The Meaning of the Coptic Art
Confluence, Convergence, Emergence

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Gethsemane (46" x 32"), Egg Tempera on wood panel with gold leaf
By Guirguis Boktor

The works of Guirguis Boktor (paintings, mosaics, glassworks and murals) are at once treats for the religious and secular eye as well as a spiritual reunification of past and present. Drawn from the wellspring which inspired the earliest Christian iconography, (2nd to 5th century A. D.), itself a confluence of Egyptian, Hellenic (Greek) and Coptic (Egyptian) Christian imagery, it suggests too what is most primal and transcendent in modern Western art. This apparent anomaly is principally an organic phenomenon; there is a poetic primitivism in Coptic iconography that is less idiomatic than the more relaxed and elaborate Roman and Eastern forms. This is a product of history, but also of the church's insistence on the pure spiritual aspect of the incarnation of Jesus. Undoubtedly influenced by the Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism that were part of the Alexandrine intellectual template.

The Coptic Church saw Jesus Christ, human and Divine, as endowed with a perfection which can only be an aspiration in mortal man. Engulfed by this pristine cosmology, Mary was perceived as the bearer of God, a holy vessel. This view was largely adopted by the Council of Nicaea (325) organized by Constantine; a victory over Arius and the Arians. Thus in Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony; Satan (disguised as Anthony's disciple Hilarion) slanders Athanasius in the following manner:

Hilarion: At the Council of Nicaea
He said speaking of Jesus:
"The man of the Lord."

 

Anthony: Ah! That is blasphemy!

The Coptic Church's purity of vision was challenged at the Council of Chalcedon (451). There was a split and henceforth the Church would identify itself as non-Chalcedonian. The Coptic Church would always be faithful to its vision of Christ as an ultimately indivisible entity. But now let us look at another continuity; the absorption of ancient Egyptian visible culture.

 

Historians familiar with the cult of Isis in Ancient Egypt, (then Greece and Rome), suggest that the image of Isis, often depicted cradling her infant child Horace, made natural the acceptance of Mary as the feminine aspect of the one God. What is spiritual and only apparently human must be depicted with caution and always with restraint.

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Statuette of Isis and Horus, 330–30 B.C.E.;
Ptolemaic period
Egyptian (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Virgin breastfeeding Jesus

Dayr al-Suryan (Egypt), Church
of the Holy Virgin. Wall-painting

Statuette of Isis and Horus, 330–30 B.C.E.;

Ptolemaic period
Egyptian (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Virgin breastfeeding Jesus

Dayr al-Suryan (Egypt), Church

of the Holy Virgin. Wall-painting

This aesthetic tendency carries over into depictions of inspired men (saints) though they are clearly human and always placed below Jesus in the Coptic iconic template. We will see below that this restrained aesthetic was quite in harmony with the iconography of Ancient Egyptian religions. The emphasis on Christ¹s Divinity, a compliment to the then current philosophic argument that the soul was a precedent to the body, and the visual and poetic culture which stems from it, is what most distinguishes Copts from their Roman and Eastern brethren.

The immediacy, the "presentness," of this Neo-Coptic art to us is further explained by a more recent phenomenon, the slow but steady emergence of the Coptic community and its artists from twelve centuries of imposed isolation from the larger world. Neo-Coptic artists are now confronting in a dynamic way the culture and art that prevails in the West. Restraint is not constraint; there is a developmental aspect to this ancient form. While the icons show restraint, even rigidity, the artist himself has some freedom within the form to infuse it with his own individuality.

Now centered in Cairo, the Coptic culture was born in the once intellectually, culturally and theologically vital Hellenic city of Alexandria. That Mediterranean harbor thrived from its founding in 332 B.C. until 643 A.D. It was then that the great ancient city fell from the heights of Western and Near-Eastern culture into a hidden crevice of the Islamic world. A Tall amphora became a cracked urn. For centuries amidst the paroxysms of the Greek and Roman worlds, even with the rise of Constantinople, Alexandria with its boisterous clerics, theologians and teachers was at the pinnacle of the emerging Christian world. It was here amidst currents of Pagan philosophy, Arianism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, Judaism, and the enduring presence of Egyptian, Greek and Roman pantheons that Christianity first thrived. Christians themselves were an integral part of the intellectual mix. As Synesius tells us after a disappointing trip to Athens, "it is in Egypt now that Philosophy flourishes." It was a ripe field for evangelism.

