At the outset of this century l’Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris celebrated the third millennium with an exhibition on Coptic Art. A special catalogue was published in French on Coptic art and history to accompany the exhibition.
In an unprecedented step, the Egyptian General Book Authority has translated this encyclopaedic catalogue into Arabic under the title Coptic Art in Egypt…2000 years of Christianity. In 255 large, coloured pages and abundant photographs of stunning beauty, the book is an extraordinary masterpiece fitting for the Copts and their deep-rooted civilisation.
Any attempt to write a full review of this rich, profound work will be inadequate: the catalogue should to be viewed in its entirety to give it justice. So I will merely introduce Watani readers to the topics tackled in this treasure of a book.
In his introduction, the prominent Egyptian writer, novelist, and some time artist Edward al-Kharrat, writes: “Egyptian art has often intrigued men and women throughout the ages … The look in Coptic eyes conveys more than a glance; it is a vision in which nothing is certain.
“Coptic art merges the divine with the secular, the sacred with the mundane. It follows no obvious artistic standard. Baby Jesus, for instance, is never depicted as an ordinary baby as in countless paintings worldwide. The face of the Baby Jesus in Coptic icons is portrayed as that of an old, mature person overloaded with the heavy grievances of mankind.
“The formidable lion is humble and obsequious under the feet of St Antony and St Paul, who appeared as lofty towers of spirituality.
“Coptic artists inherited this tradition from their ancestors—the ancient Egyptians—who used to depict their kings as towering figures; all others beside them were undersize.”
Kharrat points out that Coptic art did not ignore everyday issues expressed in humour or irony. For instance, he writes that in Anba Apollo Monastery in Assiut, Upper Egypt, there is a depiction of three mice confronting a fat strongman of a cat. In acts attempting to appease the all-powerful cat, one mouse holds a papyrus probably carrying some text flattering the cat or asking for mercy, the second lifts a flag, while the third presents the cat with a wine flask. The most exciting aspect of this painting is not its content, but the fact that it lay in a monastery—a place of serenity and strict worship. If anything, it proves that humour does not conflict with prayer.
“Coptic art,” Kharrat concludes, “is an art of the people. It is the art of beauty, not massiveness. It is not the art of imitating reality, but rather represents the essence of both reality and meta-reality.”
Interest in Coptic art and monuments, coptologist Marie Helene Rutschowscaya explains, was born at the hands of Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (1821 – 1881), who founded the first Egyptian Museum in Boulaq in 1861. Before Mariette, Rutschowscaya writes, Coptic relics aroused mostly the interest of travellers into Egypt who were interested in Coptic as part of Egypt’s Christian heritage. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jean Coppin, Johann Michael Wansleben, and Claude Sicard were among the few who wrote extensively about their observations on Copts, their churches and relics. It was not until the second half of the 19th century, however, that serious excavation for Coptic relics was conducted under the supervision of Mariette. Excavations in Fayoum were financed by the Egyptian fund for excavations, in Saqqara by the imperial Austrian museums, and in Akhmim by Strasbourg University. Mariette made sure the finds were meticulously catalogued and details about them published.
In 1884, as an outcome of seven months of field research in Egypt, Alfred Butler published his comprehensive two-volume description of Coptic churches in Egypt. In the period between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, Rutschowscaya concludes, archaeology produced some rich offerings, which in turn gave rise to an enthusiasm for possessing antiques that enriched museums all over the world.
The foundation of the Society of the Friends of Coptic Art by Mireet Ghali in 1935 brought Coptic art a step closer to public attention.
In the chapter “Copts and 20th century Christian history in Egypt”, Christian Cannuyet writes that the word Copt appeared for the first time in the tales of Western pilgrims who visited Egypt in the middle ages. The word, a shortened form of the Greek Aegyptos, denoted the original Christian inhabitants of Egypt. Thus in the past, Cannuyet adds, “Coptic” meant “Egyptian”, while today—since the first century of Islam (the seventh century AD)—the term is restricted to indigenous Egyptians, that is Christians.
Cannuyet reviews the history of the Copts since Christianity arrived in Egypt in the first century, through the age of persecution and martyrdom in the third century and the emergence of the monastic movement. He goes on to look at Coptic history under Islamic rule beginning in the seventh century and up to modern times.
In the modern era, since the Gamal Abdel-Nasser years following the 1952 Revolution, the public and political role of Copts has steadily shrank, especially under the rise of Islamic radicalism that began in the 1970s. The Anwar Sadat years from 1970 to 1981 were especially difficult for Copts.
The Nag Hammadi manuscripts
Jean-Daniel Dubois wrote a chapter on the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and the importance attached to the discovery of about 50 Coptic texts, a milestone discovery in the 20th century. This discovery shed light on the period of Gnostic thought in the early Christian centuries, a period that has long been unclear.
Anne Boud’hors’s chapter on the literature, language and books of the Copts, maintains that the Coptic language is closely akin to the ancient Egyptian, but written differently. The Greek language came to Egypt after Alexander the Great conquered the country in 332BC. Attempts to write the Egyptian language in Greek letters yielded the Coptic alphabet, which finally included 24 Greek letters plus seven demotic ones; demotic being the last phase of the ancient Egyptian script.
Boud’hors says that in the context of the evolution of the book shape, in the earlier centuries of Christianity, papyrus scrolls were gradually replaced by books or codices which at that time were made of wax sheets to facilitate engraving. Books were later made of paper.
An extensive part of the catalogue is allocated to the religious life of Copts, on which the well-known Coptologist Otto Meinardus (1925 – 2005) wrote that Egypt was the birthplace of monasticism. If we consider St Antony as the father of monasticism, Meinardus says, St Pachomious could be regarded as the founder of a system that makes human needs surrender to communal requirements—the system that later was adopted by the West.
The study mentions the founders of monasticism and names several monasteries in Egypt from a historical, archaeological and spiritual perspective. Among these monasteries are St Antony’s, Wadi Natroun, and St Mena’s in Mariout.
It is important to refer to the final chapters of` the encyclopaedic catalogue, which emphasise the continuity of the ancient Coptic civilisation in Egypt today, especially in the wake of the Church renaissance which began in the second half of the 19th century under Pope Kyrillos IV (1854 – 1861).
Several Coptic societies that cared about the Coptic heritage were founded at this time up to 1954 which witnessed the establishment the Institute of Coptic Studies.
The catalogue also reviews collections of Coptic antiquities in international museums, and includes a lexicon of Coptic words, as well as a detailed table of the events in Egypt starting from the second century BC until the year 2000. Disappointingly, there is no index of the illustrations of the encyclopaedia.
Finally, Watani has to applaud the fact that the State-owned General Egyptian Book Organisation under Nasser al-Ansari has taken the initiative to make this unique work on Coptic culture accessible to the public at an affordable price.