The Fabric of Coptic Life
Tuesday May 30th 2006, 5:25 am
Filed under: Books,Patristics

Al Ahram Weekly in Cairo brings us tidings of a new book on ancient Coptic textiles. I haven’t seen the book yet, but I’ve seen enough Coptic textiles to know that it’s going on my Amazon Wish List. New York’s Metropolitan Museum houses quite a collection. Online, Coptic tapestries, vestments, and such regularly turn up in the offerings of antiquities dealers and in the collections of museums. See, for example, the Rietz Coptic Textile Collection at the California Academy of Sciences and the Indiana University Art Museum‘s online tutorial.

Anything so beautiful is bound to turn heads. While the religious images may have inspired some folks to great piety, Bishop Asterius of Amasia (c. 375-405) worried that such tapestries were inspiring more Christians to greater vanity. He spoke of it as a “foolish industry,” this “art of weaving in imitation of painting … an art both futile and useless.”

Everybody hastened to purchase for themselves as well as for their wives and children garments covered with flowers and offering images of infinite variety … When they show themselves in public in this sort of attire, they could be mistaken for painted walls … One sees on these fabrics lions, panthers, bears, bulls, dogs, trees, rocks, hunters, in a word everything that the art of the painter who strives to imitate nature can imitate … Those rich people who still have a veneer of piety take designs from the gospel stories and have their artisans execute them. They have them paint Jesus Christ in the midst of his disciples … They believe they are doing something pleasing to the Lord when they wear these fabrics adorned with holy pictures; but if they want to follow my advice, let them sell such garments in order to honor the living images of God.

No doubt, some Christians, then as now, favor beautiful religious articles for the sake of ostentation. But surely there’s a place for such beauty, when it’s crafted and displayed for the glory of God. With all due respect to Bishop Asterius, I’d say that Jesus Himself indicated this (see Mk 14:4-5).

Thanks to Egypt’s dry climate, these Coptic fabrics have survived to glorify God through a millennium and a half.

Muslim Egypt has not always been kind to Coptic Christians, but it’s nonetheless proud of the Copts’ cultural heritage. Al Ahram directs our attention to a new book, The Coptic Tapestry Albums and the Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet, by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, who is herself a former college weaving instructor.

“The first time I saw a Coptic tapestry portrait with its soul-searching gaze I was completely captivated,” Hoskins writes in her introduction. “I felt I had connected — through craft — with someone from that far distant time and place. The dancers were enchanting, the angels ephemeral, the flowers ever festive, the weaving free-spirited.”

Hoskins’ book focuses on the textiles produced in antiquity. But Al Ahram’s reviewer points out that for Egypt’s Christians the “Coptic period” is not in the past. The people endure. They have kept the faith — and they’ve handed down the art. “Coptic weavers are still producing tapestries and textiles. Like the painting of icons, and the illumination of manuscripts, weaving is part of a living culture that endures to the present day.”

There’s yet another well-illustrated introduction to Coptic textile art at TourEgypt.net.

For a lively and fascinating general introduction to the Copts, read Father Mark Gruber’s journal of his days spent in the Egyptian desert, as both an anthropologist and a monk: Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers. (My review of Father Gruber’s book is right here.) Father Gruber’s more scholarly treatment of the same subject is Sacrifice in the Desert: A Study of an Egyptian Minority Through the Prism of Coptic Monasticism. You’ll find great photos of Father Gruber’s time among the Copts on his personal website.


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