An upright stone slab or pillar. Today some 1,100 ornamented Christian funerary stelae from Egypt (excluding Nubia) are known, most of them distributed over many museums. The most important collections are those of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the Greco- Roman Museum in Alexandria, the British Museum in London, the Staatlichen Museen in Berlin, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There are many other minor but interesting collections.
Probably a great part of the original production of decorated stelae has been lost by natural or human action, such as reuse for other purposes or destruction by Muslims. What remains has not always been published in a careful manner. Therefore, the importance of these sculptures as a type of funerary monument in Christian Egypt and, more generally, as one of the artistic expressions of the Copts, is still not clear.
Excluding Nubia with its relatively unimportant production of decorated stelae, we may say that only some 330 stelae have a more or less firmly established origin. This result contrasts sharply with all the original specifications given by museum catalogs, exhibitions, and auctions. Very few traces come from the north, with the exception of the gravestones from DAYR APA JEREMIAH in Saqqara.
There are dispersed finds from the Fayyum, mainly Madinat al-Fayyum, and some concentrations around Antinoopolis, Matmar, Dayr al-Balayzah, Badari, Qaw, and Akhmim. The most important series surely comes from the Thebaid region, more precisely Luxor and Armant, and from Isna and its surroundings.
Of all the decorated stelae only fourteen can be exactly dated from their epitaphs. These dates vary from the beginning of the seventh century until about 1100. Unfortunately, these examples do not belong to one of the more important types or centers of production. Other elements, such as the content of the texts (formulas, dates, titles, names of persons and places), the stylistic and technical treatment, the iconography, and the archaeological context allow us to situate the main types between 350 and 750.
The material for these monuments is mostly limestone, but sandstone is also used (Armant, Nubia). More rarely, marble, terra- cotta, schist, alabaster, and wood are used. The stones are either triangular or rounded on top, or they are rectangular. Gravestones were laid upon the grave, or were placed against or inside the tomb wall, or they stood independently.
The sculptural techniques show a wide variation from the simple pattern engravings to the nearly full statues. The ornamentation was often plastered and then painted over, or, sometimes, the whole surface was plastered and the ornamentation subsequently painted upon it. This painting can be polychrome, although not always very logical or naturalistic, or monochrome, mostly red or black, possibly with a symbolic meaning.
Distinctions must be made when reviewing the compositorial elements of the stela decoration. The surface-organizing elements are either decorated or nondecorated architecture and frames. Frames are mostly combined with an architectural pediment. Other elements function as real and more or less meaningful representations.
They include: crosses and monograms (e.g., staurogram, chrismon, I-and-X, cross-and-X, staurogram-and-X, whether encircled/wreathed or not); life signs; human figures (e.g., orant; persons with crosses, birds, wreaths, or grapes in their hands; horseman; reading man; a lactans-woman); animals (single or heraldic including: gazelles, dogs, lions, hares, fishes, dolphins, doves, eagles, peacocks, griffins); rosettes; wreaths; vegetation (mostly a filler ornament including: leaves of acanthus or ivy, corner leaves, twigs, tendrils with grapes, leaf buds); vessels; tabulae ansatae; and geometrical patterns (mostly filled up with vegetation). Some of these elements, or types of them, are geographically confined.
Among the architectural schemes is the simple pediment, triangular or arched on top and with an architrave, without supporting columns or resting upon a simple frame. These function as the stylization of a real portal and are typical for the south, especially in Thebes and Armant. Schemes like a triangular pediment resting without an architrave upon two columns and the arched pediment resting with an architrave upon two or two pairs of columns come from the south in general. The more complex architecture, with more than one portal and more than one floor, is also typical for the Thebaid region, including Isna. The doubled or tripled and the interrupted decorated frames are also a southern phenomenon.
Among the representational elements, a geographically limited use can be discerned for the staurogram (Thebes and Armant), the wreathed monogram (mostly Isna), the life sign (Theban region, especially al-Badari, al-Matmar, and Armant), and the animal elements (generally the south). The compositions upon the Coptic funerary stelae, although based on interactions between this rather limited number of organizing and representational elements, show a great variation.
Representational elements can be doubled or tripled or combined with others; they can be situated free upon the surface, or inside an architecture or a decorated frame, or inside a combination of various organizing elements. The compositions with the elements free upon the surface or inside an architecture are amply the most common, followed, at a long distance, by compositions with decorated frames or with the frame and the architecture combined.
The most common compositions are: the empty or text-filled architecture, the cross and the wreathed cross free upon the surface, the wreathed monogram free upon the surface (mainly Isna), the free life sign (especially al-Badari), the free human person, the cross inside the architecture, and the bird inside the architecture (especially Isna). All these elements can be worked out or ornamented in a highly decorative manner.
