The Art of Coptic Churches

WE WENT TO THE CHURCH while the elders of the monastery went with us. There were pictures of monks on the wall of the place, representing our monastic fathers: Antony the Great and Apa Pachom and Apa Paule and Apa Makarios.21 These were on one side and the archbishops of the see were on another: St. Markos and Apa Petros and Apa Athanasius and Liberios, mounted on the Cherub, St. Kyrillos and Dioskoros.22 These were painted on the other wall.

“I testify to you that at the moment my father Apa Benjamin entered the church and went toward them in order to them, they exhaled a perfumed oil and all of them called out in a heavenly tongue: ‘Holy you are, O King, O Lord, together with your saints!’ and [we] saw the Cherub, on which Athanasius and Liberios were mounted, spread out his wings as if he were flying up on high, so that the wall shook to and fro from joy. And the Angel of the Sanctuary shouted: ‘Worthy, worthy, worthy, o archbishop, he who will with fear celebrate holy Mass today!”‘

This vision of Patriarch Benjamin (626-665), told by his scribe and successor Agathon,23 tells us two important things: First, images of saints and bishops were painted in the church, most probably in the nave, because immediately upon entering the church, Benjamin went to greet them. Second, they were not just images: At the entry of the patriarch, they came to life and praised God. A miracle happened.

In Egypt, a church is not simply regarded as a place of worship; it is a mystical place. Functionally speaking, a church is a building designed for people to gather in prayer and for various liturgical ceremonies, especially the celebration of the Eucharist, the consecration of bread and wine in commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice. Therefore, the church building is a holy place and was (and is) consecrated before being brought into use.

Liturgically speaking, the eastern part is of major importance: the consecration of bread and wine takes place in the altar room; the reading of the Gospels, prayers, and hymns takes place in the space directly in front of it, the khurus, which was designed especially for this function in the seventh century. The nave is the spot where the laypeople or the monks congregate to partake in the celebration, pray, and sing, but it does not play a direct role in the liturgy.

From early Christian times onward, the various parts of the building were charged with a symbolic meaning. When Patriarch Benjamin consecrated the church in the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun, the hand of God took over the anointment of the altar. Witnessing this miracle, Benjamin uttered the words, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God and this is the gate of Heaven” (Gen. 28:17).24

As the “House of God,” the church contains several layers of symbolic images. The altar room represents first the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament Tabernacle, a tent constructed by Moses to house the Law, the covenant between God and his people. The tribes of Israel took this movable sanctuary with them during their wanderings in the desert on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land (the Books of Exodus and Numbers). Second, the altar room is a symbol of the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem, built by as a permanent house of worship. Finally, it symbolizes Jerusalem, both the earthly city where Christ died and the heavenly Jerusalem, the paradise of the end of times. In this line of thought, the khurus in front of the altar room symbolizes the holy place in front of the Holy of Holies where the Old Testament priests dwelled, as well as

paradise, the place where the souls of the righteous await the Last Judgment in order to ascend into heaven.25 The symbolic meaning of the spaces is not always clear or binding. Holy place or paradise can also signify the khurus and the nave. Only the altar room is always exclusively the Holy of Holies, the heavenly Jerusalem. Simultaneously, the church itself can be compared to paradise. In a hymn sung at the end of the consecration of a church, she is compared to “the Paradise of God.”26

When the priest, standing in the tradition of Old Testament priests as Melchizedek, Aaron, and Zacharias, consecrates bread and wine, it is felt to be part of the heavenly liturgy: the heavens open and Christ and his heavenly host come down in order to partake in the earthly ritual.27 At that moment, heaven and earth are one and priests are as “earthly angels and heavenly men”28 symbolically assisting in the heavenly liturgy. It is obvious that in a setting like these miracles happen.

These ideas, a timespan of past, present, and future, merging and overlapping in symbolic meaning and ritual, are mainly expressed in ecclesiastical treatises and encyclopedias of the tenth to fourteenth century.2*’ They have undoubtedly much older roots, as the literary witnesses cited above testify,”0 and, from early times onward, the symbolic meaning and the liturgical ceremonies performed determined the decoration of the various parts of the building.

Church decoration before the year 1000

Completely decorated churches dating from before the year 1000 have not been found so far. Until recently, two large monastic complexes are known from excavations at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Monastery of St. Jeremiah in the Saqqara necropolis and the Monastery of St. Apollo in Bawit (Middle Egypt), were mainly responsible for our knowledge of painting in monastic cells, chapels, and churches.31 However, one hundred years ago excavation techniques were limited.

