SYMBOLS IN COPTIC ART
Alpha and Omega
Alpha and omega (A and W) are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In Middle Eastern astrology, they are related to the cosmos, the signs of the zodiac, and the twenty-four hours of the day. In Egyptian alchemy they are linked to the good genius, Agathodaimon. During the Greco-Roman period, these letters, loaded with this mystique, were transferred to Christianity to symbolize Christ as the beginning and end of life. Christ as Logos (“the Word”) was the creator, and Christ will be the judge at the end of the world. The Book of Revelation alludes to this theme in three passages (1:8; 21:6; 22:13) of which the last is the most complete: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Among literary sources, the alpha and omega are mentioned in a treatise by Zosimus Alexandrinus. The theologians Irenaeus and Tertullian both mention the Gnostic interpretation of alpha and omega by Mark, a disciple of the Gnostic philosopher VALENTINUS. According to Mark, the letters, given a numerical value, form the number 801, which corresponds to the dove.
In art the alpha and omega appear at the beginning of the fourth century in connection with Christological debates that were settled at the Council of NICAEA. The council sanctioned their use as an expression of the dogma that Christ is of like substance (HOMOIOUSION) with the Father. From the time of Constantine in the early fourth century, the alpha and omega were associated with words or symbols signifying victory for which one may presume several meanings. The symbol enjoyed an exceptional diffusion in Egypt in nearly every medium and for a very long time. Its presence is particularly significant in funerary objects, where it represents life in its entirety and above all signifies eternal life.
The letters are most often found on funerary stelae, which the Egyptians adorned with completely original design concepts and figural representations. On one of the most ancient stelae, dating from the fourth century, an aged man in a toga is crouched in a chapel while the two letters are carefully painted in red on the stela’s triangular crown on either side of an ANKH (a cross with a loop above the cross bar, which is the Egyptian sign of eternal life) whose loop or handle encloses a chrismon (the Greek letters chi and rho, forming the monogram of Christ). The most consistent groups of stelae bearing an engraved alpha and omega come from Armant and Akhmim.
At Armant a popular motif is a chapel with a triangular pediment, with the letters either at the sides of or within the pediment or else inside the chapel. In a stela in the British Museum, London (Cramer, 1955, figs. 8, 10; ill. 10), the chapel encloses a great chrismon having an open rho. This is the type most common in Egypt after the beginning of the sixth century; the earlier type was a closed rho. The letters are engraved in the sides and upper part, while two ankhs appear in the lower part. In another stela from the same museum (Cramer, 1955, ill. 17), the alpha and omega occupy both the exterior and the interior of the pediment, where they flank a chrismon. In the space below two engraved ankhs are separated by an element that M. Cramer recognized as the hieroglyphic sm, that is, “unite.”
Such a layout takes on strong characteristics of originality and assumes a significance that has not been sufficiently emphasized. It is, in fact, difficult to interpret this symbol in any other way than as referring to Christ, the beginning and end of life, who unites the two lives, that is, who by His sacrifice enables humanity to achieve a union of mortal and immortal life. Here the sign sm maintains its primitive Egyptian meaning and legibility though transposed into a Christian context. Moreover, the same may be said for alpha and omega, which have the same significance at present, even for those who do not know Greek, precisely because of their union as a widely used Christian symbol.
Another category of stelae from Armant (dated probably to the seventh century) shows the letters at the sides of a bird wearing a necklace and bulla (hollow pendant). Its outspread wings support a crown that encloses a chrismon (Crum, 1902, no. 8656).
In stelae from Akhmim, alpha and omega appear in the pediment of the chapel, either inserted between the arms of a chrismon (Crum, 1902, no. 8602) or under the arms of an ankh (Crum, no. 8575), with the handle of the ankh sometimes being filled with a rosace (circle enclosing a rosette) or a face.
In the stelae of Isna, the two letters are suspended from a cross (the alpha is reversed) in the interior of a small chapel flanked by two large bunches of grapes and two ankhs with pointed arms crowned by a cross (Cramer, 1955, ill. 40).
An important vine motif fills the open space of a stela of unknown provenance dating from the seventh or eighth century. In this example the letters are suspended from an ankh and are repeated below, alongside the ribbons of a crown enclosing a chrismon.
Stelae from the Fayyum often portray a figure praying in a chapel with a triangular pediment. The alpha and omega appear in the pediment either at the sides of an ankh (Cramer, 1955, ill. 34) or else suspended from the arms (Cramer, ill. 33). This position must have been the actual custom as is attested in later times by processional ankhs from which alpha and omega were suspended by small chains (Cabrol, 1907, col. 4).
