There is a fundamental issue with introducing any art; art is bounded and contained. This situation arises with an art tradition that has spanned centuries and has been the product of conflict and reinvention. It would be a disservice to give an account of styles of line or architecture and not pay homage to the variety and scope that exists for art, specifically Coptic art. Coptic art is the Christian art of Byzantine-Greco-Roman Egypt and Coptic Christian Churches. Coptic art is best known for its wall paintings, textiles, illuminated manuscripts, and metalwork, thriving in monasteries and churches. The artwork is often functional, as little distinction was drawn between artistry and craftsmanship. It also includes tunics and tombstones and portraits of saints. The Coptic Museum in Coptic Cairo houses some of the world’s most important examples of Coptic art.
It would be easy to say that Renaissance art returned to realism or that any art could be simply anything. Coptic art is the artistic tradition beginning in the 4th century in Egypt. It is the blending of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt at their historic meeting. Also, it is the expression of Egyptian Christians in churches, monasteries, and homes. Furthermore, it is the product of a funerary culture and a tool in a culture of resurrection. No wonder it marks devotion and imitation, carved and painted in all directions as reminders of another life. It is embodied in infamous textile techniques, colours, and striking candour icons.
Rather than define what it is then, a supposedly easy task, it would be better to introduce the term Coptic art as the sum of many parts. Coptic art emerged from ancient empires’ melding and mythologies, incorporating the symbols and deities used for centuries. However, from these traditions, Coptic art developed to represent the growing worshippers of Christ.
Coptic art displays a mix of Egyptian and Hellenistic influences. Subjects and symbols were taken from Greek and Egyptian mythology, sometimes altered to fit Christian beliefs. Persia and Syria also influenced Coptic and Hellenistic art, though to a lesser extent, leaving images such as the peacock and the griffin.
Coptic icons have their origin in the Greco-Roman art of Egypt’s Late Antiquity, as exemplified by the Fayum mummy portraits. The faces of El Fayum are examples of the Coptic art in the 2nd century AD showing the Greek and Roman influence on the Coptic art but with some distinctive features related to Egyptian art.
Beginning in the 4th century, churches painted their walls and made icons to reflect an authentic expression of their faith.
The Muslim conquest of Egypt allowed the local Coptic art to influence Egypt’s then Islamic art and architecture with many features that are now integral in many Egyptian buildings.
The figures of saints display eyes and ears larger in proportion to the rest of the face and a smaller mouth, as well as enlarged heads, signifying a spiritual relationship with God and devotion to prayer. Martyrs’ faces were peaceful.
Many Coptic icon painters did not sign their names. Still, the prominent among them include St. Luke (traditionally believed to be the first icon painter) and two Coptic Popes, Pope Macarius I and Pope Gabriel III.
Icon painting has enjoyed a revival in Egypt Starting from the mid-18th century and once again was popular. One of the most famous artists was Yuhanna al-Armani, whose works used more developed techniques and novel construction (e.g. using a set of icons to tell a single story).
Many Coptic textiles survive today due to the Coptic custom of burying them with the dead and Egyptian graves’ aridity. The textiles are commonly linen or wool and use red, blue, yellow, green, purple, black and brown. The dyes were derived from madder, indigo, woad, saffron, the murex shell, and the kermes insect. The first looms used were horizontal low-warp; vertical high-warp looms were introduced later. The basic garment was the tunic, which would become the dalmatic. Some tunics were woven in one piece. They also were decorated by Clavi, a stylistic import from Rome.
Some fine examples of the Coptic textile are shown in museums worldwide, and an extensive collection is in the Coptic Museum in Coptic Cairo. Tens of thousands of coloured fragments found their way into the world’s museums, especially after 1889 when the French archaeologist Albert Gayet published a catalogue of Coptic art and staged the first exhibition in the Bulaq Museum Coptic monuments. The early Coptic textiles still produced pictures and decorations incorporating Egyptian and Greek motifs. Shrouds, for example, might incorporate classical elements painted in the form of an Egyptian sarcophagus and include representations of Egyptian gods to protect the dead. Later, Coptic textiles showed the influence of Byzantium and Islamic art.
The influence of Coptic art and architecture on Islamic architecture and the incorporation of some Coptic features in Islamic buildings started as early as the 7th century AD.
As the Church of Alexandria was the first Church of Africa, the influence of Coptic art spread to Sudan and Ethiopia. Some forms of the Coptic cross are known as the Ethiopian cross, and many Churches in Ethiopia show the influence of Coptic art.
Menas flasks are very cheap terracotta bottles bought by pilgrims to Abu Mina, the shrine of Saint Menas, in the 4th and 5th centuries. The clay was impressed before firing with blocks with images of the saint. They existed nearly all over the Christian world. Many scholars trace influence from their relatively crude images in the emerging iconography of Western medieval art, among other Coptic effects.
Windows for the Holy Life
In some of the earliest monasteries in the world, the colours and shapes of Coptic art were dynamic participants in the lives of ascetics. Like particular gods and goddesses in the ancient world, Christ and his prophets were the emblems of salvation. Their images served as reminders and instructions for the saintly life, providing entrance into another world. The Coptic tradition infuses art with material use as tools for resurrection in the living and dead spaces. From the walls of St. Anthony Monastery from the 12th century to the icons hung in churches across the globe, these images and symbols cover the areas of Copts, serving as windows and anchors for the holy life. This seamless blend of art and function left Coptic art questionable in the eyes of traditional art historians and without scholarly attention for many years.
Textiles of Coptic weavers, on the other hand, have been the best-known products of Coptic art known throughout the world. The techniques and patterns of these textiles have served the most religious and most prestigious roles, functioning as both practical symbols of wealth and spiritual reminders of piety. Numerous examples of this tradition are housed in museums throughout the world. Many others are in the private Victorian collections of European families.
Witness of History
Throughout the cities of Egypt and especially in Cairo, the incorporative and stimulating nature of art is echoed in the styles of Islamic and Coptic art. Rather than simply having two separate traditions independent of the other, each influenced and inspired the other within Egypt. Coptic art is an active witness of history and provides a visual tale of incorporation and reinvention, death and resurrection. It is both the remnant of ancient empires and the modern devotion of Christian worshippers. Though it may be the sum of many parts, it is far from tied to those parts. It is a product of changing societies, religions, histories, and counterparts. It is a living, breathing continuation, resurrected and reinvented in the hands of every generation of Egyptian Copts.
Modern Coptic art
Modern Coptic art is also known as the Neo-Coptic school. In recent centuries icons have been the primary means of expression, keeping most traditional aspects. Coptic icons are more concerning religious truth and beauty than with realism, the depiction of depth, or perspective. As in the Byzantine and related traditions, the figures are depicted frontally, looking straight at the viewer. Today, Coptic icons hang in churches and homes and praying altars. Christians may also purchase from Coptic gift shops throughout Egypt and the Coptic diaspora.
During the papacy of Pope Cyril VI, the emergence of Coptic painters like Isaac Fanous Youssef, along with the revival of Coptic art, brought about the creation of the Contemporary or Neo-Coptic school of iconography.
In 1952, architect and Coptic Christian Ramses Wissa Wassef founded the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center in Giza, Egypt. He asked 14 children, primarily Copts, to develop a new artform by reviving the ancient Coptic weaving method. The Coptic weaver Maryam Hermina (born 1932) taught the children the technique. The Art Centre has a significant museum of 20th-century tapestries.