In conjunction with incomplete (photographic) documentation and concise reports, this means that a systematic study of the wall paintings and finds in churches and other buildings is not possible.

Almost all of the murals found in these monasteries, generally dated to the sixth to eighth century, have disappeared; a few were saved and are at present on display in the and the Louvre in Paris. Extensive restoration campaigns in, for example, the church of the Monastery of St. Pshai (the so-called Red Monastery) near Sohag,32 the Old Church of St. Antony in the Monastery of St. Antony near the Red Sea,33 the Church of the Virgin in the Monastery of the Syrians in Wadi al-Natrun (see pages 278-83, 208-19, 70-77),34 as well as new excavations in Bawit, re-excavating the North Church,35 yield important new data on church decoration while modem techniques permit a more secure dating.

In combination with the results of the excavations of other churches during the past years and a reassessment of older documentation, a decorative program that illustrates and underlines the symbolic meaning comes to light.

First of all, an intense love for colorful decorative designs immediately catches the eye: borders and panels were used to accentuate or imitate architectural features, and walls were adorned with painted imitations of textiles (curtains) or allover decorative patterns. Also, architectural sculpture in wood or stone was painted.

The lower part of the walls in the church was painted with panels showing an imitation of opus sectile (a pattern of inlaid stones), a painted curtain, or a space-filling decorative design (floral or geometrical). In the nave, the upper part was filled with paintings (Virgin and Child, angels, prophets, standing or equestrian saints, scenes from the Old or the New Testament) or crosses, sometimes with flanking animals or under canopies (for example the oldest layers in the quarry church of the Monastery of al-Ganadla and the Old Church of St. Antony, or in the church of the Monastery of St. Pshai near Sohag (see pages 266-73, 208-19, 278-83). This system, a dado with a geometrical pattern and a figurative frieze above, has a long history in late antique Egypt, where it could be found in temple and tomb decoration and in private houses.36

In most churches of the early period, the decoration of the altar room has not survived. In the South Church of Bawit and the quarry church of Wadi Sarga (Middle Egypt, both dated to the sixth to eighth century), the Communion of the Apostles was painted on the east wall or in the conch of the apse. The scene looks like a depiction of the Last Supper, with one main difference: Christ has descended from heaven and is standing behind an altar as a priest during Mass, distributing bread and wine to his disciples. The historical image has become a liturgical image, uniting heaven and earth.37

The interior of the semi-domes of the trilobed sanctuary of the Church of St. Pshai in the Monastery of St. Pshai, the so-called Red Monastery near Sohag (first half of the sixth century (see pages 278-83) has been repainted four times. Recent research dates the fourth layer to around 800.38 It is clear that the subjects, in more or less detail, remained the same. The eastern semidome is decorated with an apocalyptic vision of Christ enthroned riding on a chariot of fire, surrounded by the Four Living Creatures39 and flanked by (arch)angels (in an earlier layer accompanied by apostles).

The background shows stars. The final layer of the northern semidome is painted with a complicated architectural framework. In the center, the enthroned Virgin nurses her son, surrounded by prophets (with scrolls), angels, Joseph, and Salome the midwife.40 The southern semi-dome shows a similar architectural framework with Christ enthroned, surrounded by St. John the Baptist and his father Zacharias, angels, the four evangelists, and patriarchs. Inscriptions identify the saints and biblical personages.

These three intricate compositions are undoubtedly related to paintings that, in a simplified arrangement, were found in large numbers in the eastern niches of cells and chapels in Bawit and Saqqara, and that were to become the predominant representation for the eastern niche of the altar room: In the upper zone Christ enthroned (often in a mandorla), surrounded by the Four Living Creatures and riding on a chariot of fire.

The background consists of a starry sky with sun and moon and often angels. It must be noted that at this time in Egypt the Four Living Creatures—the man or angel, the lion, the ox, and the eagle—do not represent the four Evangelists as they do in Western art but are solely seen as adoring angelic beings around the throne of God.41 The Virgin Mary occupies the lower zone. She is depicted as an orant or enthroned with Child and surrounded by the apostles, sometimes accompanied by local saints.

