6 September 2009
Coptic sculpture is an outcome of the search by early Egyptian Christians for ‘eternal life’, or paradise. This required the use of everlasting material—stone, always available in the desert or caves where the Copts used to live seeking serenity.
Dr Ezzat Habib, general manager of the Coptic Museum, told Watani that Copts followed the path of their pharoanic ancestors, using rocks to build monasteries and churches. They were creative in their architecture, especially in ornamentation.
However, Dr Habib added, Copts did not maintain their successful position. The foolishness of rulers and strife between different sects led to the debasement of their art. Unfortunately most of the churches built in the earlier stages of Christianity were later destroyed.
Dr Habib cited the case of the marble ruins of St Mina’s Church near Mariout, which was a stunning example of architecture. Since Christianity arrived to Egypt in the first century, Copts constructed churches and monasteries in stone, sometimes following the style of pharaonic temples. They were often tall and embellished with luxurious decorations, a good example of which is the White Monastery in Sohag, Upper Egypt. The interior murals were exquisitely executed.
Marble was used only rarely in the early ages of Christianity, since it was hard to find. The marble used in the capitals of the churches in Old Cairo was mostly taken from pharaonic and Greco-Roman temples.
By the 11th century, Coptic artists realised churches were liable to be destroyed in the many wars that took place during that time, so they preferred to use wood as a base for their paintings, since it could be better saved from barbarian attacks and easily moved to another church.
Dr Habib referred to a number of spontaneous artists from the village of Deirel-Maymoun near Beni Sweif, where the craft was so well-established that the villagers were termed nahateen or sculptors. Without academic studies, Dr Habib continued, these artists, using the simplest of tools, carried on with the craft they inherited from their ancestors.
However, the difficulty of sculpting and monetary obstacles forced most of the villagers to desert the craft, except one family, that of Youssef Boutros, who was keen to preserve the tradition.
“Inheriting it from my ancestors, I am still working this craft; it is my main job,” Boutros’s son Saad told Watani. “But no authority is funding or sponsoring me, even though what I do is now so rare. My family has several works hanging in St Paul’s Monastery by the Red Sea and St Samuel’s Monastery in Qalamoun.”
Gamal, another member of the family, said he had been sculpting since he was 13 years old. “I have sculpted the façades of buildings, capitals, and crosses in several monasteries.” Now he sometimes works in tourist resorts. “We need an authority to sponsor us—as talented sculptors—and to run workshops to teach the art to the next generation, so it can be revived.”