 821). On other textiles, women pictured on horseback wearing Phrygian caps and accompanied by animals of the hunt should probably be recognized as Amazons (Wulff and Volbach, 1926, p. 46). The medallions, which are also found on textiles from Byzantium and Syria, are often admirable pieces of work. Probably executed at the request of a cultivated and refined clientele in those cities most imbued with Hellenized culture such as Alexandria and Panopolis (AKHMIM), they circulated throughout the entire Mediterranean basin.

  • Akashi, K. Coptic Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt in the Collection of the Kanegafuchi Spinning Company. Kyoto, 1953.
  • Baginski, A., and A. Tidhar. Textiles from Egypt 4th-13th Centuries C.E. Jerusalem, 1980.
  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Petit Palais. Paris, 1964.
  • . Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée National du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
  • Cauderlier, P. Les Tissus coptes. Catalogue raisonné du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Dijon, 1986.
  • D’Andria, F. “Un tessuto copto con Amazonomachia del Museo del Castello Sforzesco a Milano.” Aegyptus 43 (1968):141-46. Falke, O. von. Kunstgeschichte der Seidenweberei. Berlin, 1913. Forrer, R. Die frühchristlichen Alterthümer aus dem Gräberfelde von Achmim-Panopolis. Strasbourg, 1893.
  • Kendrick, A. F. Catalogue of Textiles from Burying-Grounds in Egypt, 3 vols. London, 1920, 1921, 1922.
  • Rutschowscaya, M.-H. “Un Ensemble de tapisseries coptes à décor mythologique.” La Revue du Louvre et des musées de France 5-6 (1984):319-25.
  • Volten, A. Ägypter und Amazonen. Eine demotische Erzählung des Inaros-Petubastis-Kreises aus zwei Papyri der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek (Pap. Dem. Vindob. 6165 und 6165A). Vienna, 1962.
  • Wessel, K. Koptische Kunst. Recklinghausen, 1963.



Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty, who probably originated in Asia or Cyprus. She was the most popular of all the Greek divinities whose worship had spread to Egypt. The Egyptians probably found the family links between Aphrodite, her lover, the war god Ares, and her son, Eros, familiar because of the relations between their own beloved divine family—the goddess Isis, her husband, Osiris, and their son, Horus. Aphrodite was identified with Isis, who had already fused with the horned sky goddess Hathor, and incorporated some of the Egyptian divinity’s attributes in her own appearance. Terra-cotta figurines honored in Alexandrian temples up to the third century A.D. have the arms close-set to the body in the Egyptian style and bear on their head the disk of the sun between cow’s horns characteristic of Hathor.

In another version of Aphrodite’s story, she was believed to be born of the foam of the sea and was blown to land, possibly in Cyprus in a conch shell. As Aphrodite Anadyomene (“rising from the waters”), under the influence of the Platonic concept of ideas, she became the symbol of spiritual love.

A new influence, this time Christian, affected the myth of Aphrodite. According to a Syrian legend, Nonnos, a fifth-century bishop of Heliopolis, was present at the Council of Antioch. There he played a decisive role in the conversion of the celebrated courtesan Pelagia, who was dedicated to Aphrodite Anadyomene. Pelagia is said to have withdrawn to Gethsemane in solitude as Pelagia the anchorite. Thus the pagan sea-born goddess Aphrodite Anadyomene seems to have become associated with the rebirth of the soul in the water of Christian baptism. As much Platonic as Christian in inspiration, she appeared with remarkable frequency in Coptic art, especially in Middle Egypt, as late as the Muslim period. She is represented as a woman, a conch shell, or a cross in reliefs in stone as at the monastery of DAYR APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara or in wood in the monastery at Bawit. She also appears in tapestries, now in the Louvre, Paris.

  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Collection l’art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
  • Francia, L. del. “Un tessuto copto con nascita di Afrodite.” In Studie Materiali, pp. 209-221. Rome, 1984.
  • Heckscher, W. S. The Anadyomene in the Mediaeval Tradition, pp. 1-38. Reprinted from Netherlands Year-book for History of Art, 1956.


Apollo and Daphne

In Greek mythology Apollo was the god of the sun, archery, soothsaying, medicine, and music. He had many amorous escapades, including the vain pursuit of the nymph Daphne (see below), who was changed by the earth goddess into a laurel tree to avoid capture. Coptic artists occasionally depicted the story of Apollo and Daphne in various pieces of sculpture and textiles.

A beautiful ivory carving of the fifth to sixth century in the National Museum of Ravenna bears a scene in which a nude Apollo is playing his lyre in an effort to charm the unhappy Daphne, entrapped in the tree. The figures are separated by a swan, a bird sacred to Apollo. The same theme is found in two textiles in the Louvre. It magnificently decorates one of the tapestry squares of a hanging known as the Shawl of Sabine (fifth to sixth century). Here the god is depicted as a hunter holding his bow in one hand and taking an arrow from his quiver with the other. He is nude under the cloak thrown over his shoulder. His lyre leans against a column entwined by two garlands in a sign of consecration. Daphne appears in the laurel tree, unclothed but bedecked with earrings, bracelets, and a necklace. At the instant of her metamorphosis, she offers Apollo a flower in the shape of a cross, which gives a Christian significance to the scene. The other textile, a medallion of the ninth century, shows the same subject but is poor in style and difficult to identify.

