Coptic Art: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting and Textiles
Coptic art is the art produced by the Copts, or Egyptian Christians. In its early period, from the 2d to the middle of the 5th century, Coptic art was strongly influenced by the graceful, realistic Hellenistic style that dominated the sophisticated city of Alexandria. In aristocratic Alexandria, art attained a high level of skill; a degree of Greek elegance and harmony and the use of expensive marble, ivory, and silk persisted at least until the 6th century.
The most characteristic style of Coptic art, however, flourished in a middle period, from the late 5th to the early 8th century. Largely the work of peasant monks from country monasteries, it drew on local Egyptian, and later on Syrian, elements. The monks developed an abstract style that, although rather heavy and crude, forcefully expressed their religious devotion. The emergence of this distinctive Coptic style was accelerated and reinforced by Egypt's isolation from the orthodox Christian world as a result of the Monophysite Copts' refusal to accept the orthodox view of the nature of Christ stated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. After the conquest of Egypt by the Muslims in the middle of the 7th century, later Coptic art became more decorative and geometric under Islamic influence, and gradually degenerated into a local peasant style.
The great marble basilicas of Alexandria, such as that dedicated to St. Maenas (begun in 395), were Hellenistic in design with handsome carved capitals imported from Constantinople. Most have not survived. Village and monastic churches, also on the basilica plan, were usually small, mud-brick structures with heavy walls and nave columns suggesting ancient Egyptian temples. The nave was divided transversely into several sections, and the apse might be triconch, or trefoil, in shape and have adjoining chambers, as in the church of the White Monastery at Sohag (440). These churches, unimposing on the outside, especially after the Muslim conquest because the Copts did not wish to call attention to their minority faith, were richly adorned inside with fine stucco carvings, frescoes, and doors and altars of elaborately carved wood.
More important than Coptic architecture is Coptic sculpture, both on a large scale in stucco or soft limestone and on a small scale in ivory, bone, or wood. Figures may be on popular pagan themes, which also had a Christian significance, or of Old Testament heroes and Christian saints. Rich floral forms are of Hellenistic origin. The work is in high relief; some figures are stiffly stylized in a frontal position, with emphasis on the head and its deeply set eyes, while others are almost Indian in the sinuous exuberance.
Painting and Textiles
Coptic painting may be seen in fresco, as in the monastery at Deir Abu Hennis, and on wooden panels, or icons. Favorite subjects, in addition to mythological characters, were Christ enthroned, reflecting the Monophysite emphasis on His divinity, scenes from the Bible and apocryphal books, and soldier-saints. The flat figures are generally brightly colored, strongly outlined, and, like the sculpture, shown frontally. In the 6th century, under Syrian influence, as at the monasteries of Bawit, and Saqqara, a more fluent style developed.
The Coptic style is also represented by manuscript illuminations and textiles. The latter, which consist chiefly of woven woolen bands and medallions that decorate linen tunics, employ geometric patterns as well as painting motifs.