Coptic Art in Egypt

By Wells, Rhona | The Middle East, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Coptic Art in Egypt


Wells, Rhona, The Middle East


The celebrate the millenium, the Arab world Institute in Paris has staged an exhibition featuring a diverse display of Coptic Egyptian Art. The display provides a fascinating and unique insight into 2000 years of Christianity along the Nile

Egypt's Coptic Christian community currently accounts for almost six per cent, or 3.3 million of the country's population. The Arab World Institute exhibition Coptic Art In Egypt takes us back to the early beginnings of the religion, illustrating daily life and rituals with a series of lovingly preserved artefacts that have emerged from the sand over the centuries

The articles on display --previously scattered between collections in Berlin, Brussels, London, New York, Moscow and Athens -- have been reunited in this special exhibition sponsored by the French town of Agde, a community on the shores of the Mediterranean, built by the Greeks, which continues to enjoy special cultural links with Alexandria.

About a 100 years after Cleopatra, the evangelist Marc appears in the first century AD, preaching the gospel of Jesus in Alexandria. The evangelist was initially well received in the cosmopolitan city, where Greeks, Jews, Romans and Egyptians co-existed happily.

However, Marc eventually fell foul of the occupying Romans and was put to death for his beliefs, in the process becoming a martyr whose spiritual cause was subsequently embraced by a number of those who had heard him preach.

Thus, a church was born which lent itself to a mixture of Christian symbolism as well as Egyptian rituals. Some of the evangelic tales which form the basis of the Coptic religion embrace pharaonic myths and characters such as Isis, Osiris and Horus. The influence of pharaonic art is particularly noticeable with the use of the ancient symbol of the ankh, also known as the `Nile Key', representing the resurrection, rather than the traditional crucifix.

The first converts were intellectuals, soon followed by the peasants who identified with the image of the infant Jesus and his parents being forced to flee oppression.

Many early examples of Coptic art survived thanks to the dedication of Albert Gayet, a young archaeologist of the late 1800s, who unearthed long forgotten artefacts from excavations at the town of Antinoa, later to be known as the Egyptian Pompei.

In the area of Antinoa, Gayet discovered many necropoles, where the burial chambers had remained undisturbed for centuries. These catacombs provided a wealth of funeral masks as well as examples of burial clothing worn by Egypt's early Coptic Christians.

Of particular note and beauty is an interestingly shaped wooden sarcophagus on loan from the German University of Heidelberg. The painted exterior of the sarcophagus, which incoporates a raised triangular shape to accommodate the head of the deceased, features an elaborate peacock design. This design is an example of how wood painting of the time mimicked popular tapestry themes. Peacocks, the traditional birds of paradise and a popular tapestry subject became symbols of resurrection and eternal life largely as a result of their frequent use on funeral paraphernalia.

The deceased were frequently dressed in finery and surrounded by ornate cushions before being covered by a richly decorated shroud to ensure their eternal rest was as comfortable as possible.

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