This double composition symbolizes at the same time the past, the present, and the future: It is a vision of the Ascension, in which Christ is carried to heaven on a chariot-throne surrounded by angels, as described in various Coptic texts. Furthermore, it refers to Christ’s Kingship following his Ascension (the present) while simultaneously, it refers to His second coming on the Day of Judgment, foretold in his Ascension (Acts 2:11 ).42 The sun and moon together are symbols of cosmic and eternal power. Hymns praise Mary as “the Chariot of the Cherubim”: she carried Christ as the chariot carries Him in heaven. His and humanity are made manifest.43 In a poem attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373), Mary sings to her son: “The very chariot stops amazed that I carry its Master;… Your radiance rests on my knees, the throne of Your majesty is held in my arms. Instead of the chariot wheels, my fingers clasp you.”44

Khurus decoration is seldom preserved. An exception is the khurus of the Church of the Virgin in the Monastery of the Syrians, where several levels of paintings have come to light. Imitation stone panels and decorative borders were painted in the lower zone, with patriarchs and saints (among others, medical and equestrian saints) above (eighth century).45 In December 2006, the restoration team removed the thirteenth-century painting of the Dormition of the Virgin in the northern half-dome. A theme unique for Egypt came to light: a magnificent image of the Virgin enthroned with Child surrounded by the Magi and shepherds. Research on the date of this mural is in progress. The southern half-dome still carries the thirteenth-century painting of the Annunciation and the Nativity.46

Vaults and domes were most probably painted but their decoration is rarely preserved. Exceptions are the cassette pattern and crosses in medallions on the ceiling of the quarry church of the Monastery of al-Ganadla and the geometrical pattern with busts in the cave of the Monastery of St. Hatre (see pages 268, 307). Sometimes, a pattern can be reconstructed from 32 fragments found during excavations. The khurus dome of the Monastery of the Syrians was covered with paintings, but only a few fragments remain (among others, throne fragments).47

In the altar room, all decoration was directed to the ceremonies that took place. In the nave, the place where the people or monks gathered, saints and martyrs—the forerunners and champions of faith—were frequently depicted. It is noteworthy that nearly all churches with murals preserved are monastic churches, and monastic life clearly influenced the choice of saints depicted. The “fathers of the monks” are prominently present. Equestrian saints had, apart from being sanctified, another much-valued quality: as mounted soldiers who were conquering enemies of the faith, they were venerated for their protection against evil. In this function, they are often seen as guardians of entrances or the sanctuary.

Apart from a theological view, images in churches also had a didactic reason: they were painted to “give instruction concerning every good thing, especially purity,” as Shenute of Atripe (d. ca. 465) wrote.48 Inscriptions in the murals give the names of the persons depicted, and sometimes also the names of donors, painters, and plasterers, but unfortunately rarely dates.

Stone sculpture (often reused pieces blended with elements made to order) consists mainly of capitals, door frames, and niche heads. Horizontal borders set in long walls (South Church, Bawit) could be executed in wood or stone. Wooden corbels, door beams, and doors were often sculpted. It was nearly all architectural sculpture, decorative designs enhancing the architecture and the spatial layout of the building, sometimes including reliefs of Christ, the Virgin, saints, and scenes from the Old and the New Testaments. Almost certainly, all sculpture was once painted, as can be observed in the sanctuary of the Church of St. Pshai near Sohag and the quarry church of the Monastery of al-Ganadla (see pages 278-83, 266-73). A number of pieces preserved from various monuments still retain traces of original coloring.

Church furniture in wood or stone is seldom preserved. Exceptional works of art are the two sets of tenth-century wooden doors in the Church of the Virgin in the Monastery of the Syrians (Dayr al-Suryan). The panels of the doors are decorated with ivory inlays showing geometrical designs and Saints (see pages 70-77). The Coptic Museum houses a wooden altar from the fifth century.40

Churches from 1000 to 1400

The Old Church of the Monastery of St. Antony near the Red Sea (see pages 208-19) is one of the rare churches with a largely preserved decorative program. A recent restoration campaign returned the murals to their former splendor and revealed many unknown details.50 Inscriptions date the murals to the years 1232-1233 and mention the painter Theodore, who most probably worked with a team. The program (with some earlier remains and later additions) confirms the choice of themes from earlier centuries. In the eastern niche in the central altar room (haykal in Arabic), Christ enthroned is surrounded by the Four Living Creatures, sun, moon, and angels.

In the lower register, the Virgin Mary with Child is accompanied by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. New elements of the altar room program are Old Testament scenes: Abraham, willing to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19), Jephthah sacrificing his daughter (Judg. 11:30-40), the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, offering bread and wine (Gen.l4:18-20), and Isaiah, his lips being purified by a coal from the heavenly altar (Is. 6:1-7). They prefigure Christ’s sacrifice which is replaced, in turn, by the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist.