  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte, pp. 47, 88, 89. Paris, 1968.



Ariadne was a Minoan princess and vegetation goddess who was the spouse of Dionysus, Greek god of the vine (see below). According to one version of the myth, Ariadne escaped from Crete with the Greek hero Theseus but was left by him on Naxos, the island of Dionysus. Her elevation to divinity through the god’s love symbolized the ascent of the soul to the divine light and immortality.

Dionysus and his retinue—the shepherd god Pan, satyrs and sileni (woodland spirits), maenads or bacchantes (female devotees), grape-gathering cupids, and Ariadne—were frequently depicted in Coptic art. Nevertheless, the only certain representation of Ariadne is in a tapestry square in the Museum of Fine Arts, Vienna. Within the square, framed by a scroll of acanthus leaves with fruit, flowers, and birds, is her bust surmounted by her name in Greek. Ariadne, seen full-face with her eyes turned toward the left, has on her head a jeweled diadem and wears a necklace with a bulla (hollow pendant) and earrings. Her head stands out against an aureole, an attribute of the ancient solar deities and a symbol of immortality. This square is the counterpart of an identical square in the museum representing Dionysus’ head and shoulders in the same attitude. The fact that they match suggests that if a tapestry square in the Louvre that presents a masculine bust crowned with ivy is indeed Dionysus, then we must recognize Ariadne in a similar square also in the Louvre. In this piece her finery consists of a diadem, earrings, and a necklace adorned with pendant pomegranates. All these squares show the same style of round face with large ringed eyes and are marked by a slight shading of colors, reminiscent of bas-relief, that is characteristic of the fifth century.

  • Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée national du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
  • Wessel, K. L’Art copte, figs. 112, 113. Brussels, 1964.


Bellerophon and the Chimera

Bellerophon was a Greek hero from Corinth who rode the divine winged horse Pegasus and slew the fire-breathing, lion-headed Chimera. The two figures symbolize the triumph of good over evil, a parallel to the ancient Egyptian myth of the sun god Horus who conquers the evil god Seth, represented as a monster, or various victorious Christian saints: Sisinnios, conqueror of Alabastria; George, slayer of the dragons; Michael, conqueror of Lucifer; and other saints on horseback.

Bellerophon and the Chimera appear only once in Coptic art, in a tapestry medallion in the sixth-century Shawl of Sabine in the Louvre. They may be given a Christian interpretation, as appears in the nearby small panel of Daphne, holding out a cruciform flower to the pursuing Apollo, perhaps to keep him at a distance.

  • Bourguet, P. du. “L’Art copte. Petit Palais.” In Catalogue d’Exposition, no. 152. Paris, 1964.



In ancient Egypt, dance was closely linked with many aspects of life—religious ceremonies, funeral rites, and agricultural festivals. Dancers, therefore, are among the oldest and most frequently represented subjects in pharaonic art. In the period of the Ptolemies, dancing was associated with the bacchantes, who took part in Dionysiac rites of Greek origin, which probably blended with older Egyptian rites. In Christian times, dance did not vanish. It continued to be part of seasonal festivals such as saints’ birthdays, which still exist, or was an element of pilgrimages, often confused with festivals, or was simply an expression of joy in an African country. The fruit of vine of the Gospels was substituted without scruple for the exaltation of wine in Dionysiac celebrations.

Thus dancing is one of the most favored themes in Coptic art from the second or third century to its disappearance in the twelfth century. Its long life is explained by the changing symbolism attached to it. A notable example of the Christianization of the Egyptian dancing girl or Greek bacchante is on the handle of an eighth-century bronze saucer (patera). The upright figure has her legs crossed and holds a composite cross above her head.

On stonework, bronze vases, or molded clay forms, the dancer, male or female, is an isolated figure in relief. A bronze figure of a dancing girl in the Louvre from the sixth century has straight legs and raised arms and holds a sistrum (instrument like a tambourine). Generally, however, these dancers are recognized by their crossed legs, which become rigid like crossed sticks after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, when Coptic art declined. An example is a stone relief in the Coptic Museum, Cairo.

Dancers are found especially in textiles. They evolve in style, pose, and costume in three stages. At first, by means of hatching (fine criss-crossed lines) achieved with the flying shuttle, the figures present the illusion of modeling in the round, and a great variety of poses unfolds freely and endlessly. The dancer, male or female, is easily confused with the putto (cupid), especially when the dancer is holding a winged creature. Male and female couples are often found. The man usually wears a loincloth. The woman often wears only a long necklace and a scarf on one arm. Occasionally she wears a loose robe leaving one breast bare.

