Warriors In Coptic Art

WARRIORS IN COPTIC ART

The warrior cannot be considered a general theme in Coptic art. The subject is rare and particularized. We must distinguish from it the occasional figure of Alexander on horseback (see BYZANTINE INFLUENCES ON COPTIC ART) and the frequent theme of the mounted saints. The latter, while attesting to a Byzantine iconographic influence, pertains to hagiography rather than to the military arts.

Two pieces are practically all that we can cite; both date from the fourth century. The first, in the Louvre Museum, is the statuette (painted limestone, 18 inches [45 cm] high; 7 inches [18 cm] wide; 5 inches [12.5 cm] thick) of a soldier in the Roman army, without helmet or sword. He is clad in a short tunic, girded by a belt, in which is set a dagger; the torso is protected below a polished gorget by a cuirass of scales, ornamented with a Gorgon’s head, as is his shield.

His right hand, raised to middle height, is gripped round a space that must have been filled by a throwing weapon in a different material, now lost. His breeches appear to be of coarse sacking. The almond eyes, among other features, show that he is an Egyptian. The hairstyle is contemporary with DIOCLETIAN (284-305).

The other piece, in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, is, in contrast, a group of soldiers (on horseback and on foot) liberating a fortress (wood, 18 inches [45 cm] high; 9 inches [22 cm] wide; 8 inches [20 cm] thick). Its treatment in very high relief justifies placing it in the area of statuary. It originated from al-Ashmunayn in Upper Egypt. It could be a late rendering of a biblical battle scene among those sustained during the Exodus. The clothes and weapons are imperial. One of the soldiers carries the labarum with the chi-rho monogram.

Both the treatment and the details and style are characteristic of a period when the recruitment of auxiliaries, but also of legionnaires, was carried on among the citizens of Egypt, from the beginning of the second century. The state of subjection and even oppression to which the Copts were more and more exposed readily explains why the subject was not taken up again later.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bourguet, P. du. “A Propos dun militaire égyptien de la période romaine.” Bulletin de la Société française d’égyptologie 68 (October 1973):10-16.
  • Christentum am Nil. Koptische Kunst, Supplement no. 588, fig. 13. Zurich, 1963.

PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.

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