Coptic Art and Life in Icons and Monasteries

By Simone Fattal

The Copts: 2000 Years Of Christian Art In Egypt
The Institute of the Arab World. Paris, May 16-September 3, 2000.

The Institute of the Arab World, in Paris, is showing an exhibit entitled "The Copts: 2000 Years of Christian Art in Egypt," which will run until September 3, 2000. Though small, the exhibit is very well done with extraordinary objects on loan to the Institute by museums in Berlin, Belgium, Russia, and the United States, as well as France’s Bibliotheque Nationale and other institutions.

The Copts are the Christians of Egypt. Egypt was Christianized very early by St. Mark, the writer of one of the four Gospels. He brought the new religion to Alexandria a mere century after Cleopatra. Before long, the Roman governors worried for their power and put him to death. Egypt became Christian little by little. The new church mixed Christian symbols with ancient Egyptian rituals. The educated classes spoke and wrote Greek, the "new" language brought by Alexander and his generals when they settled there. Ancient Egyptian, the vernacular language, became the language of the new faith.

The first thing we learn as we walk through the rooms of the exhibit is that Champollion - who knew the Coptic language - realized when visiting Egypt that the Egyptian language written on the walls of the temples in hieroglyphs was in no way different from the Coptic language still used in the liturgy of the Coptic Church. That discovery allowed him to decipher the hieroglyphs, for the hieroglyphs were written phonetically in Greek characters in the Coptic books.

The new faith built monasteries and churches filled with sculptures, bas-reliefs, icons, and manuscripts. The art is mostly of popular origin; it is a simple art, near to the common people. The art is a composite, reflecting the many cultures of the country and evolving with the centuries. The early Pharaonic and Roman influences gave way to the Islamic culture with time.

The textiles and the weavings, called Fayoum or Coptic, exhibit the Roman influence. One can see the intermingling of styles as the portraits painted on sarcophagi of the late Egyptian period resemble the figures woven in these textiles. We also see a sarcophagus painted with a peacock, a newcomer to the iconography of Egypt later brought by the invading Sassanid Persians.

On certain icons, Jesus has his arm around a saint in the Pharaonic manner. The exhibit contains the Gospels in Arabic, written in the same style as the Koran, illuminated with gold and flowers; ceramics in that particular Egyptian yellow and brown luster representing the figure of Christ are also on display. We see the Madonna and child figure, a Christian image which was to have such a huge influence in Renaissance times, for the first time in bas-reliefs. The glorification of the Virgin certainly came from the ancient cult of goddesses in Egypt.

A beautifully illuminated book depicts the "Alexandrian Chronicle" with a picture of Bishop Theophile, who is famous for having ordered the destruction of the Greek temple to Serapis. The picture shows him standing proudly among the ruins, proclaiming the triumph of the new faith, and opening a new era where the Christians themselves will persecute the pagans.

Certain art forms are the same in Egypt today as in those early centuries. Today in Harrania, located outside Cairo, one can find weaving that is exactly the same in form and feel as work done by the weavers of the Wissa Wassef ateliers.

It can be difficult to differentiate between Coptic and Islamic works because the wood, ivory, textiles, and manuscripts use the same vocabulary of arabesques. Decors in plaster inside the Monastery of the Syrians in Ouadi Natroun are in the most perfect Toulounide style. The architecture of these convents is stupendous. Inside, the monks wrote, painted, and cultivated the soil. Most of the monastery’s Syriac manuscripts are now at the British Museum, but French and Dutch missions have undertaken the restoration of the frescoes inside some of these monasteries.

Christian Egypt’s main contribution to world history and culture is this monasticism - great monasteries which were to become the model for all convents in Christianity. This exhibit helps us to understand the Copts a little better and to appreciate some of their other legacies. AJ

This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 31 ( Spring 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid


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