Above these scenes, an image of heaven as described in the Book of Revelation (4—5) is given: A frieze with the Twenty-Four Priests51 runs all around the walls. In the center of the dome, Christ is depicted in majesty, surrounded by angels and /cherubim. On the soffit of the arch to the haykal, six prophets are painted. Their prophecies are a link between the Old and the New Testaments.

In the khurus, equestrian saints, the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:1-97), and the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Paradise are represented. The eastern part of the nave contains a frieze of standing saints (mainly monks) and the Virgin Mary, while the western part is decorated with a frieze of equestrian saints.52 The domes above the nave are bare. Decorative borders and patterns play an important part in the murals: they are used to edge scenes and saints, fill leftover spaces, and are found on clothing and furniture.

With variations, and not as well preserved, this haykal program can be found in other churches of this period. The Old Testament scenes can, for example, be seen in the Church of the Virgin in the Monastery of al-Baramus and the Church of St. Macarius (haykal of St. Mark) in the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun (see pages 64-69, 84-89). Christ enthroned (or in combination with the Virgin in the lower register) in the eastern niche or semi-dome of the altar room, is seen in most places where (fragments of) paintings are preserved (see, for example, the Church of the Archangel Gabriel in Fayyum, the churches of the Sohag monasteries, and the church of the Monastery of St. Hatre in Aswan (see pages 202-207, 278-89, 304-307).55

The murals preserved in the khurus and nave of the Church of the Archangel Gabriel in Fayyum (see pages 202-207) show saints and a fragment of a composition with Christ and an apostle, equestrian saints, a standing monk, the Virgin and Child, and angels.54 Apart from the Old Church of St. Antony, dome and ceiling decoration are seldom preserved.

Architectural sculpture as found in the early churches has disappeared, but the motifs are preserved in painting. Wooden sculpture is present in the splendid high doors closing haykal and khurus in, for example, the old churches of the Monastery of St. Macarius, the Monastery of al-Baramus, and the Monastery of St. Pshoi (Wadi al-Natrun) and in the elaborated, finely designs of the haykal and khurus screens in the churches of Cairo, inlaid with ebony, ivory, and bone. The techniques and the patterns are influenced by Islamic decorative designs although combined with Christian images.55 Screens were also used to divide the nave into a men’s and a women’s section.

In the Cairene churches, the latter type of screen was often still preserved until around 1900, when a large-scale modernization destroyed the original layout of nave interiors.

Style of wall paintings

The first impression of the majority of paintings found in Bawit and Saqqara is a feeling of direct contact: the figures depicted frontally watch you with wide-open eyes and large pupils. Even when their bodies are angled away, the head is mostly painted in a frontal position. On reflection, these persons are not really looking at you, but beyond you, to a world you are unable to see. Faces in profile are rare, but a three-quarter pose (the lower part of the body shown from the side while the upper part is depicted frontally) is frequently shown.

A second impression is the lack of depth in figures and compositions. Persons are clearly outlined with heavy contours, the folds of their clothes sharply defined, looking like a row of paper dolls. In a number of paintings, however, a subtle play of colors and thin lines to model faces can be observed within the clear outline. The apse from Room 6 in Bawit, showing Christ enthroned in the upper register and the Virgin Mary with Child accompanied by apostles and local saints below, is a good example of this flat, rather heavy style and mesmerizing eyes.56 At the same time, the lively faces (in profile) of the Four Living Creatures and the angels around the frontally depicted and stiff Christ enthroned seem to belong to another world, a heritage from late antique painting.

Although Christ, the Virgin and Child, angels, and portraits of saints and holy monks are almost always shown in this strictly frontal pose, the Hellenistic world, as well as influences from farther east (Sassanian art) can be frequently seen in hunting scenes, narrative scenes, secondary characters, and background. In the profusion of decorative borders and patterns, the world’s heritage of Greco-Roman art is evident. These elements show that different styles of painting can go together and a more classical approach with depth, movement, and expression exists side by side with a formal and frontal approach, sometimes in the same room or even in a single composition. This emerging frontality demonstrates that the intention of images had changed. Instead of a true-to-life rendering of Christ, Mary, angels, biblical personages, and saints, they were painted larger than life: they are not, or are no longer, part of a real-world, but of a world to come.

The number of paintings known from documentation, preserved in museums, or discovered during recent excavations or restoration campaigns is obviously only a fragment of what once existed. In this corpus, the general lines sketched above are clear. As a consequence, a more ‘classical’ style does not necessarily mean an earlier date. As an additional element, the ability and talent of the painter make a huge difference in style and quality. In Egyptian Christian painting, dating on the basis of style is tricky and full of traps. A more secure chronology can only be obtained from modem excavation technology or the luck of finding dated inscriptions.