The letters are often present in the architecture of churches and monasteries. At Oxyrhynchus, the archeologist E. Breccia mentions them as flanking some ankhs beside the apse of a church. In a stone relief, likely of the same provenance, they appear at the sides of an ankh in a medallion surrounded by acanthus scrolls. It may be assumed that these date from the fourth to the sixth century (Cramer, 1955, ill. 44). In wooden lintels from Dayr Apa Apollo at BAWIT dating from the sixth century, conserved at the Louvre Museum, Paris, the letters are incised or encrusted here and there in lead in an aedicula (shrine) that encloses a cross in a shell (Rutschowscaya, 1977, pp. 181-84).
In an unusual piece of sculpture the letters are framed by inscriptions bearing the names of the fathers of the monastery; there are also haloed figures, among whom Saint MENAS may be recognized (Rutschowscaya, p. 185). The alpha and omega also appear on a wooden pyx from Akhmim (Forrer, 1893, pl. XI, no. 5). It is known that in the Christian world generally these letters were also depicted on the hosts.
In ceramics the letters appear on a seal of Egyptian manufacture. Sometimes they accompany the chrismon in a few plates and goblets for which a liturgical use may legitimately be proposed. Two examples dating from the fourth or fifth century have been brought to light in the excavations of the University of Rome at ANTINOOPOLIS (Guerrini in Donadoni, Antinoë, 1974, p. 74). One other, very similar, has been conserved at the Louvre.
The documentation in textiles is very rich, consisting for the most part of sizable pieces destined for liturgical or funerary furnishings. For example, a hanging at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Kendrick, 1921, no. 317) dating from the fourth or fifth century, has the alpha and omega lodged beside a bejeweled cross in a crown carried in flight by two winged victories. In another tapestry at the Coptic Museum in Cairo (Habib, 1967, no. 111), the letters appear under arcades flanking the ankh, together with peacocks and doves; the whole ensemble indicates a funerary purpose.
Other examples of large dimensions, the first dating from the fifth century, are conserved at the Louvre. Their presence is rarer in tunics, as in an unpublished example of the Archeological Museum in Florence, where they flank the staff of a chrismon enclosed in a small oval medallion. The decorative arrangement of this tunic—which evidences great care and quality—depicts animals from the hunting theme and vegetal motifs usually found in connection with the Dionysiac repertoire (see MYTHOLOGICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART); a funerary destination would hence be probable.
In painting, the alpha and omega appear at times, but more rarely, in company with the chrismon, as in a painting brought to light in the southern necropolis of Antinoopolis probably dating from the fourth or fifth century (Donadoni, in Antinoë, 1974, p. 153, table 80, 1); or they are found until a very late period near the cross- inscribed halo of Christ or of the Infant Jesus, as is attested by an icon at the Coptic Museum in Cairo (Habib, 1967, no. 135).
In the art of bookmaking, they are incorporated into a chrismon on the plates of silver binding conserved in the Coptic Museum (Strzygowski, 1904, nos. 7202, 7204). Manuscripts constitute important documentation that is constant across the centuries. One of the most ancient is a Sahidic Gnostic one in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bruciamus 96), which depicts an ankh with the handle enclosing a cross with alpha and omega. Under the arms of the cross is the inscription heis theos (“one God”) with the alpha and omega repeated in major dimensions (Cramer, 1964, ill. 31). In a Bohairic- Arabic manuscript dating from 1362 at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the letters appear below an arrangement of the Cross and the chrismon.
Here the alpha shows a tendency to be transformed into a bird, a tendency that will increase (Cramer, 1964, ill. 39; see also the table of the transformations of the initial alphas in Coptic manuscripts in Cramer, 1959, ill. 127). A Bohairic-Arabic manuscript in Cairo dating from 1486 (Cramer, 1964, figs. 14, 42) has the letters above and below a large rosette of geometric motifs whose prototype probably goes back to the ankh with the handle filled with a starred chrismon. A comparable arrangement appears in the Arabic-Bohairic manuscript Borgia 70 in the Vatican Library, which dates from 1699. In two similar copies of the same manuscript, the alpha keeps its normal form in the one; in the other, it is transformed into a bird (Cramer, 1964, ills. 44, 45).
