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Egypt Exploration Society

The Two Styles of Coptic Painting

Author(s): Dora Zuntz
Source: The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Sep., 1935), pp. 63-67
Published by: Egypt Exploration Society
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Accessed: 01/10/2010 10:03

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With Plates iii to vi

To divide the conception of the Coptic Style, itself not clearly defined, into two different
parts, the Alexandrian Coptic and the Native Coptic, may seem to need some justification.
From time to time the obvious differences in the art of the Christian Egyptians have been
remarked on; here I will try to give some reasons for the rise and development of these two
separate Coptic styles, neither springing from the other but growing side by side indepen-
dently of each other, and first one and then the other being of greater importance.1
Compared with ancient Egyptian art and the highly civilized productions of the Greek
and Roman epochs, Coptic art seems inferior in quality but strangely persistent, stereotyped
but very impressive, born of a severity to which a:ny manifestation of an amiable, gay,
and beautiful world, any longing for beauty and delicacy and elegance would be unknown
and unwanted. Coptic art arose out of a negation, sol to speak, out of a protest against the
Hellenic and Roman culture, forced on Egypt by foreign rulers. Its style on the whole, in
all its productions, stands in striking contrast to Hellenistic art tendencies. The Copt desires
fervently to produce quite another style than the Greek; his ideas of art, his vision and
methods of reproduction, are entirely different from the Hellenistic conceptions. He
cannot renounce Greek and, later, Byzantine inspiration for themes and ornaments,
especially when supplying the Mediterranean, outer world; but his style is most decidedly
always his own. The first astonishing fact, namely that the Egyptians, with their highly
nationalistic tendencies, did not revive their own old and sacred forms, in order to clear away
this foreignHelleniclayer,is easilyexplained. In the firstthreecenturiesA.D. the Egyptians
were converted to Christianity; and the new ideas resulting from the enormous change in
their whole outlook, the absolutely new point of view, and the recognition of the existence
of social classes nameless till then, could not find adequate expression through forms which
had their origin in quite another spirit. Despite the nationalistic tendencies of the age, new
shapes were required for this last blossom of Egyptian art; it had to find a form of its own.
National in its opposition to Greek culture, not ancient Egyptian but remembering the
grandeur of past centuries, moulded by new forms and new ideas, this Christian Egyptian
art acquired a strange singularity.
The international situation and Egypt's own political development had produced almost
unbearable social conditions. In fact there existed two classes only: on the one hand, the
rich, cosmopolitan reigning class of the Greeks, the Hellenized Egyptian nobility and haute
finance, and above all the great land-owners, the Roman and later the Byzantine public
officials with all their rights and immunities and power; on the other hand, the nameless,
servile, powerless, and outlawed class of the fellahs and workmen. Similarly, and because
of these social conditions, culture and civilization were sharply divided into two: the foreign
Hellenic or Hellenized layer, cosmopolitan, educated in classical learning and philosophy
1 A detailed study of these two styles will be made in a book on which I am now engaged.