It was in Alexandria, the see of St. Mark, that the Athenian Clement taught Christianity in a way most attractive to the Hellenized mind. It was here that Origen battled Celsus over doctrine and that the Hermitic movement was born. It was here that St. Cyril battled against the revitalized Hellenistic paganism of the brilliant, beautiful, ill-fated Hypatia and stood victorious against Nestorius over the soul of the Church. His victory was not total but vital and enduring. It was here that Synesius of Cyrene, a student of Hypatia, became the embodiment of the transition from philosophic paganism to Christianity so emblematic of the Alexandrine experience. Synesius, an intellectual who would write some of the most enduring and beautiful hymns to Christ. Herodas wrote of Alexandria that it was, "the house of Aphrodite, and everything is to be found there - wealth, playgrounds, a large army, a serene sky, public displays, philosophers, precious metals, fine young men, a good royal house, an academy of science, exquisite wines and beautiful women."


St. Anthony passed through here and was tempted to return. He had removed himself from the world, a world encapsulated in this Egyptian cauldron. Flaubert has him imagining it thus:

"Strolling peddlers, porters, ass-drivers run and jostle together. Here and there one observes some priest of Osiris wearing a panther skin on his shoulders, a Roman soldier with his bronze helmet, and many Negroes. At the threshold of the shops women pause, artisans ply their trades; and the grinding noise of chariot wheels puts to flight the birds that devour the detritus of the butcher shops and the morsels of fish left upon the ground."

The general outline of the streets seems like a black network flung upon the white uniformity of the houses. The markets stocked with herbs make green bouquets in the midst of it; the drying yards of the dyers, blotches of color; the golden ornaments of the temple-pediments, luminous points all comprised within the oval enclosure of the grey ramparts, under the vault of the blue heaven, beside the motionless sea.

 

What magic it would have been to be a young man or woman tilling the wonders of a city at its azimuth. But As Charles Peguy wrote, "History does not go where one would wish. History goes where it wishes." Alexandria,Overwhelmed by Islam,largely because of its lively and eclectic atmosphere, was chastened and then ignored for centuries. The influence of Alexandria's Christians on the universal church subsided and eventually became vestigial. Now all eyes turned to Rome and Constantinople.

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity was an alternative to the paganism of the West and Near East, but in its zeal made no distinction between pagan representations, the foci of devotion and ritual, and spiritual imagery. This led some Moslems to periodically destroy Coptic works of art. Such choleric purity is at the best unfriendly to other beliefs and the representations of those beliefs.

 

The survival of the Coptic Church and even more its visual culture is a marvel of history and a testament to faith. The Copts became a minority, but despite recurring sequences of toleration and persecution they survived and are with us today. It is likely that the extreme devotion that comes of separation kept the Church in place, respectful of the Ancient Egyptian and Hellenic elements of its art and other ties to its history. To a certain extent time stood still. The works represented here are apparitions ancient and contemporary. Alexandria, the Nile, the hills of Judea, Akademos and the Tiber -- they are all here for the discerning eye.

 

That there should be such a convergence of thought and culture is not unexpected; it is a common theme in cultural anthropology, general history and art history, but it does not happen by itself. Men make history. There is a vast historiography devoted to the emergence of Christianity and its dynamic correspondence to philosophy, rhetoric and paganism. Historians of Ancient times, religion and art confront what Arnold Toynbee called, "the schism of the soul," and the eventual reintegration of that soul based on new beliefs and realities.

This dynamic was natural, but many of the Fathers of Christianity were very aware of the force of tradition and cleverly drew from the heterodoxy to instill their new orthodoxy in the minds and hearts of those they were trying to bring into the flock. Though others tried, for example Philo the Alexandrian Jew, it was the Christian leadership that was most successful at absorbing philosophy and paganism into their faith. We spoke of Synesius above. His eclectic background gave his words a unique potency, but he was just one of many. An Italian historian of early Christianity, Arnaldo Momigliano, writes:

"The church attracted the most creative minds-St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, Hilarius of Poitiers, St. Augustine in the West; Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea in the East. Almost all born rulers, rulers of a type which, with the exception of the scholarly emperor Julian, it was hard to find on the imperial throne. They combined Christian theology with pagan philosophy, worldly political abilities with a secure faith in immortal values. They could tell both the learned and the unlearned how they should behave, and consequently transformed both the external features and the inner meaning of the daily existence of an increasing number of people."

 

It is in precisely this manner, though we cannot swear to the political acumen of the artist, that the external feature of existence that we call art was also transformed. Though some might argue about degree, there is no doubt that Coptic art emerged from the Egyptian and Egypto-Hellenic visual culture that surrounded the first Christian artists of Egypt.

In some instances we can see this expressed explicitly in content. In most cases the correspondence is less explicit and more a matter of form and affect. This is only natural in that the actual content being depicted was different. The most often noted evidence of pure Egyptian influence is the similarity between the Coptic depiction of the Cross and the symbol of life, the 'Ankh' ( ). In fact, in early relief slabs one can see joined together the Christian Cross, the Ankh and the Greek letters, Alpha (a) and Omega (w).