Finally, these letters have certain peculiarities in Egypt, as in other countries of the Christian world. In several examples, the letters are shown reversed both in order and direction. Sometimes one of the letters is missing, and at times, the alpha is repeated in place of the omega, as for example, on both sides of Christ in a textile from Panopolis (Gerspach, 1890, no. 108).
- Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée National du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
- Cabrol, F. “Alpha et Omega.” In Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie. Paris, 1907.
- Cecchelli, C. “Alpha e Omega.” In Enciclopedia Italiana. Rome, 1929.
- Cramer, M. Das altägyptische Lebenszeichen im christlichen (koptischen) Ägypten. Wiesbaden, 1955.
- . Das christlich-koptische Ägypten einst und heute, eine Orientierung. Wiesbaden, 1959.
- . Koptische Buchmalerei. Recklinghausen, 1964.
- Crum, W. E. Coptic Monuments. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire. Cairo, 1902.
- Deneuve, G. L’arte copta. Florence, 1970.
- Donadoni, S., et al. Antinoe (1965-1968). Missione Archeologica in Egitto dell’ Università di Roma. Rome, 1974.
- Dornseiff, F. Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie. Berlin, 1925. Forrer, R. Die frühchristlichen Alterthümer aus dem Gräberfelde von Achmim-Panopolis. Strasbourg, 1893. Gerspach, E. Les Tapisseries coptes. Paris, 1890.
- Habib, R. The Coptic Museum: A General Guide. Cairo, 1967. Kendrick, A. F. Catalogue of Textiles from Burying-Grounds in Egypt, 3 vols. London, 1920, 1921, 1922.
- Romeo, A., and A. Ferrua. “Alpha e Omega.” In Enciclopedia Italiana. Rome, 1929.
- Rutschowscaya, M.-H. “Linteaux en bois d’époque copte.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 77 (1977):181-91.
- Strzygowski, J. Koptische Kunst. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire. Vienna, 1904.
LORETTA DEL FRANCIA
The Greeks associated the conch shell with Aphrodite, the Nereid Thetis, and sea divinities generally. Coptic artists inherited it from the Greeks by way of Alexandria. They used it sometimes in connection with Aphrodite Anadyomene (“rising from the waters”) and sometimes for its own sake. It appears in abundance in stone reliefs and decorative tapestry panels on fabrics.
In both media, the conch underwent a development in style from naturalistic to schematic or distorted. In sculpture the alveoli (furrows) in the shell, still close to their original form even in the sixth century, became progressively elongated, resulting in parallel sunken lines in the seventh and eighth centuries. Examples may be seen at DAYR APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara. In tapestry, the conch was distorted to the point where it took the shape of a vase, from which Aphrodite emerges.
- Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture. London, 1963.
- Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes I. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1964.
- Duthuit, G. La Sculpture copte. Paris, 1931.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.
It is difficult to determine the moment at which the cross appears in Christian Coptic art. The simplest and most common form in the earliest times at which we can find it, the fourth century, is the crossing at right angles of two lines of equal length, which appears to be inspired by the Greek cross. It seems to have served as a convenient sign of Christian belief rather than as an ornament. One may suppose this usage from its presence in the mausoleum of the Exodus at Khargah, although, in fact, this mausoleum, without having any well-defined character, must be under Byzantine influence. But the symbolic use of this simplified form of the cross may, without too much error, be regarded as the most common, for it is often repeated later in Christian Coptic art.
Near the Greek-inspired cross in the same mausoleum is a distinctive form of the crux ansata, or ankh. Where the upper element of the Egyptian ankh is elongated, that of the Coptic crux ansata is a circle. According to Rufinus (Doresse, 1960, pp. 24-26), the Copts availed themselves of the distant resemblance between the Egyptian ankh, signifying “life” in hieroglyphics, and the cross, replacing the upper element of the cross by the crown worn by Roman victors. This development took place in the fifth century at the time of the destruction of the temples of Serapis. The Coptic crux ansata is more and more frequently found in later Coptic art.
From the fourth to the thirteenth century these two crosses (the simplified Greek cross and the Coptic crux ansata) were dominant in Coptic representations. One will also find occasionally, however, the Byzantine cross with eight branches, for example, in the sixth- century church of DAYR ABU FANA at Mallawi in Middle Egypt and later on Coptic fabrics of the twelfth century (du Bourguet, 1964, no. I, 30 and index p. 566).
Another form of cross during this period has slightly bell-shaped extremities. It exists only in rare examples. The most typical is on a limestone panel that was collected in the church of Armant near Luxor and now belongs to the Louvre. It stands on the head of a dolphin, both carved in relief (du Bourguet, 1968, p. 14).