The architraves and the triangular or arched roofs show linear ornaments (lines and zigzags), interlaces, and vegetal patterns (twigs, undulating twigs). Above the front there are often two heraldic peacocks, inside the front we see mostly a shell (pecten, cardium or heart-shaped shell), a disk or button, a cross, a leaf (acanthus), and the birds flanking a vessel or cross. The acroteria, as well as the capitals of the columns, are mostly vegetal—acanthus, a stylization of voluted Corinthian capitals, or designs of vegetal origin.
The columnar shafts have a wide perpendicular channeling (e.g., Armant), oblique lines, a feather design (especially Isna), or a combination of these patterns. Other shafts are vegetally decorated. Most of the decorated frames are vegetally conceived with undulating tendrils and eventually with bunches of grapes, simple twigs, and rows of separate leaves, or show a geometrical design with interlacings, zigzags, or various types of the meander.
Crosses, monograms, and life signs often have their arms hollowed out or widened to their extremities, or even display a vegetal shape. Frequently the crosses are transformed into cruces gemmatae (crosses ornated with precious stones). The loops of the life signs are mostly filled in with little human heads, eventually with a shell-shaped background, with buttons, or with vegetal motifs (rosettes). The wreaths are usually vegetal (stylized tendrils of ivy or laurel), but other types exist, such as the wreath of interlacings or with a row of pearls.
Some human figures show classical characteristics, thus joining the official trends of the early Byzantine imperial art. Others look more provincial or markedly primitive. Different currents can be discerned in the treatment of the animals. For example, a robust, even coarse, but plastic style for birds alternates with and probably has been replaced by a more delicate, linear, and vegetally inspired style.
The iconographic and stylistic evidence shows that the Coptic funerary stelae share the general existing currents of late antique and medieval art as development and modification—often called deformation—of the Hellenistic-Roman cultural basis, and shows the typical antinomy of that roughly five-century period of endurance (fourth to eighth centuries).
The conflict was between provincialism and popular spontaneity on the one hand (these two currents, although with different origins, converge to such an extent that it is very difficult to distinguish them), and the more official classicizing “revivals,” on the other. Among the meaningful representational themes, the nearly total absence of pagan subjects, in contrast to the dominating Christian or Christianized “neutral” motifs, is very striking.
Even the Coptic life sign is often very differently shaped from its pagan prototype and is clearly impressed by an elaborated Christian symbolism. Evidently this is due to the limited possibilities of this artistic genre, where narrative scenes, even if converted into ideological or ethical examples, can hardly be realized, and where representations have to be concentrated around a few items.
The absence of pagan themes is also due to the relatively late appearance of the Coptic funerary stelae in the late antique cultural world, a sharp contrast with the early prosperity of the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL in Alexandria and the traditions about the early founding of the Egyptian church by Saint MARK.
Besides the statement that Coptic funerary stelae form part of the general evolution of the late Hellenistic artistic language, the question arises whether they have any relationship to other sculptural groups of late antique Egypt, for example, the Kom Abu Billu stelae and the sculptures of the Bahnasa and Ahnas types. The Kom Abu Billu stelae, although basically Hellenistic in character, occasionally show survivals of the pharaonic past. Linguistically, we find some demotic inscriptions.
Stylistically, they use sunken relief, and the treatment of hair, hands, and feet survives from the past. Ideologically and iconographically, the jackal and falcon are used. The relation of this group to the real Coptic gravestones is not yet established. An eventually Christian character of the Kom Abu Billu type cannot be proved and seems improbable, first because of the lack of any indication in that direction.
Second, the dates of those stelae, which were originally believed to be somewhere in the third to fourth centuries, are now more and more situated from the second to the eleventh century and even earlier. An immediate evolution from Kom Abu Billu to Coptic funerary art could hold only for the orant figure. But the nonexistence of most of the Abu Billu iconography in the Coptic group arouses the question whether the Abu Billu orants were really the ideological and significant precursors of the Christian ones.
Indirectly, however, Abu Billu stelae can be linked with the Coptic gravestones for some of their stylistic and iconographic connections with the so-called Bahnasa group that in its latest production is at least partly Christian. The Ahnas sculptures, too, provide us with a link between the pagan and the Christian funerary art in late antique Egypt. As for the meaning of the iconography of the Coptic gravestones, we refer to the many studies dealing with themes like the orant, the cross, the peacock, the eagle, the fish, and the Heaven’s Gate.
In general, Coptic stelae represent the deceased or the apparition of God or His power (e.g., cross, monogram, eagle). Their presence has to be considered as an expression of faith and hope for protection against evil powers.
- Badawy, A. Coptic Art and Archaeology. The Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1978.
- Crum, W. E. Coptic Monuments—Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire, Nos. 8001-8741. Cairo, 1902.
- Hall, H. R. Coptic and Greek Texts of the Christian Period from Ostraca, Stelae, etc. . . . in the British Museum. London, 1905. Mond, R., and O. Myers. Cemeteries of Armant 1. London, 1937. Pelsmaekers, J. “The Funerary Stelae with Crux Ansata from Esna.”
- Bulletin van het Belgisch Historisch Instituut te Rome 57 (1987):23-29.