The Origin, Development, and Philosophy of Coptic Art
      A Book Review and Commentary on Pierre du Bourguet's "Coptic Art"
      (translated by Caryll Hay-Shaw). London: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1971.

Influence of Pharaonic and Hellenic Art


In the early pages of his book Pierre  du Bourguet mentions that Pharaonic art
continued for some time to dominate the artistic  scene after the introduction
of  Christianity   into  Egypt by  Saint   Mark  the Evangelist.   While  most
Egyptologists and  Coptologists  agree on  this  premise, they  differ  in the
extent of this period of transformation from "Pharaonic" to "Christian" Coptic
Art. Truly there were borrowings particulary in  the very early Christian era;
but it was  not long before  the swan song of Pharaonic  art was heard and the
dawn of the new  era of Coptic  art was about to peep.  By the last decades of
the  fourth century A.D., it  was clear that Egyptian   (Coptic) art was based
wholly on pure   Christian themes. The  sources  which (so to  speak) used  to
nourish Pharaonic art gradually dried  up and the whole scene  was left to the
influence of the new religion.
One may mention in passing the influence of Neoplatonism and the emphasis laid
by Neoplatonic   mysticism on the  Unknowable  and the  composite  Harmony and
Beauty  of  the  outer world.  This  mystical trend   imbued with metaphysical
speculation must have  infiltrated through the  moral philosophy of the  Copts
and, in  consequence, it  has exercised  some  crucial influence on  the early
trends of Coptic art. A direct result that we  gain here is the attribution of
meaning and significance to the work of art  rather than the reliance upon the
outward appearance of  the work itself. It  becomes then easy to conclude that
this trend  in  Coptic art is noticeable   in Alexandria more than  any  other
center  in  Egypt because of the  origination  and development  of Alexandrine
Another  artistic trend was establishing itself   in Alexandria: namely Coptic
art with Hellenistic leanings. Hellenized art, as it is commonly known, sought
its  inspiration  in  philosophy  and  this   was  responsible  for  beautiful
architectural ornamentation   and decorative  themes.  Apart from  Alexandria,
architectural schemes developed enormously in other important centers all over
Church Architectures
The construction  of churches was not long  delayed particularly in Alexandria
and what is known  as Old Cairo.  Foremost among these  is the "crypt"  of Abu
Sarga (Saint Sergius)  with its basilica  which is roofed with three flattened
vaults, comprising a  nave and two  side-aisles, separated from  each other by
two rows of columns. A nook in the  north-east angle contains  a basin and may
well have served as a baptistery in times past. The columns, apart from one in
granite, are of marble and one of these is very classical in style.
The only other church  one could consider  as contemporary with the "crypt" of
AbuSerga is that known as "Mari Mina" (Saint Menas), the soldier-martyr who is
buried in   the   Maryut desert near    Alexandria. We  find  once   again the
rectangular basilican plan with three naves, of which the wider central one is
separated from the other two rows of square pillars. The east end was taken up
with  three returning  apses,  their widths   corresponding to  those   of the
naves. These were headed with arched vaults in brick.
Mention should  be made of  the fact that  the cures effected  by  the tomb of
Saint Menas in the Maryut desert near  Alexandria, and those attributed to the
waters of  the miraculous springs running  close  by, established the  fame of
this site from  the  late third century onward.    The tomb, and  probably the
semi-dome of the apse, were embellished with mosaics; the limestone walls were
covered with marble plaques; the columns bore capitals with  a double range of
acanthus; and the plan was cruciform, analogous to those of Saint John Ephesus
and Gaza.