We discussed above the significance, as a transitional object, to Coptic Art and theology of the widespread cult of Isis, especially the mother/son imagery. It so happens that the ancient trinity of Isis, Osiris and Horace reached its peak of popularity as Rome was teetering and Christianity was ascendant. Hellenistic philosophies which seemed to engender captiousness were becoming effectively moribund despite their intrinsic worth. In the troubled times that befell the Empire from the second century onward, mystery religions and magic were more comforting than the more complicated Athenian chatter; as too was the warm and beckoning embrace of Christianity. It is of no surprise to us that aesthetically pleasing and comforting deities should find their essences in the matrix of Coptic art.

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Textile with Erotes figures in a boat

From Akhmim, Egypt
Hellenistic period, 305-30 BC
Fragment of linen, decorated in
multi-coloured wool loops
The British Museum

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Tapestry with Fish Antinoé

2nd-3rd century AD
the Louvre Museum

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Textile with figure

The Coptic Museum

Eventually Coptic tapestry would depict the usual prophets and saints, but in the earliest years one was more likely to find the Hare or the Lion. The funerary cult of Osiris played a large part in woven imagery. The ivy, grape vine and wine filled amphorae, a Greek contribution, associated with the cult are ubiquitous. The Osiris connection does not end here. We notice in Coptic figures of Christ and the Saints a restrained, even rigid, mien. This is clearly an emulation of depictions of Pharaohs and their Queens who are portrayed in a way that suggests that they are uncomfortably corseted. Interestingly, as Egyptian monarchs are portrayed with Mona Lisa-like grins even in death, the face of Christ in Coptic imagery, though more stoic, does not show suffering; this would be all too human. We are not to behold a man but to imagine God. In death the rigidity of the Pharaohs is greater; they are bundled, mummified. Here comes Osiris, now as Serapis, back into the picture. Like his companion deity in death, the deceased King prepares for afterlife by crossing his arms over the breast. Coptic figures are often portrayed in just this way. And so we can see in an image of Jesus or of a particular Saint or Prophet an image of Osiris.
In other Coptic figures the arms are held down stiffly along the sides. This stance is common in Egyptian figures as well as in many archaic Greek statues. Here then is both an Egyptian and Greek influence. We are continually reminded of the diffusion of culture in the ancient world.

Space does not allow a full inquiry. Suffice it to say that there are many more examples that can be cited. What is important to note is that, as discussed above, history and context; the prolonged isolation of the Coptic Church and thus its more immediate connection to the distant past as well as the necessary restraint implicit in the view of Jesus as equally God and Man keeps alive not only the Christian past, but the spirit of ancient Egypt and to a lesser extent Hellenic culture. Such is the truth behind this most archaic Christian iconography. What we described above as poetic primitivism in art is reinforced by history and faith.

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A TRIAD OF MENKAURE

Egyptian Museum

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Amenophis IV -
Akhenaton

1369-1332 BC

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Saint Barsoum (36" x 24")
Egg Tempera on wood
panel with gold leaf
by Guirguis Boktor

We return then to Neo-Coptic Art and specifically the art of Guirguis George. The austere Coptic iconography reaches out to us without complex mannerism and so reaches directly and tenderly into our souls. Little annotation is necessary. We understand and feel immediately. When rarefied, as it is by Mr. George, the experience becomes more sublime. There is much difference, but we find in some of these pieces a spirit suggestive of Marc Chagall or even Wassily Kandinsky. This art transcends dogma and does so without effort. It might be useful at this point to recall the words of Kandinsky:

"To paint is to detonate a shock of different worlds … In terms of technique, each work comes into existence as the Cosmos did, by means of catastrophes that, beginning with the chaotic cries of the instruments, finish in the sympathy we call the music of the spheres."

As we come to the end of this discussion let us not forget that we have traveled into the past only to arrive at the present; and all while being still. The arts and history have the potential for such magic. In his brilliant essay on History, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

"All inquiry regarding the pyramids, the excavated cities, Stonehenge, the Ohio Circles, Mexico, Memphis, -- is the desire to do away with this wild, savage, and preposterous There and Then and introduce in its place the here and now. Belzoni digs and measures the mummy pits and pyramids of Thebes, until he can see the end of the difference between the monstrous work and himself, in general and in detail, that it was made by such a person as he, so armed and so motivated, and to ends to which he himself should also have worked, the problem is solved; his thought lives along the whole line of temples and sphinxes and catacombs, passes through them all with satisfaction, and they live again to the mind, or are now."

 

April 2002