IMAGES OF LATE ANTIQUE EGYPT IN
TWENTIETH-CENTURY ART HISTORY
Few societies have ever been more multicultural
than those clustered about the Mediterranean.1
The writing of the history of Egyptian art in the late antique and early Byzantine periods started with a fatally misinterpreted archaeological excavation.2 The story has been told many times: let me summarize it here in Hjalmar Torp’s words:3
It is … truly paradoxical that the first and almost the sole discovery
of Coptic figure reliefs resulting from a planned excavation should also
be the main source of the great confusion that has always prevailed,
and still prevails, concerning the interpretation of pre-Christian Coptic
sculpture. I refer here to the excavations conducted by Edouard Naville
at Heracleopolis Magna or Ahnas el-Medinah about 1890.4 In his
search for dynastic monuments in the area, Naville happened upon a
structure about 25 feet long and 20 wide, with an apse to the
north … The recovery of six large Corinthian capitals of columns in
the ruin enables one to deduce a three-aisled edifice … the capitals
hardly date later than the 4th century;5 and since they bear crosses
1 From: E.S. Gruen: Cultural Fictions and Cultural Identity. Transactions of the American Philological Association 123 (1993) 1–14 2.
2 For a bibliography on Heracleopolis Magna, see Timm 1984–1992 I 1161–1172.
3 Torp 1969 101–103.
4 I.e., in 1891.
5 Today, from the six imported marble capitals only one is preserved: CM 7350, Naville 1894 Pl. XVII; Strzygowski 1904 75 f., figs 102–104; Kautzsch 1936 30 f. no. 81, Pl. 6; Severin 1977a 248 no. 274/b; Pensabene 1993 414 no. 460. In 1902 Strzygowski still saw the remaining five capitals lying around at the “church” site, Strzygowski 1904 76.—For the type cf. Kautzsch 1936 30 f. no. 81.—For the dating cf. Severin 1977a 248 no. 274/b: late 4th cent.; Severin — Severin 1987 34; Pensabene 1993 414 no. 460: late 4th-early 5th cent.; Severin 1993 63: early 5th