From about 1000 onward, the classical style is found no more. The lack of depth in the treatment of figures and compositions, the heavy outlines, and the love for decorative borders and designs continued, but other influences also leave their mark. The paintings in the Old Church of St. Antony show inspiration from different traditions. They are part of “a shared visual culture” of twelfth- and thirteenth-century eastern art. The painter Theodore and his team worked in an Egyptian Christian style, but influences from Islamic, (Cypriotic) Byzantine, and perhaps ‘Crusader art’57, as well as aspects of everyday life in a Muslim society, can be pointed out.58

Similar observations can be made in the Wadi al-Natrun churches. In the octagon of the haykal of St. Mark in the Monastery of St. Macarius, the composition of the Dream of Jacob (Gen. 28:10-22J59 and Job, his wife and his friends (Job 2:7-13 and Job 3-41 J,60 are classical Byzantine designs, while the ornamentation of furniture in the paintings and the decorative panels below betray Islamic influence. In the Church of the Virgin in the Monastery of al-Baramus, the Byzantine Dodekaorton, a series of twelve liturgical feasts, inspired the series of scenes in the nave.62 The thirteenth-century paintings in the three semi-domes of the Church of the Virgin in the Monastery of the Syrians show influences from Byzantium and Crusader art (via Syria and Lebanon).65

The Islamic influence is especially visible in ornamental design, for example in the painted decoration of the khurus ceiling of the Old Church of St. Antony or the beautifully and inlayed twelfth to thirteenth-century wooden screens in the churches of Wadi al-Natrun and Old Cairo. Without the architectural setting and Christian elements like a cross, it is impossible to distinguish a screen made for a Muslim or a Christian.64

In thought and ideas, Egyptian Christian art was rooted firmly in local tradition and theological views. The composition and the style of murals and church furniture, however, betray participation of painters and donors in the world of their time, even if they must be considered as followers of trends rather than leaders.

After 1400

Curiously, there are hardly any wall paintings preserved after 1400. Over the centuries, restoration campaigns, sometimes influenced by liturgical needs, replaced, removed, or added interior elements in the existing churches. Older paintings were restored or ‘refreshed,’ at times altering their style or composition but, from around 1400 until the present, wall painting as chief decorative medium is hardly found.

The subterranean church of St. Paul in the Monastery of St. Paul near the Red Sea (see pages 220-29) houses a rare example of an almost complete eighteenth-century decorative program. Patriarch John XVI (1676-1718) added the northern part of the church, the oldest part consisting of the hermitage of St. Paul. A monk of the monastery decorated the new part and parts of the old church with paintings.65 However, the monk did not invent the iconographical program: it echoes earlier programs, known for example from the Old Church of the neighboring Monastery of St. Antony: Equestrian saints at the entrance (the staircase), an enthroned Christ surrounded by the Four Living Creatures, and the eye-studded wings of the Cherubim with angels and the Twenty-Four Priests in the dome of the new haykal and rows of saints, archangels, and the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace in the nave. Fragments of murals from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are preserved in the haykal of St. Antony in this church and visible in parts of the nave.66

In the sixteenth century, an Ethiopian monk painted standing and equestrian saints in keep chapels of the Monastery of St. Macarius (see page 87). Nevertheless, the main medium became painting on wood: panels fixed to the walls of a haykal showing a design that originally was executed directly on the walls. Well-preserved examples can be seen in the central haykal (eighteenth century, restored in the nineteenth century) and the upstairs chapel of the Church of Mar Mina in Fumm al-Khalig (Cairo, see pages 140-45). The wall panels were painted with icon-painting techniques. They reflect all characteristics of contemporary icon painting in Egypt and the same masters and workshops executed them.


Texts demonstrate that from an early date, images or pictures had a place in church decoration. It is often difficult to interpret this source material. Frequently, it is not clear what kind of image is meant. Even if the word ‘icon’ is used, it might designate an image on different media: wood, papyrus, paper, textile, or wall painting. In this section, ‘icon’ will be used for a representation of a holy person on a portable wooden panel. If otherwise, it will be clearly indicated.67

Saints (female and male, monks or horsemen), archangels, and the Virgin and Child were types that were most suited for personal devotion and belong to the oldest icons known. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, a beam icon showing the principal feasts of the church was placed on the altar screen, in later times replaced with large icons of Christ, Mary, and St. John the Baptist (Deesis) accompanied by apostles or evangelists (Great Deesis). Icons could also be placed on top of the nave division screens, as can still be seen in the Church of St. Mercurius in Old Cairo: since the screens have been removed, the rows of eighteenth-century icons are suspended in the air. Modem division screens with icons on top were recently installed in the Church of the Virgin in the Monastery of al-Baramus (Wadi al-Natrun; see page 66).