After the thirteenth century, another form of cross tends to dominate. Similar to a moline cross, it terminates at each extremity in two folioles (small leaf shapes), which part company. This is the “Coptic” cross. It has practically supplanted the others in the liturgical usages of the Coptic community.
- Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Collection L’Art dans le Monde. Paris, 1968.
- . Catalogue des étoffes coptes I. Musée du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
- Dinkler, E. Signum Crucis. Tübingen, 1965.
- Doresse, J. Les hiéroglyphes a la croix. Publications de l’Institut historique et archéologique neerlandais. Istanbul, 1960.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.
Having but little concern with the sea, Egypt in the pharaonic period did not portray the dolphin. It was Greco-Roman iconography that brought it to the country. This likable animal, which appears in the legend of Dionysus (see MYTHOLOGICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART), was considered as a savior of the shipwrecked. On Roman mosaics it accompanies the Nereids (sea nymphs) or the putti (cupids), who sometimes ride on its back. These figures were copied in Coptic bas-reliefs: for example, ones in limestone in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, or in the Civic Museum of History and Art, Trieste; a bone plaque in Cairo and a pin surmounted by a dolphin, in the Bode Museum, Berlin. The marine setting is then transformed into Nilotic decoration. The dolphin keeps company with a crocodile on a relief in the British Museum. In the numerous tapestry decorations that illustrate the same theme, the dolphin, if it appears, is hardly distinguishable from the stylized fish or sea monsters. We may note, however, a very fine example on a fragment preserved in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
A fourth-century bronze lamp in the Louvre shows a dolphin ridden by a cupid. Others, in the Louvre, the Egyptian Museum in Turin, and the Bode Museum in Berlin, have the shape of a dolphin holding the spout. A stela in Berlin displays two of these lamps, one on each side of an orant (praying figure), which points to a religious use. Other objects set the motif in a Christian context, where the dolphin symbolizes salvation from sin. A lamp in the State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, shows a cross on a dolphin’s forehead. A church candelabrum is adorned with twelve dolphins. Two paterae (saucers), one in Cairo, one in the Louvre, have a handle in the form of a woman brandishing a cross, the whole framed by two dolphins. Two sixth-century reliefs from Armant in the Louvre and in the National Museum, Warsaw, clearly depict the Savior Christ in the form of a dolphin bearing a cross.
The idea of the dolphin as a symbol of salvation appears also on a series of Coptic funerary stelae of the Islamic period, in which the dolphin, duplicated, contributes admirably to the symmetrical decoration, filling the corners or plunging in a rounded movement around a garland containing the cross.
- Badawy, A. Coptic Art and Archaeology. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1978.
- Crum, W. E. Coptic Monuments. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire. Cairo, 1902.
- Strzygowski, J. Koptische Kunst. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire. Vienna, 1904.
The eagle played a very small role in religion and art under the pharaohs. Its importance began with the influence of Hellenistic and Roman art and grew in the Coptic period.
The symbolic interpretations given to the eagle, especially in funerary art, are various and controversial. For some scholars it is a symbol of Christ or of Christ’s resurrection. Their arguments are based mainly on Latin sources and on the Greek letters alpha and omega (see above) that sometimes accompany the eagle (Clédat, 1904, p. 150; Leclercq, 1934, cols. 1425ff.; Pelsmaekers, 1982, p. 160). The Oriental texts do not confirm these interpretations. Beginning with the Old Testament, they emphasize the eagle’s miraculous and protective qualities. In Deuteronomy 31:11, the eagle’s wings offer protection. In Psalm 102:5, the eagle is shown as capable of rejuvenation. Magic texts mention the protection granted by the eagle’s wings and the power to overcome demons and all kinds of evil (Kropp, 1930/1931, Vol. 2, pp. 19, 178; Vol. 3, p. 72). Further, the eagle is compared to archangels and to clericals (Papyrus 9, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York).
The eagle’s ability to soar high and approach the sun enables it in popular imagination to be a messenger between earth and heaven. Considering that fact and the Oriental texts, it seems probable that the fear of demons threatening the dead made the Copts choose for their funerary stelae the eagle with its protective qualities, reinforced by amulets, as a safe attendant for the dead. In profane art the eagle with an amulet probably also had a protective and apotropaic role, especially above entrances. But there were certainly also examples of merely decorative eagle figures, as on capitals.