As for  the church, it  forms part of a  complex of buildings designed for the
accomodation of  pilgrims: a complex  which includes baths, a secular basilica
of baths with two apsese facing each  other, dating from  the end of the fifth
century, a pilgrims' she;ter and a cemetery.   Near the cemetery is a basilica
with the center nave prolonged by a  returning apse. This detail hardly exists
anywhere else, except in certain  churches in North   Africa or central  Syria
but, while  becoming more elaborate, will continue  to be almost invariable in
the architecture of Coptic churches, as  we can indeed see  near Old Cairo and
in Mari Mina.
As for the buildings of  monasteries they are mostly  scattered around two  or
three  and sometimes  four  courts.  Churches  follow the basilican  plan with
tripartite   sanctuaries.  there  is  also  the  lofty   vaulted hall  and   a
refectory.  Inside paintings are in  most cases those  of Christ in Glory aove
the  Apostles, the Virgin with  the Infant Jesus   and the Coptic saints whose
names are inscribed in Coptic martyrology. the  paintings, for instance, which
decorate the apses in the Church of Saint Mary at the Syrian monastery in Wadi
el-Natroun consists of an Annunciation, a Nativity and an Assumption.
Tapestry-weaving and Textiles
In tapestry-weaving two themes are prominent: the  display of beautiful yellow
fish with varied bone  color, swimming across  a uniform green background. The
other theme is directly derived from the ancient Egyptian motifs as related to
the  gods Osiris, Isis,  and Horus. The  origin  of tapestry-weaving in colors
remains  in   dispute. On the one   hand,  many scholars attribute  it  to the
Hellenistic Orient, possibly  reflecting influences from  the Orient proper at
earlier times.  On the other   hand, Pharaonic Egypt  of  the New  Kingdom had
provided us   with few examples  of colored   tapestry-weaving, notably -- the
famous dalmatic of Tutankhamen; and a piece in  the tomb of a noble, preserved
in Turin.
There is some striking similarity between  the scenes printed on funerary urns
in  ancient Greece and  ancient Egypt. The flat  tints found on Greek vases of
the third  century  B.C. had their counterpart   in  the modeling  achieved in
mosaics  of the   Alexandrian  period. The   oldest  of  these are  the  large
"orbicula"  reproducing  in  tapestry those   painted   on Egypto-Roman burial
shrouds and the small "orbiculum" in  the Moscow Museum, representing the head
and shoulders of the Nile god.
The author draws  our attention to  the fact that in this  context we must not
omit   the so-called  "Faiyum portraits",  painted  on wood,   and  usually in
encaustic. This technique may have been derived from analogous methods used in
Roman  mural frescoes   of  the first and   second  centuries. Egypt, however,
appears to have been the only country to have used it in this manner, no doubt
because of  its funeral  rites,  which were  often   adopted  in turn  by  the
occupying race.
Coptic textiles  are well known  for the brightness  of their colors and their
distribution in broad bands  on a variety  of  garments. Certain hangings  and
rugs  in the Berlin  Museum --   fragmentary yet reasonably  complete  -- show
arrangements of  male   or female dancers  used   for  decorative purposes.  A
vertical line of  trilobate leaves  divides the figures  one  from the  other.
Another tapestry to which the author refers is the one in the Louvre. All that
remains from this tapestry is a dancer with a veil covering her arm. The shape
of the face, the noticeable schematization of the features, the outline of the
eyes, the ear-rings,  and the gesture  of the arm --  all  correspond to those
found in the Berlin  hanging, despite some  differences in the position of the
head and the meaning of the gesture.
A fragment of a large "shawl" kept in the Louvre depicts a pastoral scene with
shepherds dressed in a sort of loin-cloth worn under an ocellated skin as they
stand with  one leg  crossed over  the other, in  a  pose similar  to  that of
Bacchus on  the ivory in  the pulpit (ambon)   of Aix-la-Chapelle, playing the
flute or the syrinx.   The facial details,  although  simply sketched  in, are
clear. Like the details of the clothing or the  musical instruments, the dog's
collars or the joints of  the limbs, they are  simply outlined with the flying
Coptic  tapestry, however, reached the height  of its glory  in  the sixth and
seventh  centuries. In its evolution,  the parallelism with that of sculptured
relief is not difficult to establish. in a variety of colors, among which only
a few predominate,  the vivacity of the tints,  as fresh now  as the  day they
left the  weaver's  hand, is  a joy  to  behold.  Furthermore,  a contrast  is
established which  brings  out the tender,  roseate  figures against  the rich
ground: that of the nereid  is in violent  opposition with the uniform ground.
Painting in the early Christian period has developed as a papyrus-illumination
rather  than painting  on  stucco. It marked  an   extension of the  Pharaonic
tradition particularly of ornamenting the Ptolemaic papyri.
From the third century  onwards,  representations of  Christ in Majesty   have
existed, borrowed from Byzantine art: the prototypes for numerous paintings in
the period immediately following   this, which showed   Him in  His  glorified
aspect.  The    Virgin provides   the  subject  for   numerous  sculptures and
paintings.  The theme,  however,  has been diversified:   instead of a  "Virgo
Lactans",   we  find the Virgin   enthroned,   and even  scenes  such  as  the
The saints, moreover, began to populate the iconographic field. One reason for
this  is that the influence of  the great monastic  figures  was making itself
felt --  aided by time, which   now favoured the Christian   cause. It is also
probable    that  an element   of  popular  devotion,   more  disposed to  the
representation of personages regarded as in the immediate orbit of daily life,
contributed to their multiplication in the iconography.
As for pottery a large number  of vases or plates  are in the Coptic Museum in
Cairo and in the Louvre. These are decorated with vines or undulating stems in
which the touch of naturalism is not lacking. Fish and birds appear very often
on these vases or plates.
Coptic art, in  contrast  to  many other  trends  of  art, appears to  have  a
distinctive  feature of  abstraction   and of expressing  what is   beyond the
visible forms through an elaborate technique of symbolism. Parts and wholes of
designs and of artistic levels seem to merge and interplay. The overall effect
is the exuberance  of the reality that  is  symbolically expressed beyond  the
work  of art which  transcends the work itself  as a visible  entity. Here the
imagination  had  to play  a  functional role   in building up inter-relations
together with the inherent flights between parts and wholes.
This  act of   transcendence is  the   landmark  of  Coptic  art shifting  the
imagination from the tangible to  the invisible and  from the temporal to  the
eternal. It is   an essential orientation towards  the  Everlasting beyond the
levels and surfaces of designs and artistic creations in general.
To that effect the author has given  ample evidence. Actually, the copiousness
of the auhor, who delved  in many valuable areas, is  impressive. He went even
further to  mention the minutest detail and  in all his expository and careful
analysis he  shows   remarkable familiarity  with the   internal conditions of
Coptic life. the Little halts on the  way helped him recapitulate the thematic
threads of this  subject  particularly in  dealing with  heartfelt beliefs and
periods of artistic exuberance.
This book  by Pierre du Bourguet is  a well-rounded exposition  of the origins
and development  of Coptic art, past  and present. The author  has gone to the
very roots of this art in Pharaonic Egypt and Helllenic Greece and Alexandrine
offshoots.  He was  also careful to  point out  that all these  sources helped
Coptic art  develop throughout the early  stages. but with the  development of
Coptic  Orthodoxy in the  Land of the Nile there  came the time  when this art
parted company with early sources whether Hellenistic or  Pharaonic and in the
fourth and the early  decades of the fifth  centuries Coptic art exhibited its
purely Christian and distinctive traits.
* This  review appeared in  Coptologia  Studia Coptica Orthodoxa:  A  Research
  Publication in Coptic Orthodox Studies,  St Peter's Printing and  Publishing
  Company, 1981 (ISBN-0-86489-000-1)