Icons were greeted, kissed, and venerated. The saints depicted could bleed and weep for injustice, troubles, and grief, perform miracles, protect people from illness and demons, and grant fertility to barren women. However, textual sources make clear that the saint depicted is an intercessor: it is always God who is venerated through the saint, and it is God who weeps for the world and grants the petitions made.68 Icons also play a role in the liturgy. They are censed and are carried in procession on feast days, or are displayed on the feasts of the saint depicted. For personal devotion, a precious old icon or a modem printed image makes no difference to the Orthodox believer. What matters is the representation of the saint depicted and the intercession of the saint.

A small number of icons survive from the sixth to the seventh century, such as Christ and St. Menas (Paris, Louvre), St. Theodore, and the Archangel Gabriel (Cairo, Egyptian Museum and Coptic Museum), all found in Bawit.69 The style of these panels reflects a similar treatment of figures as found in wall paintings of that period.

There is a curious, unexplainable gap from the ninth to the twelfth century, from which apparently no icons survive. As a result of restoration projects, a small corpus of icons from the thirteenth century to ca. 1500 was identified, mainly in the churches of Old Cairo.70 More treasures of this era might be hidden in the churches and monasteries all over Egypt. At first glance, these icons look very Byzantine, with their gilded background and saints in Byzantine vestments. Closer study reveals the use of local wood for the panel and typical Egyptian compositions, saints, iconography, and inscriptions in Coptic, Greek, and Arabic. Painters were often Byzantine trained, but working locally.

Some sixteenth or seventeenth-century icons are preserved, but the grand corpus of surviving icons dates to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when icons were not only painted on wooden panels but also on canvas or even paper. Several icon painters are known by name. Most famous were Ibrahim al-Nasikh and Yuhanna al-Armani (Abraham the scribe and John of Armenia), who frequently signed their work together (eighteenth century) and A[na]stasi al-Qudsi al-Rumi (Anastasius the Greek from Jerusalem, nineteenth century).

Ibrahim was a Copt, but the names of Yuhanna and A[na]stasi betray their provenance. They all brought with them their heritage and their style, and the iconography reflects a fusion of local tradition, influences from religious painting in Western Europe and various Middle Eastern communities, and Islamic art.

These artists not only painted icons but also decorated ciboria (canopies sheltering the altar) and chalice thrones. A fair number of eighteenth to nineteenth-century ciboria are preserved in the old churches of Cairo (the three examples in the Hanging Church might even date to the fifteenth century). The interior reflects the older dome program: Christ in Glory surrounded by heavenly hosts. The exterior, the spandrels of the arches, show Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharist and New Testament scenes.71 The Ark or “Throne of the Chalice” (Arabic, Kursi al-ka’s), a small wooden casket in which the prepared chalice is kept until Holy Communion, was equally painted with saints and fitting scenes.72 The style of these ciboria and chalice thrones reflects contemporary icon painting in Egypt.


Although the artistic media changed over the centuries and influences and interaction in the artistic milieu brought about changes in the composition and/or choice of themes, the ideas behind church decoration have remained the same until the present day. The subjects chosen underscore the symbolic meaning and function of the building. Together, buildings, images, and ceremonies evoke a picture of past, present, and future. For the contemporary man or woman, being part of the ritual, surrounded by the saints painted on the walls and/or present in the icons, the light of and oil lamps, the long recitation of psalms and hymns, and the smell and smoke of incense, enhanced the feeling of being transformed, being transplanted to a heavenly sphere—a paradise on earth.

For a Western visitor these feelings and words, so familiar in Coptic literature and liturgy and still perfectly recognizable for Egyptian Christians today, may sound odd and hard to grasp. I thought so too. During one of my first visits to the Monastery of St. Antony, I was invited to attend the morning office in the Old Church. It was before the restoration. The paintings were still blackened by soot and grime and only recognizable if one knew the subjects. I was sitting at the back of the nave, leaning against the wall. The monks were praying and reciting.

were burning and the small church was filled with the smoke of incense. At that moment, I suddenly had a feeling of being moved in time and space. For centuries, generations of monks had sung God’s praise in this small church, surrounded by the same champions of faith on the walls and in icons, in similar words. It felt like being part of eternity, if only for an instant. It is indeed a magical place.