and art, and the illiterate lower stratum, full of gloomy nationalistic hatred and a narrow,
passionate religiosity. Thus there necessarily arose two forms of Christianity in Egypt,
shaped by these two classes in accordance with their whole being and spiritual level. And
these two kinds of Christianity found two different ways of expression in art: the more
international art of the rich and educated, subject first to Hellenistic and later to Byzantine
influences,and having its centrein Alexandria,and the art of the poor, uneducated,emo-
tional native Egyptians, springing out of the hinterland itself. The new national Christian
art thus obviously had to take two forms: the Alexandrian style and the native style of the
hinterland. Both were bound up with religion in an even higher degree than our medieval
art, almost all production being required and made only for religious purposes. The
Church, becoming more and more powerful-especially the leading Alexandrian clergy, first
with their famous teachers and later with their traditions-came to occupy the position
formerly held by the reigning class, politically, socially, and intellectually. The monks
represented the lower class; nationalistic, their numbers increased more and more by men
and women fleeing into the monasteries and nunneries from the distresses and miseries of
their world, not impelled only by a fanatical religious enthusiasm.
As long as the Coptic Churchwas still part of the Imperial Church,and the most important
and powerful see was that of Alexandria, the more international Hellenic culture was pre-
dominant. But after the loss of the Primacyand the separationof the monophysitesin A.D.
451, the nationalistic school developed more and more definitely and became of increasing
importance. After the Arab conquest this national Coptic culture survived for a while.
The struggle of the Arabs against the Copts, the fact that all Christian people of whatever
confession formed an enclave in the Islamic world, brought into being a modus vivendi and
put an end to the contentions of the monophysites and the Byzantine believers.
This international and political and ecclesiastical development of Christian Egypt gives
us a very definite idea of what to expect in its art. It may be assumed that from the fourth
till well into the fifth century, the Alexandrian style was predominant, surviving after that
time, but giving way in the fifth century to the art of the Coptic hinterland, which reaches
its highest level from the fifth to the seventh centuries. After that periodthere must have
been a certain commingling of both styles, which was devoid of original ideas owing to
excessive national reserve, and which was influenced by Byzantium, Syria, and Persia. In
fact, the enclosure of Coptic culture within an Islamic world proved the death-knell of Coptic
art. Thenceforthit uses old types and figuresand repeatsthem though their meaninghas
often been lost, just as the language ceased to be used except in Church services, and Arabic
translations were put in the margins of the old books.
The difference between the monophysite and Byzantine beliefs led consequently to
differences in the subjects of the painting. While in the first period of Christian painting
in Egypt and in the late Coptic-Arabic time they differ little from those of the rest of the
Christian world, we find at the period of Coptic-monophysite culture a limitation of subject-
matter, some special iconography, and varied versions of known iconographic types. As is
to be expected, in accordance with monophysite doctrine, historical cycles of the Birth
and of the Passion of Christ, for example, and especially any representations of the Cruci-
fixion, never occur in purely monophysite Coptic churches and monasteries. As far as they
are to be found (in Der Abu Hennes near Antinoe, for example, or in textiles) they come
from a few Hellenized centres, centres which to a large extent supplied the Byzantine world.
The Coptic illuminated manuscripts showing these special representations belong to a far
later period, beginning at about the twelfth century and influenced by Byzantium.
Whe-rewe find historical cycles at all, they give the life of a Coptic saint, such as that of
Plate III

Plate IV


Plate V

"'. l-.
I# I


Plate VI



St. Mena in the Medinet Habu frescoes at Luxor. Mostly the walls are decorated with long
series of saints and locally venerated Ambas, often with eikons of Christ and the Virgin
or merely with sacred symbols. The representation of the Maiestas Domini is a special
Coptic invention, emphasizing the divinity of Christ.


Having thus traced a skeleton outline of the development of Coptic painting, and
finding it to follow the lines we might expect, I will try to fill in the characteristic details
of the whole, with particular attention to the native Coptic style of the hinterland.
As early as about the second century A.D. some characteristics of the later Coptic style
are plainly shown in the change of style in the execution of the Mummy Portraits (P1. iii,
figs.l,l 22). Left to himself, the Egyptian produces quite another kind of portrait from that of
the Romano-Egyptian painter. The manner of portraying a face ffrom an individual, vivid
and momentary impression gives way to a style which tries to catch the idea, the real and
enduring character of the subject. Instead of trying to give the illusion of a living person,
and painting in a quick impressionistic manner, all forms and details are forced into a very
decorative, ornamental system. The contours of head and shoulders and arms conform to
the outer shape of the panel, the head itself being enclosed by the outline of the hair and
the necklaces below, the forehead and eyebrows following the outer shape of the head, while
chin and mouth repeat the curve of the necklaces. The nose provides a strong vertical
division. And in that geometrically outlined face all details are painted in an extremely
ornamental, unnatural way-curls, ears, mouth, jewellery, and what is believed to be a
garland. A type has grown out of the individual head. Out of the Mummy-portrait the
Sacred Eikon was being born.
Some representations of the Virgin (P1. iv, figs. 1,3 2 ;4 PI. v, fig. 1,5 Sakkrah, Bawit),
clearly show the differences in the Coptic style that we have mentioned. In an extremely
striking way, the "Madonna Lactans" from Sakklrah, painted in the best period, the sixth
century, exemplifies the art of the hinterland with all the characteristics that we found in the
late Mummy-portrait and some more. The desire to give a simple geometrical structure to
the picture is obvious. Vertical, horizontal, and semicircular lines are repeated as often as
possible: the contours of the palmette, halo, hair, and eyebrows, correspond to the arch of the
niche; a strictly vertical line, parallel to the vertical lines of the throne, goes from the orna-
ment of the veil down over the middle of the forehead to the nose, between the hands of
Christ and Mary, down to the knees of the child and to its feet. Similarly, the various
transverse lines of the throne emphasize the broad, horizontal effect of the Madonna with
the Christ-child on her knees. And something new is present, characteristic of all Coptic
art, whether of the Alexandrian or of the hinterland styles-a real horrorvacui. The Copts
have a strong dislike of leaving any free space in a picture, textile, or sculpture. Like the
old Boeotian vase-painters or "Greek" artists round the Black Sea, they feel they must
fill up the whole picture with jewellery, ornaments, flowers, trees, or animals. And, just as
Mummy-portrait. Altaegyptische Abteilung der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin, No. 11411.
Mummy-portrait. Antiquarium, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, No. 31161/48. After P. Buberl, Die

griechisch-aegyptischenMumienbildnisseder SammlungTh. Graf, Taf. 46, No. 48.