In the second stage, the poses stiffen and the body is tending toward a silhouette with limbs out of proportion. In the third stage, after the Muslim conquest, the figure becomes nothing but a full- face, stiff silhouette, which becomes progressively more disproportionate, until in the Fatimid period (10th-12th century) the head rests on the legs. The couples give way to isolated individuals, usually girls. The dominant posture is both arms raised, with or without castanets, and the legs parallel instead of crossed. If she is not holding castanets, the girl dancer may have on one arm a scarf, wreath, plant, or shepherd’s crook. A male dancer usually has one arm raised or both arms bent with each hand holding an implement that might be a trident or a plant. By this time both the male and female dancer are fully clothed in a long robe falling from the shoulders.

  • Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture. London, 1963.
  • Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée national du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
  •  . L’Art copte. Collection l’art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.



In Greek mythology, the nymph Daphne is the daughter of the river god, Peneus, and the beloved of Leucippus, son of Oenomeus. She is pursued by the god Apollo, whose love she rejects, and when he is about to seize her, the nymph begs help from the earth goddess, who immediately causes her to disappear by transforming her into a laurel tree.

In sculpture, according to well-known examples, the nymph alone seems to have found preference over the double representation of Apollo and Daphne that appears in other media. A group of reliefs based on mythological themes has been discovered at Ahnas al-Madinah in Middle Egypt, but it cannot be determined whether they came from a pagan temple or a Christian church. Two of these reliefs, from the fifth century, in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, depict Daphne, unclothed and bereft of her jewels, clinging with both arms to the tree branches. In a relief (from the fifth to sixth century) from Shaykh ‘Abadah, now in the Louvre, Daphne is shown nude, her legs vanishing into the tree and her neck ornamented with a necklace of heavy bullae in the form of flowers. She is holding the laurel tree with a gesture analagous to that of Aphrodite Anadyomene, rising from the sea twisting her long hair.

Whether these three reliefs bear any Christian significance remains obscure, but the interpretation of an arched stela of the late period, in the Louvre, is clear. Daphne is depicted in an attitude of prayer within a beaded medallion, which is placed on a column flanked by two dolphins. A funerary inscription starting with a cross runs around the border. Thus the Christianization of Daphne is accomplished. The nymph in the medallion derives from funerary portraits in medallions on Roman sarcophagi, and the dolphins are symbolic of Christ. It seems clear that the resurrection of Daphne in the form of a laurel tree must be assimilated to a second and more important birth—that of the soul into eternal life.

  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte, pp. 86-121. Collection l’art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
  • Coche de la Ferté, E. L’Antiquité chrétienne au Musée du Louvre, p. 88. Paris, 1958.
  • Duthuit, G. La Sculpture copte, pp. 35ff. Paris, 1931.



The Greek wine god Dionysus was the focus of a mystery religion introduced into Egypt at the time of its conquest by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. In fact, Alexander justified his claim to govern Egypt by declaring himself to be a descendent of Zeus-Amon and Dionysus. That claim was appropriated by his successors, the Ptolemies, who developed the Dionysiac cult. It flourished widely during the Ptolemaic period and the first three centuries of the Christian era. Dionysus and his retinue was the pagan subject most frequently depicted by Coptic artists. His popularity was probably due to the Egyptians’ interest in mystery religions and especially to the emphasis given his cult by the Ptolemies.

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and a mortal, Semele. She, pregnant with Dionysus, was destroyed by the god’s lightning when he appeared in his divine splendor. Zeus then had to carry the baby to term in his thigh—hence the baby’s name “Twice-born.” Hera’s vengeance against her husband’s child constantly pursued him. She drove insane those to whom he had been entrusted, and Dionysus, transformed by Zeus into a kid, was reared by nymphs. As an adult, he discovered the vine and its use. Himself driven mad by Hera, he wandered through the world until the mother goddess Cybele-Rhea cured him, whereupon he departed on a path of conquest, mounted on his chariot drawn by panthers and adorned with vine tendrils and ivy leaves. A cortege of sileni, bacchantes, and satyrs attended him in his travels. Eventually Dionysus descended into the underworld to ask Hades to release his mother, Semele. Triumphant, he was welcomed into heaven.

Celebrated by Nonnos of in his epic poem the Dionysiacs in the fourth century A.D., he appears as the envoy from the gods sent to comfort distressed mankind and bring to them the vine, which is a symbol of rebirth.

Dionysus is generally depicted as a guide, holding a thyrsus, a long staff decorated with ivy and tipped with a pine cone or a bunch of grapes. Most often nude, he has the chlamys, a cloak of Macedonian origin, thrown over his shoulder, and is shod with embades (“felt shoes”), a souvenir of his sojourn in India. He is pictured as blond, at least wherever color plays a role, and his curly locks are crowned with flowers, ivy, and vines. He is widely represented by sculptures in stone, wood, and ivory, and in the textiles of Coptic Egypt. The Louvre conserves a relief in limestone dating from the fourth century, whose provenance is probably Antinoopolis (Shaykh ‘Abadah) wherein Dionysus is shown emerging from vine branches. He is easily recognized by his embades. His pose is extremely dynamic; his hair is curly, and he is nude, not even wearing a chlamys. His attendants, particularly the grape-picking cupids, are portrayed the same way and are full of motion, unlike the stiff, hieratic gods, according to M.-H. Rutschowscaya.