In the paintings in chapels in Dayr Apa Apollo, eagles are depicted several times. The accompanying inscriptions also refer to eagles. For example, in chapel 27 some eagles are flanking a pediment, with the inscription AETOS (“eagle”); in chapel 32 eagles ornament four lunettes, while in chapel 38 there is the inscription— AÏTOS. They may carry crosses in their beaks or wear different amulets on their necks such as bullae or lunulae (crescent ornaments) with a cross, and in room 27 they are found with laurel wreaths surrounding the alpha and omega (Clédat, 1904, 150; 1916, 11 pl. 6,1. 9; Maspero-Drioton, 1931-1943, graffito 480). Only in Nubia do eagles occur in church apses, they are for example, in paintings and reliefs at Faras and reliefs at Qasr Ibrim (Gartkiewicz, 1978, p. 88).
The old motif of eagle and serpent reappears on an eighth- century bronze censer in the Louvre (du Bourguet, 1967, pp. 160ff.).
Although the identification of the bird on Coptic funerary stelae has often been discussed, there is little doubt that it is meant to be an eagle. The reasons are the resemblance to Roman stelae that show eagles in gables in a frontal position with outstretched wings, and the similarity to the eagle paintings of Bawit (cf. Leclercq, 1934, col. 1426) in that both sets of eagles have identical attributes—amulets, crosses in beak, and laurel wreaths. In the early Middle Ages the strong stylization and the prevalence of decorative elements cause the bird to lose its natural aspect (e.g., stela, Crum, n. 1902, 8659). Several groups of stelae can be distinguished: a small group shows the eagle within a pointed gable (Lucchesi-Palli, 1981); a group from Armant represents the eagle with a cross in a wreath over its upstretched wings (Crum, 1902, pls. 41-44); a group from Isna places eagles, sometimes more than one, in aediculae or under round arches (Crum, nos. 8665, 8671; du Bourguet, 1970, pp. 179ff., designates the bird as a dove; Sauneron-Coquin, (1980, pls. 39-44). Some stelae do not belong to specific groups. In one example, in the British Museum the eagle is under the bust of the deceased. On another stela, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the eagle is framed by quadrupeds with an ankh above it (Enchoria 8 : pl. 23; Beckwith, 1963, fig. 130).
A clear separation of profane art from religious art is often impossible. Eagles appear on keystones, doors, and lintels as found in the Coptic Museum, Cairo (Strzygowski, 1904, figs. 75, 184; Zaloscer, 1948, pls. 4, 7). They appear on various other objects, such as a box for weights in the Louvre; a container for cosmetics in the Roman-German Central Museum for Prehistory and Early History, Mainz; and decorative carvings, perhaps for furniture, in the German National Museum, Nuremberg (Kötzsche, 1979, 158; Pelka 1906, pp. 35ff.). Eagles are also frequent motifs on textiles, as on a seventh-century hanging with an eagle and a peacock from Akhmim in the Abegg Foundation, Bern, and a fifth-century fragment from Antinoë, showing an eagle with a wreath in its beak in the Louvre (du Bourguet, 1967). Eagles are also found on pottery. In the Bode Museum, Berlin, there is a clay lamp from Akhmim with an eagle relief and a stamped seventh- or eighth-century roundel from Qena, which shows an eagle with four crosses (Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Vol. 1, p. 1051; Effenberger, 1975, p. 100, fig. 97).
- Beckwith, J. Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300. London, 1963. Bourguet, P. du. Die Kopten. Baden-Baden, 1967.
- Cledat, J. “Le monastère et la necropole de Baouît.” Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 12 (1904); 39 (1916).
- Crum, W. E. Coptic Monuments. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire, Vol. 4. Cairo, 1902.
- Effenberger, A. Koptische Kunst: Ägypten in spätantike, byzantinischer und frühislamischer Zeit. Leipzig, 1975.
- Gartkiewicz, M. In Nubian Studies, ad. J. M. Plumley. Cambridge, 1978.
- Kötzsche, L. “Reliquienbehalter. . . .” Gesta 18 (1979):158.
- Krause, M., and P. Labib. Gnostische und heremetische Schriften aus Codex II und Codex VI. Glückstadt, 1971.
- Kropp, A. M. Ausgewählte koptische Zaubertexte. Brussels, 1930-1931.
- Leclercq, H. “Miroirs et miroitiers.” In Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de Liturgie, 11, 2, cols. 1415-1431. Paris, 1934. Lucchesi-Palli, E. “Observations sur l’iconographie de l’aigle funéraire dans l’art copte et nubien.” In Etudes nubiennes, Colloque de Chantilly 1975, pp. 175-91. Cairo, 1978.
