Coptic Art & Architecture


Defining the difference between Greco—Roman and early Coptic art is very difficult. The capital of Ptolemaic Egypt was Alexandria, famous throughout the Hellenistic world for its learning, and classical buildings and art, little of which has survived. It was to this imported classical art rather than its native precursor that the Copts turned for inspiration. The reason seems to be that all Pharaonic art and architecture was regarded as pagan, and although many of the ancient temples had been turned into monasteries, they wished to detach themselves as much as possible from the ancient tradition.

Probably the finest works of Roman Egypt were the Hawarah mummy paintings. Painted from life in a wax technique, they are the earliest panel portraits to survive. Dating to the first three centuries AD, they represent the Greek population of the Fayyum, and were hung in the houses of the sitters during life and attached to the coffin —and buried with them after death. Others who could not afford paintings had stucco masks painted and attached to the coffins.

Church architecture developed from the domestic buildings first used to avoid detection during the Roman persecutions. It was only after 330 when Christianity became the state religion that churches could officially be built. There should be a transitional type of building between the house-chapel and the basilican church, but this seems missing in Egypt. The earliest churches known from the area seem in all essentials to be of Syrian type and almost certainly were influenced by them in design. The essential framework of the church depended on its liturgical requirements. Nothing that can be related to pre-Christian Egyptian traditions can be said to survive in the ground plan of churches. The difficulty is that there is little uniformity of plan among the early Christian churches. All one can say is that the churches tend to be longitudinal with the main axis E. to W. and the sanctuary at the E. Two of the earliest churches are to be found in the Sùhâg monasteries of Deir al-Abyad and Deir al-Ahmar, built traditionally in the SC. In its simplest form the sanctuary is a single apse, containing one altar, but many of the Coptic churches have three apses in a trefoil arrangement, built under Syrian influence and deriving ultimately from the throne chamber of Byzantine royalty. This arrangement can be seen in the Sühäg monasteries mentioned above.

The central sanctuary is usually dedicated to the patron saint to whom the church is consecrated and the other two to subsidiary saints. Outbuildings and annexes often change the original plan. A Coptic church usually consists of four distinct sections. At the W. end, just inside the entrance, is the narthex. Beyond this is the nave, E. of which is the apse, called the haykal (sanctuary). Attached to the sanctuary is the bapfistry. The narthex is a transverse chamber which crosses the whole width of the church. In the narthex of some of the early churches a hole sunk in the floor was previously used for a service of the Blessing of the Water at the Feast of the Epiphany. Now a portable basin is used for this ceremony.

The nave is normally divided into three parts by a double colonnade, the N aisle being reserved for women. Near the E end of the nave is the ambon (pulpit) which is usually set against the colonnade of the N aisle. At the E end of the nave is the Choir, formerly separated from it by a screen, extending over the whole breadth of the church, containing seats for the singers, and lecterns from which the lessons are read. One or more steps leads from the chancel to the hayka], which only men may enter, separated from the rest of the church by a solid wooden screen, often beautifully carved and inlaid with ebony, ivory and cedar, in the centre of which is a door covered by a curtain. On either side of the door are two small windows and across the screen is a row of ikons including that of the saint to whom the church is dedicated. In some churches sanctuary lamps hang before the screen, and between them are suspended ostrich eggs.

The N. and S. sanctuaries are used when the feasts of their particular saints are being celebrated. Behind the main altar is a tribune with seats for the bishop, and the officiating clergy. In the niche behind a lamp is kept burning, known as the perpetual lamp. The altar which stands in the middle of the haykal is four-sided and made of brick or stone, covered with three layers of cloth, cotton or linen, red silk and white linen overall. Over the altar is a lofty wooden canopy upheld by pillars (rather like the Pharaonic balda- chins). On the interior of the dome covering the sanctuary is a painting of Christ as Pantokrator (Lord of the World) surrounded by cherubirn and seraphim. In the middle of the altar is the ark, a box with hinged flaps, painted with the Last Supper, the Holy Virgin, an angel and the patron saint, in which the chalice is placed from the beginning of the divine liturgy until the Holy Communion. The baptistry is normally situated at the end of the N. aisle, though not in the early churches. The font is circular and large enough for complete immersion.

It is sometimes very difficult to date Coptic material: for instance monastic painting, most of which comes from only two sites, Bawit and Saqqärah and which, except for that from the Wadi Natrun and perhaps St Anthony, are all individual paintings, not grouped in schools. Much of the work appears not to have been that of monks but commissioned from itinerant artists.

The greatest collection of Coptic art in Egypt is in the Coptic Museum founded in 1908 and taken over by the government in 1931, situated in Old Cairo in the Fortress of Babylon. The range of subjects displayed can be taken as illustrating the art forms of the Copts, Many of the objects here come from the churches and monasteries, some of which are now completely destroyed, as at Hermopolis. The museum contains many capitals derived in some cases from earlier nonAChi—istian temples; woodcarving, with a splendid 5C panel showing Christ’s entry into the Holy City on Palm Sunday; a large number of ikons, some showing strong Byzantine influence, and others typically Coptic. The finest collection is probably that of textiles, which have been preserved by the dry Egyptian air. The motifs are mixed—some are adapted Pharaonic, others Greco-Roman. In the lesser art one notes the riot of decoration without form or reason, because the craftsmen were copying earlier designs which were no longer understood

With rare exceptions Christian subjects are not found on objects produced in Egypt before the SC. One of the commonest motifs on textiles are roundels or medallions enclosing floral designs or animals, and these are very frequent in the 5 and GC. The textiles are in many ways the most interesting of the Coptic arts. They feature designs that were also carried out in wood, stone and ivory. It is not until the late 6C that classical designs die out and Christian motifs alone remain. Most of the textiles are on linen backing, some of the clothing is woollen, as is the tapestry weaving. Cotton is seldom found, and little silk. What is apparent is that Coptic art remained essentially a folk art having something of the same style as modern Egyptian weaving, without the discipline or accuracy of the works of the Pharaonic period, nor the vitality, produced by patronage, of the Muslim art that was to follow.


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