Gertrud J.M. van Loon


21 Famous hermits, monks, and founders of monasteries: St. Antony the Great (d. 356), St. Pachomius (d. 346), St. Paul the Hermit (d. 348?), and St. Macarius the Great (d. 390).

22 Coptic Orthodox patriarchs of the See of St. Mark: St. Mark the Evangelist, the first patriarch (d. 68). There were four patriarchs called Peter before Benjamin. The most famous was Peter I, the last martyr (d. 311); Athanasius I (d. 373); Liberius, Pope of Rome (352-366), a supporter of Athanasius’s theological views; Kyrillos (Cyril) I (d. 444), and Dioscoros I (d. 458).

23 Paris, BnF, 12914, fol. 125r-v (Sahidic), ninth-tenth century, provenance: Sohag, White Monastery? ( 1959, 341-42 [text] and 345-46 [trans.]; cf. Coquin 1975, 34-35). J. van der Vliet (Leiden University) made a new English translation from the original text.

24 Dayr Abu Maqar, Ms. 207Taa (Bohairic), AD 1348, fol. 23 v-24v; ed. and trans. Coquin 1975,130-33.

25 ‘Paradise’ could mean first, the Garden of Eden of the Book of Genesis. Second, it was used for the Kingdom of God, Heaven, or the Heavenly Jerusalem. Third, it could also point to an intermediate place, the abode of the souls of the righteous where they await the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgment. The latter two definitions were sometimes mixed up or used indiscriminately (Danielou 1954, 433-72; Dumuleau 1992, 37-51.

26 Homer 1902, 394—95 and 13.

27 For example in The Book of the Investiture of the Archangel Gabriel attributed to Stephen Protomartyr (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library M 593, 892-93, fol. 45v° (Depuydt 1993 I, 214-16: no. 111-2; ed. and trans. 1962,1:77 (text), II: 95 [trans.]). Cf. Meinardus 1986-1987.

28 Ibn Sabba, The Book of the Precious Pearl of Ecclesiastical Sciences, after the first quarter of the fourteenth century (ed. and trans. Perier 1922, 738 and 753).

29 Van Loon 1999,109-24.

30 Fifth-seventh century Syriac dedication hymns for churches, partly based on Alexandrian theological ideas, underline this theory (McVey 1983 and 1993).

31 Saqqara: for bibliography see Wietheger 1992; Bawit: for bibliography see note 35.

32 All wall painting conservation work at the Red Monastery has been funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and administered by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), with the collaboration of the Coptic Church and the Egyptian Supreme of Antiquities (SCA). The project director is E. Bolman, and the head of conservation is L. De Cesaris, assisted by A. Sucato (Bolman 2004a and 2006b).

33 The restoration was a similar ARCE-USAID funded Egyptian Antiquities Project in cooperation with the SCA and the Coptic Church, 1996-1999. The results are presented and studied in Bolman (ed.) 2002.

34 Reports on the ongoing restoration of the Church of the Virgin (a joint Dutch- project under direction of K.C. Innemee (Leiden University) and a bibliography can be found in various issues of Hugoye: http: /1 L. Van Rompay (Duke University Durham, NC) studies the inscriptions in the church.

35 The excavations in Bawit are a joint project of the Louvre (D. Benazeth and M.-H. Rutschowscaya) and the Institut frangais d’archeologie orientale in Cairo. News of the excavations and a bibliography can be found at media I repository I ressources / sources/ pdf/ src_document_51210_v2_m5657756983066 9676.pdf: Nouvelles fouilles sur le site copte de Baouit.

36 For example the Imperial Cult Room in Luxor Temple (mainly known from nineteenth-century watercolors by J.G. Wilkinson, see Kalavrezou-Maxeiner 1975, figs. 6-14 and pls. I-IV; at present the paintings are being restored (an ARCE-Egyptian Antiquities Conservation project in collaboration with the University of Chicago Epigraphic Survey in Luxor [Chicago House – dir. R. Johnson]); in tombs in Alexandria (Venit 2002) and in a villa in Amheida (Dakhla Oasis in the Western Desert, see / amheida, dir. R.S. Bagnall. Field reports 2005: H. Whitehouse).