Dionysus is also pictured leaning against a pillar, with his legs crossed and his right hand placed on a sort of vegetal diadem, in a limestone relief in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, coming perhaps from Ahnas al-Madinah and attributed to the sixth century. He is similarly portrayed in a fifth-century textile called Dionysus and his Attendant, in the Louvre. The symbolism of this pose has been demonstrated at length by M. T. Picard-Schmitter, who saw therein a blending of the pharaonic myth of Osiris and the myth of Dionysus. The god, holding a vegetal diadem similar to Osiris’ crown of justification, is shown in his triumphant resurrection from the world of the dead as a guide for mankind toward life after death.

Remembering that Dionysus was the originator of viticulture and that wine was already, during the pharaonic epoch, a source of eternity, Coptic weavers frequently pictured Dionysus as emerging from a vine coming out from a two-handled vase. The vine’s branches are also inhabited by goats, hares, and birds. The most representative textile bearing this motif is in the Austrian Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, wherein Dionysus appears nude, nonchalantly leaning upon his thyrsus, holding the chlamys over his shoulder, and shod with embades. His left hand caresses his favorite animal, the panther.

The iconography of Dionysus would be incomplete without mentioning the existence of his “official” portraits. There are, in fact, many textiles wherein his name is inscribed in complete letters alongside his half-length portrait, for example, a textile in the Vienna Art Museum. Such portraits have their counterparts picturing his wife Ariadne. Dionysus is also pictured afoot, as on a ribbon fragment in the Art Museum in Düsseldorf. These portrayals give an irrefutable identity to the personage represented, and thereby permit one to identify as Dionysus all pieces of textiles or sculptures in wood, stone, or ivory that are iconographically similar.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, scholars wondered if the cult of Dionysus had not been important in the origins of Christianity in Egypt, notably because of the dual role of victim and savior played by both Dionysus and Christ and the importance of wine in Dionysiac ritual and in the Eucharist. It is true that the vine appears frequently in both catacomb paintings and Coptic art. It does not seem, however, that the personage of Dionysus was ever assimilated to that of the Christ crucified at Golgotha, though the Greek god was a figure of great human and religious significance. Nonetheless, owing to its frequency, the theme of the vine must have been imperceptibly blended with that of the true vine of the Christians mentioned in Jn 15:1 without any reference to the pagan god.

  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Petit Palais. Paris, 1964.
  • . L’Art copte. Collection l’art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
  • Brun de Saint Hippolyte, C. La Contamination du mythe d’Osiris et du mythe de Dionysos dans les tissus coptes. Paris, 1984.
  • Effenberger, A. Koptische Kunst. Leipzig, 1975.
  • Grimal, P. Dictionnaire de la mythologie grecque et romaine. Paris, 1963.
  • Jeanmaire, H. Dionysos, Histoire du culte de Bacchus. Paris, 1970. Koptische Kunst. Christentum am Nil. Catalog of the Exposition at Villa Hügel. Essen, 1963.
  • Picard-Schmitter, M. T. “Une Tapisserie hellénistique d’Antinoé du Musée du Louvre.” Monuments Piot 52 (1962):27-75. Rutschowscaya, M.-H. “Une Tenture copte aux amours vendangeurs. “In La Revue du Louvre, fasc. 3. Paris, 1980. Turcan, R. Les Sarcophages romains à représentations dionysiaques. Paris, 1966.



Hercules was a Greek hero noted for his great bravery, strength, and good humor. The son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, he was driven mad by Zeus’ vengeful wife, Hera, and killed his own wife and children. After performing twelve labors as penance, he became immortal. In Egypt Hercules was assimilated to Horus, and two towns were named Herakleopolis in his honor, but there are few representations of him in Coptic art. A stela from the Roman period now in the Louvre shows him in a niche of Egyptian inspiration. His long chase of the hind of Cerynea, one of his twelve labors, can be recognized in a third-century tapestry preserved in the Benaki Museum. In another tapestry from that museum, the Amazon queen Hippolyte, killed by Hercules in one of his labors, is surrounded by the figures of Hercules, his second wife, Deianira, and the centaur Nessus. Hercules appears on four reliefs of the fifth or sixth century in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Two of them, from Ahnas al- Madinah or Herakleopolis, show his head and shoulders only, surrounded by ornamental foliage. In the third relief, he is bearded, wears only a draped mantle, and holds his club as he fights the Nemean lion, one of his labors. This dynamic composition includes a second character, wearing a feline skin, which no doubt represents Hercules after his victory. In the fourth relief, he stands in heroic nudity between the lion and his club, crowned by two Victories. On a piece of tapestry in the Coptic Museum, the lion leaps upon the hero, who is armed with his club. Numerous Coptic tapestry decorations and sculptures show a man at grips with a feline beast. This iconography perhaps derives from the feat of Heracles but has been applied to simple hunting or circus scenes.

