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Coptic artlocked

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt,
  • Hero Granger-Taylor
  •  and Dominic Montserrat

A disputed term adopted by art historians to denote early and medieval Christian art in Egypt as well as art undertaken for pagan patrons in Late Roman and Early Christian Egypt. ‘Copt’ derives from the pharaonic name for Egypt via the Greek aigyptos and the Arabic qibṭ, the word used by the Muslim Arab invaders after ad 641 to refer to the Christian inhabitants of Egypt; in modern usage the term is also applied in a narrow sense to the Monophysite national church.

I. Introduction.

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt

According to tradition, St Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the reign of Nero (reg ad 54–68). Its rapid spread was undoubtedly accelerated by the deteriorating conditions that had prevailed in the country since the Roman conquest of 30 bc. Already by ad 190 the first important institution of religious learning in Christian antiquity, the Catechetical School, had been established in Alexandria; its emergence coincided with the first direct attacks on the city’s Christians. These continued under subsequent Roman emperors, culminating in the persecutions under Diocletian (reg ad 284–305), from the beginning of whose reign the Copts began their Calendar of Martyrs. Monasticism as an institution was also initiated in Egypt by St Anthony (c. 251–356) and was further developed by Pachomius (d 346). Perhaps the most renowned representative of Egypt’s Church is Athanasius (c. 298–372), Bishop of Alexandria from 328, whose eloquence at the Council of Nicaea (325) was largely responsible for establishing the Nicene Creed as the Orthodox faith and Arianism as a heresy. Theological disputes between the different factions continued until 451 when a final attempt was made to unify the Christian world at the Council of Chalcedon. Instead, it pioneered the alienation of Egypt from the Eastern and Western churches as the Monophysites held firm to the original Nicene Creed. Justinian I and Heraklios (reg 610–41) did not succeed in reconciling the differences of opinion, which helped to reduce resistance to the Arab invasions of 641. But despite this religious and political rift with Byzantium, cultural contact was maintained with the Orthodox world and this is manifest in the art of the various Christian communities in Egypt. Under Islam the Coptic Church enjoyed a protected status and its members remained in the majority until the 11th century. Artistic production by Copts continued, with a particular flourishing during the 12th and 13th centuries, attributable not only to official Muslim toleration but also to the active stimulus of the Coptic Church and the cooperation of other Eastern Christian communities (especially the Melkites, Syrians and Armenians). Under the Mamluks (1250–1517), however, and most notably after the mid-14th century, the number of Copts declined, although even in the 20th century they retained a recognizable religious, social and political identity in Egypt.

In art, the application of the term ‘Coptic’ to objects showing a wide variety of stylistic influences and dating from as early as the 2nd century ad (when no Christian association can be established) has led to much confusion. Coptic art first became known through late 19th-century museum collections of finds from excavation of sites throughout Egypt (see fig.). Unfortunately at the time, and often since, detailed archaeological records were not kept, thus making it difficult to distinguish between pagan and Christian works of art found in Egypt and to establish the provenance of individual objects. In an effort to cover the transition between pagan and Christian art, some scholars adopted the term ‘proto-Coptic’ to denote the period between the 3rd and 5th centuries ad. The development of Coptic (in the sense of Egyptian Monophysite Christian) art has traditionally been attributed to the 5th-7th centuries, surviving with a struggle until the 13th century. Late 20th-century research, however, has undermined certain stereotypical views. Among these is the cliché that Coptic art is essentially decadent: pagan art must be viewed differently from Christian art. Another is that Coptic art embodies the decline of ‘Hellenistic’ style and that it never recovered from the disruption of the Islamic invasions. The 5th–7th centuries are no longer seen as the sole important period of development. Much architectural sculpture has been shown to have been reused and is therefore earlier than previously thought, while many textiles have been dated later to the Islamic period. Christian Coptic woodwork, manuscripts and wall paintings, continued to be produced throughout the Mamluk period and beyond. A major revival can be detected in the 13th century. Past attempts to identify a uniform style in Coptic art are also becoming less acceptable, particularly since it includes works of diverse character and date. Classical, pharaonic, Egyptian, Greco-Roman and Persian motifs can be detected in art in Egypt of the Late Antique period. The art of the Christian Copts on the other hand demonstrates interaction with that of other Eastern Mediterranean Christian communities, especially the Byzantine, Syrian and Armenian communities.