37 Van Loon 2004.

38 Bolman 2004a and 2006b (see also note 32).

39 As described by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel and in John’s Revelation. The Four Living Creatures, cherubim, and were angelic beings. Their bodies were covered with four or six eye-studded wings and they had the head, hands, and feet of a man, except for the Four Living Creatures who had the faces of a man, lion, ox, and eagle. They were part of the heavenly court, standing around the throne of God and praising Him continuously. The characteristics of these heavenly beings, described in Is. 6:2-7, Ez. 1, and Rev. 4:6-9, are often mixed up in visual art.

40 According to apocryphal stories, a midwife called Salome was one of the first persons to adore the Christ child. She might have been a relative of the Virgin Mary, and she accompanied the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt (Van Loon 2006).

41 Van Moorsei and De Grooth 2000.

42 Van Moorsei 2000b-d.

43 Van Moorsei 2000d, 188-89.

44 Hymns on Mary, no. 7. Trans. Brock 1984, 60.

45 Innemee in Innemee and Van Rompay 2002, [1]—[11].

46 For the thirteenth-century paintings, see Leroy 1982, 61-74 and pls. 107-46; Hunt 1985.
47 Innemee in Innemee, Van Rompay, and Sobczynski 1999, [7],

48 Young 1981, 349-50 (text) and 353-54 (trans.).

49 Inv. no. 1172, from the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, Old Cairo (Gabra and 1999,93; Gabra and Eaton-Krauss 2007,194-95).

50 Van Moorsei 1995a; Bolman (ed.) 2002. See also note 33.

51 The Twenty-Four Priests or Elders are seated around the throne of God, praying and praising Him continuously (Rev. 4-5). From an early date, they have been held in high regard in the Coptic Church. They are seen as intercessors for mankind (the incense in their censers symbolizes the prayers of saints). In magical texts, the reciting of their names protected against evil (Van Loon 1999,153n with literature).

52 Van Moorsei 1995a; Van Loon 1999, 81-106,126411, 154-58,163-67; Bolman in Bolman (ed.) 2002, 91-125; Van Loon 2003 and 2004. The resurrected Christ meeting the women in the garden and the women at the empty tomb (Matt. 28:1-9) above the entrance to the central haykal, and the two archangels on the soffit of the arch between khurus and nave, and nave and southern side chapel, are later additions, probably from the second half of the thirteenth century (Bolman in Bolman (ed.) 2002,127-40).

53 Recently, fragments of this theme were discovered in the apse of the southern altar room in the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Old Cairo. It turned out to be the second layer of painting, repeating the same subject. On the basis of stylistic parallels, it might be dated to around 1200. (Milward Jones 2006; Bolman 2006a, who assigns a somewhat later date to this painting. The restoration was an ARCE-funded project.)

54 A team from the Center of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw under direction of W. Godlewski discovered and restored the wall paintings during the years 1991-1999 (Godlewski 2000; Godlewski 2005a).

55 Jeudy in Snelders and Jeudy 2006,114-22; Jeudy in Immerzeel and Jeudy, in press.

56 Coptic Museum, Cairo, inv. no. 7118 (Gabra and 1999,58-59).

57 ‘Crusader art’ consists of works of art produced in the Middle East (for example icons, miniatures, wall paintings) characterized by a choice of themes, composition, and styles from Europe and lands where crusaders created a stronghold, the Crusader kingdoms. There was a mutual influence. Through contact with artists working in a Christian environment in the Middle East, themes, iconography, and compositions were introduced into European art.

58 Bolman and Lyster in Bolman (ed.) 2002, 77-154.

59 Leroy 1982, pls. 29-30; Van Loon 1999, 45-47,141M5.

60 Van Loon 1999, 50-51,158-63 and figs. 54-57.

61 Leroy 1982, pls. 85-90.

62 Van Moor sei 1992,177.

63 Hunt 1985.

64 Lyster in Bolman (ed.) 2002,140-54; Jeudy in Snelders and Jeudy 2006,114-22; Jeudy in Immerzeel and Jeudy, in press.

65 The restoration of the paintings was an ARCE-USAID funded Egyptian Antiquities Project in cooperation with the SCA and the Coptic Church, 2001-2005. The results will be presented and studied in Lyster (ed.), in press.

66 Van Moorsei 2000a; Lyster 1999; Van Moorsei 2002; Lyster (ed.), in press.

67 For the history of icon painting in Egypt and a catalog with examples from all periods, see Skalova in Skalova and Gabra 2006. The following paragraphs are largely based on this book.

68 Zanetti 1991.

69 Rutschowscaya 1998; Skalova in Skalova and Gabra 2006, 168-69.

70 Z. Skalova directed these restoration projects.

71 Jeudy 2004.

72 Van Moorsei 1991.