Mike Aquilina

Spoils of Egypt

Friday August 01st 2008, 3:11 am

Egypt’s native Christian community, tracing their origins to the apostolate of St. Mark the Evangelist, long marginalized by the Muslim majority, the Copts cling tenaciously to their ancient culture, which finds expression in distinctive and beautiful art — art all but unknown in the West.

The Treasures of Coptic Art includes hundreds of color images, well photographed to highlight even the small details. And the accompanying text is written by two outstanding scholars: Gawdat Gabra, former director of Cairo’s Coptic Museum, and Marianne Eaton-Krauss, a specialist in pharaonic art at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities. The editors use the term “art” broadly, to include many items of material culture: combs, lamps, flasks, and jewelry, for example.

The ancient Copts were aware of their native heritage — the art of the Pharaohs — but they also drew from other influences: Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, and even Indian. The port of Alexandria was the mercantile and intellectual hub of the ancient world; people of all nations converged there and left their marks on the arts.

Egypt’s Christians experienced their greatest freedom in the three-century interlude between Roman persecution and Muslim invasion, and many of the works included in this book come from that period. Much of the art is in the folk idiom. “Coptic monuments never enjoyed the patronage of emperors, kings, rulers, or sultans,” write the authors. “In the absence of court patronage, the artistic heritage of the Copts [was] expressed in monasteries and churches.”

The varied influences are easy to spot. Like their forebears in the age of the Pharaohs, the Christian Copts favored the brighter hues in the palette. Like the later Byzantines, they rendered proportionally oversized eyes, ears, and foreheads, to suggest prodigious spiritual senses. Coptic icons, however, are often simpler and less ornate than their Byzantine counterpart. Facial expressions tend to be softer; and the figures are usually, of course, darker-skinned. Overall, they have a more “primitive” and even naïve quality, as one might find in the folk paintings of the American South or the self-consciously primitivist works of Edward Hicks or Henri Rousseau.

Egypt’s desert climate has preserved a remarkable number of works that could not survive in other, damper places: textiles, for example, including tapestries, vestments, and carpets; wood carvings; papyrus manuscripts; and, of course, devotional icons and wall paintings. They’re all in this book, alongside the more durable media, like sculpture and architecture, and decorated items from everyday life: dishes, keys, jugs, children’s toys, combs, and brooches.

The illustrations alone tell of the minute particulars of Coptic devotion. Carvings give evidence of the early devotion to the Blessed Virgin, St. Michael the Archangel, and especially the holy family, whose sojourn in Egypt is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. There is a great multitude of portrayals of Coptic saints, most of them monks and nuns of the desert, portrayed in the robes of their habit, with the characteristic wide-eyed frontal stare.

The book, perfectly calibrated for an introduction, provides historical context, made vivid by arresting details from the documentary and archeological record. Egyptian Christians continued to practice the ancient methods of mummifying their dead till well into the eighth century, for example, while the ankh, the symbol of the Nile River god, gradually became Egypt’s dominant Christian symbol, the “cross with a handle,” still a sign of waterborne life.

Pilgrimage has been an enduring expression of the fervor of the Copts. Pilgrim shrines are focal points of devotion, and so are often ornamented by visitors and patrons. The subject merits a full chapter in Treasures.

Most interesting is the treatment of the shrine of Abu Mina, the Lourdes of the ancient world. St. Mina (or Menas) was a third-century soldier who died in the first eruption of Diocletian’s persecution. As he was borne homeward by his comrades, the camels stopped suddenly in the desert and refused to budge. The soldiers, who were Christian, took this as a sign that Mina should be buried there.

A spring miraculously appeared at the site, and its waters were renowned for their healing power. Pilgrims converged on the site from everywhere. Abu Mina flasks, given close treatment in the book, have been found “as far afield as Italy and the Balkans.” Mina always appears in the orant posture (hands outstretched in prayer), usually with the features characteristic of Coptic art: the oversized round head and large, otherworldly eyes.

Other Egyptian pilgrimage sites track the Holy Family’s travels through the land. These, too, inspired many images — the Christ child riding St. Joseph’s shoulders, the Virgin riding a donkey or a horse (symbolizing the flight from Herod). Some ancient renderings of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus hark back to common pharaonic images of Isis with the suckling infant Horus.

Additional chapters treat the cultures of the Nile, monasticism, Gnosticism, church architecture, and many other subjects. The chapter on the “Glorification of the Holy Virgin” is especially beautiful. Throughout the book, the authors draw from the writings of the great Fathers and the counsels of the desert ascetics.

This is the ancient faith made visible and made durable — a desert faith that has survived almost two millennia of tremendous hardship. The Treasures of Coptic Art invites a new Christian audience to look into the outsized eyes of Egypt’s icons.