  • Duthuit, G. La Sculpture copte, p. 39, and pl. 24. Paris, 1931. Zaloscer, H., “Une scène de chasse sur une architrave au Musée copte.” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 8 (1942):145-63.



Horus was the Egyptian sun god who avenged the death of his father, Osiris, by killing Osiris’ brother and murderer, the god Seth. Osiris, who is frequently represented with a falcon’s head, symbolizes good. Seth, in the form of a monster, symbolizes evil. The myth of Horus, traditional in pharaonic literature and iconography, was emphasized just before the Ptolemaic period, when a temple was built to him in Khargah, and in the Ptolemaic period, as evidenced by his temple in Idfu. In the Roman and even the early Coptic period, the god, still falcon-headed, is shown as a foot soldier in a Roman legion.

An equestrian representation of Horus as a auxiliary, though remaining pagan, appears in relief on a late sixth-century fragment of an ornamental openwork sandstone window now in the Louvre. Probably the original window showed the whole story. In the fragment the mounted Horus appears in profile, still with a falcon’s head, transfixing the Sethian crocodile with his lance. The pagan subject and the realistically rounded forms of the horse originally suggested a date in the third century. But the equestrian rank accorded to the god at a period when it was denied to Copts, and the foreshortening of the horse to flatten out the relief forms make the sixth-century date more plausible. The fragment may be compared with the mounted emperor Justinian in the Barberini ivory of the middle or late sixth century now in the Louvre, which is more refined in material and more skillfully modeled, although showing a slightly mechanical classicism characteristic of Constantinopolitan work of that time. The significance of the fragment, the triumph of good over evil, was inspired by the victorious emperor. The fragment bears witness, as do other Coptic sculptures in different techniques, to the survival of some pagan Coptic centers in a largely Christian country. It probably came from a sanctuary of Horus in a small town, such as Jirja or Abu Qurqas, whose name was the origin or Jirjis, the Coptic form of “George.” Thus the pharaonic myth of Horus was assimilated into Christianity with the creation of the legend of Saint GEORGE, a martyr who rides on a horse and fights with a dragon.

  • Boreaux, C. Guide sommaire, pp. 274-75. Département des antiquités egyptiennes. Paris, 1932.
  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte, pp. 95-96, and pl. p. 78. L’art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
  • Rutschowscaya, M.-H. La Sculpture copte, p. 4, ill. 5. Petits guides des grands musées, no. 84. Musée du Louvre. Paris, 1981.



Jason was a legendary Greek hero who sailed in the Argo with the Argonauts to Cholcis and brought the Golden Fleece and the witch princess Medea back to Greece. Three rectangular limestone panels are the only known examples of Coptic art devoted to the story of Jason. The most complete is in the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. The other two, fragmentary, are known from photographs at Princeton University. According to M. Bell, the borders of florets or knotted ribbons and traces of detachment on one side indicate that these panels were originally in pairs and must have been attached to some surface, perhaps a wall. The figures, sculpted in low relief, form a lattice. Since the subject was widely used in funerary art, the panels may have adorned the screen of a shrine sheltering a tomb.

On the Kansas City panel, Jason tries to lay hold of the Golden Fleece, which is hanging from an oak. Near him, Medea, sitting on a throne, holds a branch of juniper in one hand and in the other the cup from which the serpent who guards the Fleece comes to drink, as described in Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautika. Jason is accompanied by an Argonaut holding a javelin, while two soldiers asleep in the lower part of the panel illustrate in sculpture the narrative as told by Diodorus Siculus (4. 48, 1-5). The right upper corner is occupied by the Argo waiting on the tide for the return of the Argonauts, while the left corner presents a bust, perhaps of the muse Calliope, veiled, reading a scroll. The same iconography appears on vases from Italy of the fourth century B.C. and, in the Roman period, on sarcophagi, gems, and a Campanian plaque in terra-cotta (in the British Museum, London) to which this panel is most closely similar.

The second panel, of which only the upper half is preserved, presents the goddess Victory crowning some personage (lost) and a horseman, possibly Jason.

The third panel illustrates the flight of Jason and Medea presumably after the capture of the Golden Fleece. Only the busts of Jason and Medea remain, as well as the Argo in the upper right-hand corner and two guards in the left corner.

The loss of classic proportions and the treatment of space without illusionist effect have led some scholars to compare these panels with the sculptures of Ahnas al-Madinah and Oxyrhynchus in the late fourth or early fifth century and to consider them as being of Egyptian manufacture. Their originality rests in their narrative character, rare on sculptures in stone but more frequent in fabrics or ivories, which may have served as models.

  • Bell, M. “A Coptic Jason Relief.” Gesta, International Center of Medieval Art 18 (1979):45-52.
  • Weitzmann, K., ed. Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century. Catalog of the Exhibition, no. 214. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1979.