3 After Quibell, Excavationsat Saqqara,ii, P1. 41.
4 After Quibell, op. cit., ir, P1. 47.
5 After Cledat, Le Monastereet la ne'cropolede Baouit, i (=Me'moires . . . de l'Inst. fr. d'arch. or. au
Caire, t. xII), P1. 96.

they crowd a picture with these, they decorate with pictures uninterruptedly a whole chapel
and all the walls of a church. Not only Sakkarah and Bawit, but every little cave or
monastery shows this same passion for decorating a space all over.
The austere atmosphere of the picture (P1. iv, fig. 1), very impressive in its narrow sim-
plicity, stands in striking contrast with the two other representations of the Virgin (P1. iv,
fig. 2; PI. v, fig. 1), one earlier (fifth to sixth centuries) and one later (eighth century) than the
"Madonna Lactans" of Sakkarah. The busts of the Virgin and Gabriel (P1. iv, fig. 2) call to
mind Alexandrian ivory carvings, and, as far as one can judge from th copy, e the manner of
painting is reminiscent of the impressionistic method of the Hellenistic time-as, for example,
the portrait of Apa Jeremias himself plainly shows. The representation of Mary enthroned,
with the Child in the mandorla and two angels (P1. v, fig. 1), belongs to the period after the
Arab conquest and the decline of Coptic culture. The type of the Hodegetria occurs rarely in
Coptic paintings and immediately shows the influence of Byzantium, but the transformation
into the Coptic style is also evident. The way in which the faces are stylized, and the strong
emphasis given to the ornaments of the angels' dresses, at once betray the Copt. Both these
pictures belong to the Alexandrian Coptic style.
The same singularity on the whole as well as the same differences are to be seen from
two other pictures from Sakklrah and Bawit: the Baptism of Christ and Christ Enthroned
(P1. v, fig. 2;1 P1. vi, fig. 12). The theme of the former representation itself shows that the
picture must belong to the Alexandrian Coptic style-it does not occur in the national
Copticstyle. And it is obviousalso fromthe paintingitself. The representationof Christas
a youth and standing naked in the river, the personification of the Jordan as a god seated
with a vessel in his hand, the fish all around, the emphasized movements of St. John and the
Angel, prove very clearly that Alexandria must have been the birthplace of that type of
representation. The Coptic decorative principle strikes the eye.
The Christ Enthroned, on the other hand (P1. vi, fig. 1), is almost the best example of the
national art of the Coptic hinterlandin its perfection (sixth century). The figure in the niche
is facing full towards the spectator, being fixed to the flower-covered wall of the niche as
almost an ornament in itself, surrounded by a series of angels' heads. The eikon-like character
of the figure is perfectly expressed. In surrendering entirely to the desire to decorate the
whole picture, the artist, by placing the stern face and straight figure in front of that back-
ground, has given it the most other-worldly effect possible. Everything is done to avoid
making Christ appear as man, either helpful or suffering, for the oriental believer conceived
only one nature in his God.
The late Coptic frescoes and Coptic-Arabic manuscripts are of quite another style, as, for
example, the Transfiguration in the El-'Adra Church at Cairo (PI. vi, fig. 2). The influence
of Byzantium is evident. Armenians and Syrians were working for Coptic Churches too
(Sohag; Wadi el-Natrin). The Transfiguration follows a well-known Byzantine type-of the
characteristicsof the Copticstyle not much is left.
Production goes on until the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, losing more and more
of its similarity and impressive unity. New foreign as well as Arabic influences, and often
misunderstood repetitions of old Coptic types, are to be met in all these latest frescoes of
Christian-Egyptianart. This clinging to a long-deadpast, the attempt to keep it alive
till our days, restoring and repainting the famous old places all through the centuries,
often renders difficult an exact dating of the old frescoes. Sometimes only the type of the
1 After Cledat, op. cit., In
(= Memoires,etc., t. xxxix), P1. 4.
After Quibell, Excavationsat Saqqara,m, P1. 8.

representationin itself is old, all painting having been done again and again in later
epochs. Layers and layers cover the real antique fresco, as, for example, in the mona-
steries of St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Eastern desert. And even now the Copts try
to give the same shape and style to their art as their ancestorsdid more than a thousand
years ago, when Copticart was the expressionof their very being.