- . “Eine Gruppe koptischer Stelen und die Herkunft ihrer figürlichen Motive und Ornamente.” In Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 24, pp. 114-30. Münster, 1981.
- Maspero, J., and E. Drioton. “Fouilles exécutées a Baouît.” In Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 59 (1931-1943).
- Pelsmaekers, J. “The Coptic Funerary Bird-Stelae: A New Investigation.” In Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 13, pp. 143-184. Leuven, 1982.
- Sauneron, S., and R.-G. Coquin. In Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 104 (1980):pls. 39-40.
- Strzygowski, J. Koptische Kunst. Vienna, 1904.
- Zaloscer, H. Une Collection de pierres sculptées au Musée Copte de Vieux Caire. Cairo, 1948.
From predynastic times, the fish was an esteemed theme in Egypt. Artists knew how to use its form, its movement, and its natural milieu for decorative purposes. Linked with the Nile and with the legend of Osiris, it also symbolized regeneration. The fish also appeared in Greco-Roman iconography and passed readily into Coptic art, where fishes appear in abundance.
Coming from a long and manifold tradition, the fish seems to have inspired Coptic artists by its shape, already schematic: a rounded mass stamped with a round eye and expanded fins. The arrangement of several fish, head-to-tail, chasing one another or linked by some plant, lent itself admirably to decoration.
At first the Copts undoubtedly saw biblical allusions in the fish. Thus, on a fresco from the catacomb of Karmuz of the Miracle of the Loaves, Saint Andrew carries two fish. Later, at Dayr Apa Apollo fish appear in the scene of the Baptism of Christ. A potsherd from Alexandria and a papyrus from Antinoe present the acrostic Jesus Christ in a Coptic abbreviation, which associates the fish with the person of the Lord.
But the religious significance of the fish is not always made explicit in Coptic art. As early as the second century a tapestry from Antinoe, sprinkled with fish, recalls the decoration of some Greco- Roman mosaics (Louvre; Historic Museum of Textiles, Lyons). In a sixth-century relief of Jonah in the Louvre; a fishing scene on a relief in the Coptic Museum in Cairo; and numerous Nilotic scenes on reliefs and tapestries, fishes simply evoke water. The fish appears also alone or in a group sometimes within a scroll, in tapestry braids, wooden friezes, and a fragment of painted wood (in the Louvre). It stands out in relief on a lamp of baked earth from Akhmim, a seal preserved in the Bode Museum in Berlin, and the bottom of a fourth-century stone vase in the Louvre. The fish was a particularly effective motif on painted ceramics. Finally, it lent its form to a sixth-century bronze censer (in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore), and to an ampulla of baked earth from Idfu in the Bode Museum, Berlin.
- Wulff, O. Beschreibung der Bildwerke der christlichen Epochen, nos. 1358, 1410, 1411, 1510, 1565. Berlin, 1909.
A circle of light, called a nimbus or halo, surrounding the head of Christ, the Virgin, the angels, and the saints is a well-known iconographical feature throughout Christian art. It originated in the luminous crown of certain pagan divinities—particularly solar gods, and signifies holiness.
In Coptic painting the nimbus surrounding the heads of the Virgin and the saints is of a single color, mostly yellow or light green, with a black or dark brown line around the edge, as for example in the apse of the church of Dayr Apa Apollo at Bawit. The nimbus of Christ always has a cross on it; the three equal branches of the cross are in dark brown or black on a background of yellow or light green, as for example on an icon from Bawit in the Louvre. In medieval Coptic painting, the arms are geometrically drawn on the nimbus and the dark edge of the nimbus is often further set off by a row of pearls.
On the bas-reliefs the nimbus is less frequently found, and often figures of the Virgin, angels, and saints lack it altogether. It takes the form of a self-colored disk behind the person’s head. Christ’s nimbus is still cruciferous, with the three branches of the cross shown in relief, as, for example, on the wooden panels of the door of the Al- Mu‘allaqah Church in Old Cairo.
On Coptic fabrics, such as decorative tapestry squares in the Austrian Museum of Applied Art, Vienna, mythological personages such as Dionysus or Ariadne, or stylized personages, have their heads surrounded by a nimbus. It is of a light hue against a darker background. Here the symbolism of light is less in evidence, and the decorative function prevails. In religious scenes, for example, the story of Joseph, the nimbus is very much reduced and simply distinguishes the holy personage.