In Greek mythology Leda was a queen of Sparta who, beloved of Zeus in the form of a swan, became the mother of Helen of Troy. The theme of Leda and the swan appears on various relief sculptures from Ahnas al-Madinah or the Nilometer of Rodah. They are all assigned to the fifth and sixth centuries because their crude appearance resembles the style of other works of the period. The coarse treatment of a pagan subject at such a late date is surprising in a period that we think of as predominantly Christian. Because the subject does not admit of Christian symbolism and is not found after the sixth century, these reliefs probably belonged to local pagan temples, where since the days of the Ptolemies the pharaonic gods were gradually replaced by Greco-Roman divinities. Such temples were swept clear by Christianity in the sixth century or abandoned in the seventh century after the Muslim conquest.

  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte, p. 121. Collection l’art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
  • Drioton, E. Les Sculptures coptes du nilomètre de Rodah. Cairo, 1942.
  • Remondon, R. “Egypte Chrétienne.” In Dictionnaire de spiritualité, Vol. 4, pp. 532ff. Paris, 1959.



Nereids, in Greek mythology, were the daughters of Nereus, a sea god. As maidens associated with water, they supply a lively motif in Coptic art. The cultural, political, and economic exchanges between Rome and Alexandria and the common element of water in the Nile River and the seas around Greece certainly favored the popularity of the theme in Egypt. The Nereids appeared originally in mosaic floors in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Later they are found in Coptic stone reliefs and in decorative tapestry orbicula (circles) and bands on tunics and hangings. They may be part of sea cycles involving Poseidon, lord of the sea; the Nereid Thetis; or Aphrodite Anadyomene; or of river cycles centering on the Nile or the Tiber. In the Nile cycles they are often confused with putti. Sometimes they appear on their own and may offer a cup, suggesting a religious implication.

As a pagan motif, nereids survived in little pagan pockets right down to the last manifestations of Coptic art in the twelfth century. An especially fine tapestry panel from the seventh century is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. As a Christian motif, from the fifth to the twelfth century, nereids are sometimes accompanied by a cross or are shown with a nimbus supporting a cross. Even if such an emblem is absent, it does not mean the motif is secular. Its Christian meaning remains implicit because its reference to Aphrodite rising from the sea suggests the internal transformation of the soul in the water of baptism.

  • Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1, no. F167. Musée National du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
  • . L’Art copte, pp. 140 ff., passim. Collection l’art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
  • Koptische Kunst. Christentum am Nil. Catalog of the Exposition at Villa Hügel. Essen, 1963.


The Nile God

The Egyptians have always seen a supernatural power in their life-giving river. Myths, legends, and festivals engendered by its yearly flooding have survived the civilizations and religions adopted successively by the country. During the pharaonic period, the Nile, the source of prosperity, was represented as plump tutelary spirits laden with gifts. Greco-Roman art depicted it in the image of its river gods: as an old man, bearded, half-reclining, crowned with lotus, and holding a horn of plenty, an ear of corn, or a water plant. The goddess Euthenia and putti were associated with him.

Coptic art, inspired by Greco-Roman iconography, has continued to use the Nile as a theme. Sometimes it is personified as an old man in a Nilotic setting. He may be a bust, a full figure, or indolently lying down with a mantle draped over his legs and his nude torso emerging from it; he is crowned with aquatic plants, holds a horn of plenty, and may be accompanied by putti or a goddess. A few examples in various media survive. One is a tapestry medallion of the late second century in the Pushkin Museum. A capital of the third or fourth century from Ahnas al-Madinah is a landmark in the transition of the iconography from Greco- Roman to Coptic. The figure is still of an old man crowned with plants, holding a napkin, and flanked by putti, but its style, influenced by Palmyran art, is Coptic in its frontal pose, decorative appearance of the diadem, and wide-open eyes in a disproportionate face. Another architectural sculpture of two centuries later, in the Brooklyn Museum, presents the Nile as an old man lying nonchalantly among lotus blossoms. Folds of flesh underline his chest, and his drapery evokes the course of the river. The decorative treatment of his crown recalls the earlier Nile on the capital, but the whole figure belongs to Coptic art.

On an ivory pyx of the fourth or fifth century in the Wiesbaden Museum, the iconography is identical, but the workmanship is finer because the material is softer. In two tapestry orbicula in the Louvre, the Nile is executed in the style of sixth-century Coptic fabrics. Finally, a seventh-century wall painting discovered at shows a man half-lying on an overturned amphora; the inscription suggests that he may be a new allegory of the Nile. Thus the image of the Nile god, having become a simple allegory of the prosperity dispensed by the flood, was kept for its decorative value by artists who wished to enrich the Nilotic evocations so highly prized by Coptic art.

  • Andreux, G., and R. G. Coquin. “Septième campagne de fouilles aux Kellia.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 81 (1981):174-75, and fig. 5(c).
  • Badawy, A. Coptic Art and Archaeology. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1978.
  • Pfister, R. “Nil, nilomètre et l’orientation du paysage hellénistique.” Revue des arts asiatiques 7 (1931):120-40.


