SYRIAN INFLUENCES ON COPTIC ART
Numerous factors were favorable to an influence from Christian Syria upon Coptic art: relative proximity, a common tendency to the eremitic life and to monasticism, the accentuation of the relationship through being cut off from the rest of the Christian world after the Muslim conquest, and more particularly the foundation in the fifth century of the monastery of the Syrians (DAYR AL-SURYAN) in the heart of the monastic complex in Wadi al-Natrun (see SCETIS).
Syrian influence made itself felt to some extent on the level of iconography. It is possible that illuminated manuscripts penetrated Egypt into the monasteries to the point of introducing some new themes. This could be the case for the Triumph of Christ, the most ancient version of which appears to be the illumination of the gospel of Rabbula in Syria (sixth century), and the exploitation of which in Egypt resulted notably in several wall paintings in the chapels of the monastery at BAWIT. It is necessary to note, however, that Coptic figurative illumination does not seem to begin until the twelfth century.
A Mediterranean legend of Syrian origin, that of Saint Pelagia, seems to have passed into the motif of the conch with the cross, the latter being a derivative from the myth of Aphrodite anadyomene. The scenes (dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries) from the Infancy Gospel of Christ (James, 1983) located on the vault of the choir in the al-‘Adhra’ church of the monastery of the Syrians in the Wadi al-Natrun are consistent with the contemporary iconography of these themes in Byzantine art as a whole.
On the other hand, the style of Syrian art, which with a certain liberty and joie de vivre all its own remained in the Byzantine domain, does not seem to have exercised any influence on the Coptic style. The difference of perspective between the two is too glaring. One may even ask whether the thick-set appearance of the figures and the square composition of the pupils of their eyes in the Sinope Codex (National Library, Paris) are not due to a Coptic influence on the style of the illumination of this manuscript, practically the only one of its kind in the Byzantine area.
- Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte, pp. 9, 129. Collection L’Art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
- . Peintures chrétiennes: Couleurs paléochrétiennes, coptes et byzantines, pp. 210-11. Geneva, 1980.
- James M. R., ed. The Infancy Gospel. In The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford, 1983. First ed., 1924. Corrected ed., 1953.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.