The Treasures of Coptic Art: In the Coptic Museum and Churches of Old Cairo
reviewed by Mike Aquilina
Egypt’s native Christian community, the Copts, trace their origins to the apostolate of St. Mark the Evangelist. Long marginalized by the Muslim majority, they still cling tenaciously to their ancient culture, which finds expression in distinctive and beautiful art—art all but unknown in the West.
The Treasures of Coptic Art includes hundreds of color images, well photographed to highlight even the small details. The text is written by Gawdat Gabra, former director of Cairo’s Coptic Museum, and Marianne Eaton-Krauss, a specialist in pharaonic art at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities.
The editors use the term “art” broadly, to include decorated items from everyday life, like combs, lamps, flasks, jewelry, dishes, keys, and children’s toys. Egypt’s desert climate has preserved a remarkable number of artifacts that could not have survived in other, damper places: textiles like tapestries, vestments, and carpets; wood carvings; papyrus manuscripts; and, of course, devotional icons and wall paintings. They’re all in this book, alongside the more durable media, like sculpture and architecture.
The ancient Copts were aware of their native heritage—the art of the Pharaohs—but they also drew from other influences: Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, and even Indian. The port of Alexandria was the mercantile and intellectual hub of the ancient world; people of all nations converged there and left their marks on the arts.
Egypt’s Christians experienced their greatest freedom in the three-century interlude between Roman persecution and Muslim invasion, and many of the works included in this book come from that period. “Coptic monuments never enjoyed the patronage of emperors, kings, rulers, or sultans,” write the authors. “In the absence of court patronage, the artistic heritage of the Copts [was] expressed in monasteries and churches.” Much of the art is in the folk idiom.
The varied influences are easy to spot. Like their forebears in the age of the Pharaohs, the Christian Copts favored the brighter hues in the palette. Like the later Byzantines, they rendered proportionally oversized eyes, ears, and foreheads, to suggest prodigious spiritual senses.
Coptic icons, however, are often simpler and less ornate than their Byzantine counterpart. Facial expressions tend to be softer, and the figures are usually, of course, darker-skinned. Overall, they have a more “primitive” and even naïve quality, as one might find in the folk paintings of the American South or the self-consciously primitivist works of Edward Hicks or Henri Rousseau.
The illustrations alone tell of the minute particulars of Coptic devotion. Carvings give evidence of the early devotion to the Blessed Virgin, St. Michael the Archangel, and especially the Holy Family, whose sojourn in Egypt is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. There is a great multitude of portrayals of Coptic saints, most of them monks and nuns of the desert, portrayed in the robes of their habit, with the characteristic wide-eyed frontal stare.
The book, perfectly calibrated for an introduction, provides historical context, made vivid by arresting details from the documentary and archeological record. Egyptian Christians continued to practice the ancient methods of mummifying their dead till well into the eighth century, for example, while the ankh, the symbol of the Nile River god, gradually became Egypt’s dominant Christian symbol, the “cross with a handle,” still a sign of waterborne life.
Pilgrimage has been an enduring expression of the fervor of the Copts. Pilgrim shrines are focal points of devotion, and so are often ornamented by visitors and patrons. The subject merits a full chapter in Treasures.
Most interesting is the treatment of the shrine of Abu Mina, the Lourdes of the ancient world. St. Mina (or Menas) was a third-century soldier who died in the first eruption of Diocletian’s persecution. As his body was borne homeward by his comrades, the camels stopped suddenly in the desert and refused to budge. The soldiers, who were Christian, took this as a sign that Mina should be buried there.
A spring miraculously appeared at the site, and its waters were renowned for their healing power. Pilgrims converged on the site from everywhere. Abu Mina flasks, given close treatment in the book, have been found in Italy and the Balkans. Mina always appears in the orant posture (hands outstretched in prayer), usually with the features characteristic of Coptic art: an oversized round head and large, otherworldly eyes.
Other Egyptian pilgrimage sites track the Holy Family’s travels through the land. These, too, inspired many images: the Christ child riding on St. Joseph’s shoulders, the Virgin riding a donkey or a horse (symbolizing the flight from Herod). Some ancient renderings of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus reflect common pharaonic images of Isis with the suckling infant Horus.
Additional chapters treat the cultures of the Nile, monasticism, Gnosticism, church architecture, and many other subjects. The chapter on the “Glorification of the Holy Virgin” is especially beautiful. Throughout the book, the authors draw from the writings of the great Fathers and the counsels of the desert ascetics.
This is the ancient faith made visible and made durable—a desert faith that has survived almost two millennia of tremendous hardship. The Treasures of Coptic Art invites a new Christian audience to look into the outsized eyes of Egypt’s icons.
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“Egyptian Spoils” first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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