Nilotic Scenes

In contrast to the sun, a permanent and unchanging source of light and head in Egypt, the Nile from the beginning has dispensed benefits only through human collaboration. The Ptolemaic and Roman governments in turn recognized the river god and took careful account of the seasonal rise and fall of the river measured on a Nilometer. The Copts were no less aware of the importance of the river and its god and, like the pagans, paid him their respects. This interest in the river naturally passed into Egyptian art.

During the Roman period when Greco-Roman themes generally replaced pharaonic themes, the range of subjects involving the Nile continued to appear in art. Alexandria profoundly influenced the art of the Mediterranean basin, and Roman art influenced that of Alexandria. For example, Nilotic scenes notably provide the subject matter for a famous mosaic in Palestrina, Italy. The river god is pictured with Romanized features. An expanse of water represents his Egyptian domain and is crossed by putti guiding small boats. Other putti ride marine animals and chase aquatic birds in the intense abundance of life that enlivens the river and the vegetation it creates far beyond its banks.

Coptic art does not conceive whole panoramas of this kind. It is satisfied either to borrow isolated details, such as one or several Nereids in a specific scene, or to use Nereids and putti for decoration to accompany a portrait of a mythological scene used as a central motif. The putti often mingle with the Nereids, taking on feminine characteristics. The greatest variety prevails, outdoing Pompeiian frescoes in inventive capacity. Such treatment of the theme may be seen in Coptic reliefs and in tapestry or bouclé decorations on shawls, tunics, or cushion covers, where the narrow shapes of the orbicula, squares, and bands required restrained subjects.

The stylistic treatment of the figures evolved from the picturesque realism of Hellenistic Alexandria to a deformed schematization from the sixth to the twelfth century. The loss of realism may be due to carelessness or the routine repetition required by a craft, but it is most often the result of the search for imaginative ornamentation that is peculiar to Coptic art. The figures may be used purely decoratively, without thought of their former mythological significance, or they may convey some sense of ancient magic power, or they may have taken on Christian symbolism. The processions of Nereids and putti may be linked with Aphrodite Anadyomene, symbolizing rebirth of the soul in the waters of baptism, or with Dionysus, patron of the vine, who was assimilated to the Christ as the True Vine.

  • Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Paris, 1968.


Pastoral Scenes

Bucolic or pastoral poetry was a creation of the Hellenistic age, beginning in Greek with Theocritus and then Longus, and in Latin, with Virgil. The taste in Hellenistic art for genre figures such as market women, foreigners, and cripples, and for individualized portraits expresses this literary tradition by showing the same new interest in nature. Roman art, particularly North African mosaics, continued to draw subject matter from it.

Although pagan iconography in Coptic art consists chiefly of Dionysian motifs, a few representations reflect the pastoral literary tradition. Pastoral images are related to representations of specific mythological events or personages.

A silver dish from Thebes, which may have been made at Alexandria (dated to the fifth or sixth century but possibly a little earlier), exemplifies bucolic scenes in Coptic art. On it a shepherdess with her child on her back and carrying a basket of fruit, directs a flock of sheep led by a goat, in a landscape with simple buildings and a sheepdog. A similar expression of Alexandrian style is seen on a fragmentary ivory carving from Ramlah showing carpenters at work, which expresses the interest in nature and everyday life that accompanies the development of the literary pastoral tradition.

The Coptic continuation of bucolic iconography is better represented in textiles. Notable is an incomplete set of tapestry ornaments in muted colors, cut from a wool fabric, one of which belongs to the Cluny Museum in Paris, the others to the Brooklyn Museum. They depict scenes of shepherds, old and young, caring for sheep and cattle, preparing food, and drawing water in the company of women and children (one a Nubian boy), dogs, and flute players. These ornaments are an astonishing witness to the influence of book illustrations of the period in this classicizing tradition. They are datable to the fifth to sixth centuries on the basis of comparisons with other objects. A large linen-and-wool tapestry square in the St. Louis Art Museum showing an old man milking a goat in a vine arbor, though influenced by Dionysian iconography in its use of the vine, is another bucolic scene. It may date from the fifth century. A small number of tapestry tunic ornaments of the fifth century and later show scenes of peasant life, including a mother and child, flute players, a peasant bearing a yoke, a milking scene, and women feeding chickens. The iconography of even these tunic ornaments is not always purely bucolic. The influence of mythology can be seen in the man striking the serpent, a motif inspired by the labor of Hercules in which he killed the serpent guarding the golden apples of the Hesperides.

On many more common textiles, the representations of musicians have been so much influenced by Dionysian iconography that even flute players cannot be taken as having bucolic significance. In the same way, putti with ducks or animals are usually comparable in pose to putti in marine scenes. Even the rare representations of shepherds carrying sheep may have been influenced by Orphic mythology.

It is clear, therefore, that pastoral scenes with an undoubted claim to being in the true Hellenistic literary tradition are very rare in Coptic art in all media.

  • Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300. London, 1963.
  • Thompson, D. Coptic Textiles in the Brooklyn Museum, pp. 18, 48-49. Brooklyn, N.Y., 1971.
  • Weitzmann, K., ed. Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, nos. 227-30, 231, 232,235. Catalog of the Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1979.


The Seasons

The theme of the seasons suggested the cosmic cycle of the year and soon became symbolic of eternity. It appears in Greco-Roman art in busts in Pompeii in the first century. Christians later used the theme to evoke eternity in its fullest, spiritual sense. The theme appears in the form of a putto or his head often surrounded by plants in wall paintings in the Roman catacombs of the Early Christian period. The Copts used the theme in two variants. The more common is heads of putti inspired by the catacomb putti woven in boucle (looped pile) medallions of the fourth century in the Louvre and the Museum of the Arts, Lyons. The heads are full- or three- quarter view in colors, unlike the mosaics of the period.

The second variant, of which there is only one example, is found in two tapestry fragments in the Louvre that formed part of a set of decorations on the front and back of a tunic. They consist of two haloed allegorical figures representing winter and spring. Winter, warmly clad in a mantle with a hood, holds a small bottle and a rod. Near its head is a duck, head downward, no doubt symbolizing hunting. The second figure has arms and shoulders bare and is lifting up its headdress with the aid of a blossoming branch. These fragments are noteworthy because each figure is accompanied by a Coptic inscription “winter” and “spring.” Thus they can be placed in a series of representations of the seasons. Their cast of countenance and the form of their eye sockets suggests a fifth-century date.

  • Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée National du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
  • . La Peinture paléochrétienne. Paris, 1964.
  • Hanfmann, G. M. A. The Season Sarcophages in Dumbarton Oaks. Cambridge, Mass., 1931.
  • Turcan, R. Les Sarcophages à représentations dionysiaques. Paris, 1966.



In Greek mythology, Thetis was a Nereid who was the mother of the hero Achilles. Although Nereids appear frequently in Coptic sculpture and textiles, Thetis is a rare subject. The only figure that may be securely identified as Thetis exists in a small Coptic textile, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Woven in purple wool on linen, the panel is close in style and format to a roundel of Iphigenia in the State Museum, Frankfurt, and probably dates from the sixth century. The London textile represents Thetis at the forge of the blacksmith god Hephaestus, as he makes new armor for Achilles, an episode in Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad. The figures of Thetis and Hephaestus are drawn from familiar Hellenistic types, known through Roman replicas in Pompeian frescoes. The inclusion of the nude figure of Achilles is conflated from another version represented on Roman sarcophagi and wall paintings in the Casa dei Dioscuri in Pompeii. The Homeric image, however, has been transformed into a Coptic expression of eschatological belief appropriate to its function as an ornament on a burial tunic or a shroud. Based on the Aetheiopis, an ancient epic cycle, the portrait in a medallion suspended from a tree introduces a symbolic allusion to the immortality of Achilles by representing the helmeted hero apotheosized on his shield after death. In this typical sixth-century pastiche, elements of the Homeric epic have been transformed into a Coptic allegory of heroic immortality assured by the Nereid Thetis for her son.

  • Dwyer, E. W. “Narrative and Allegory in a Coptic Textile.” American Journal of Archaeology 78 (1974):295-97.
  • Lewis, S. “A Coptic Representation of Thetis at the Forge of Hephaistos.” American Journal of Archaeology 77 (1973):309-318.


The Three Graces

In Greek mythology, the Three Graces are daughters of Zeus who personify beauty in its inward and outward form. They are often attendants on the goddess Aphrodite. Their name in Greek, Kharites (“graces”), is a word rich in Christian meaning. The subject could have been adopted by Christian Copts but seems only to have been used by pagan Copts.

A wooden casket covered with a thin sheet of embossed bronze now in the Coptic Museum depicts three personages associated with Aphrodite, along with gorgon heads, Isis suckling Horus, and Aphrodite standing beneath an arcade. J. Strzygowski (1904) considers this a Coptic work from Akhmim. Although the casket is akin to similar examples in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin; the Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria; Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest; and the Capitoline Museum in Rome, it is typically Alexandrian in style. The proportions of the bodies remain normal, even if there is less respect for the modeling of the limbs, characteristic of a period of decadence. There are none of the conscious deformations characteristic of Coptic art. The casket must consequently date from the seventh century.

A tapestry orbiculum, possibly from the same period as the casket, presents the Three Graces in carmine red on a vermilion background between carmine borders. Here they are crowned with a diadem and the heads and legs are turned to the opposite side from that on the embossed bronze casket in Cairo. The features of the faces in profile, through the use of the flying shuttle, are a little twisted; the waists are low and the legs are short. The treatment is not elegant or pretentious. Although no doubt this was not intended, it attracts one’s attention and even provokes some amusement. These are all characteristics of Coptic art.

  • Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée National du Louvre. Paris, 1964. Strzygowski, J. Koptische Kunst. Vienna, 1904.