Map of Coptic sites in Egypt; those areas with separate entries in this dictionary are distinguished by Cross-reference type


  • RBK: ‘Ägypten’
  • A. J. Butler: The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford, 1902); rev. by P. M. Fraser (Oxford, 2/1978)
  • J. Strzygowski: Koptische Kunst: Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire (Vienna, 1904)
  • Pagan and Christian Egypt: Egyptian Art from the First to the Tenth Century A.D. (exh. cat. by J. Cooney, New York, Brooklyn Mus., 1941)
  • Christentum am Nil: Internationale Arbeitstagung zur Ausstellung ‘Koptische Kunst’: Essen, 1963
  • Koptische Kunst: Christentum am Nil (exh. cat., Essen, Villa Hügel, 1963)
  • K. Wessel: Koptische Kunst: Die Spätantike in Ägypten (Recklinghausen, 1963; Eng. trans., London, 1965)
  • L’Art copte (exh. cat., Paris, Petit Pal., 1964)
  • P. M. Du Bourguet: The Art of the Copts (New York, 1967)
  • A. Effenberger: Koptische Kunst: Ägypten in spätantiker, byzantinischer und frühislamischer Zeit (Leipzig, 1975)
  • A. Badawy: The Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, MA, 1978)
  • F. Winkelmann: ‘Ägypten und Byzanz vor der arabischen Eroberung’, Byzantinoslavica, 40 (1979), pp. 161–82
  • M. Krause: ‘Das christliche Alexandrien und seine Beziehungen zum koptische Ägypten’, Alexandrien: Kulturbegegnungen dreier Jahrtausende im Schmelztiegel einer mediterranen Grosstadt, ed. N. Hinske (Mainz, 1981), pp. 53–62
  • Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th Centuries A.D. (exh. cat. by F. D. Friedman, Providence, RI Sch. Des., Mus. A., 1989)

II. Architecture.

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt

The principal building types that form the repertory of Coptic architecture are cenobitic cells, funerary monuments, and monastic and urban churches. A number of sites previously thought to be ‘churches’ have been re-investigated and subsequently re-identified as funerary monuments.

1. Cenobitic cells.

The architectural unit of early monasticism was the individual cell, as can be seen at Kellia, 50 km north of the Wadi Natrun, where cells were hollowed out of the ground and covered with vaults of mud brick. Their appearance tallies with the habitation of St Makarios the elder (c. ad 300–c. 390), described in the Lausiac History (c. 420) as a semi-subterranean chamber. The period of greatest activity for early cenobitic establishments was between the 6th and 8th centuries. The main excavated examples are those of Saqqara (see Saqqara, §5), Bawit and Kellia, where excavations have revealed monasteries centred around a hermitage, or complex of cells. Kellia was most densely occupied in the 7th century, when complexes of cells, often no more than 10 m apart, were built probably by teams of workmen rather than by individual monks as had been the earlier practice. Most complexes (25×35 m) comprised a vestibule, an oratory, offices, living-quarters, rooms for servants, novices or guests, and a courtyard. Larger hermitages were extensively painted, especially around the main area of prayer, the oratory niche; others had towers and a conventual church. The construction of a high enclosing wall, as at Bawit and the monasteries of the Wadi Natrun, developed no earlier than the 9th century.

2. Funerary monuments.

One ‘church’ building subsequently re-identified as a funerary monument is the basilica at Herakleopolis Magna [anc. Egyp. Henen-nesut; Copt. Ahnas; Arab. Ihnasya el-Medina] (Copt. Ahnas), which had a north–south orientation and raised apse and was built on top of a demolished antique funerary structure. At Oxyrhynchus (now el-Bahnasa) a tetrapile of cut stone with a vault of baked brick (5th to 6th century) may also have served the same function as the stone funerary monument it replaced. At Bawit both the North and the South churches may originally have served as funerary monuments, while at Saqqara the ‘tomb church’ was rebuilt in the early 7th century as a sepulchre. The re-identification of these buildings as either newly constructed or reused funerary monuments has implications for the study of their sculptural decoration (see §III below). The most renowned Christian tomb in Egypt was that of St Menas at Abu Mina, which became the site of a major pilgrimage centre between the late 5th century and the mid-6th.

3. Monastic and urban churches.

The few remaining 4th-century churches in Egypt include single-naved oratories, as at Kellia, and three- or five-aisled basilicas, as at Pbow (now Fa‛w al-qibli). The latter church has a rectangular east wall enclosing a semicircular apse with flanking chapels and was enlarged in the 5th century. Most churches of the 5th and 6th centuries were three-aisled basilicas. Those with cross-transepts, such as the east church (c. 400) at Apollonia (now Marsa Susa, Libya) and the main church at Abu Mina (for illustration see Abu Mina), are clearly rooted in the tradition of the Aegean coastlands, while those with galleries and terminated by either a triconch transept or three apses grouped into a trilobe have more in common with Syrian architecture. Among the most impressive examples of the latter is the cathedral (c. 430–40; see fig.) at Hermopolis Magna (Copt. Shumun) with a trilobe chancel, annexes (including a baptistery) flanking the eastern apse, galleries surrounding the core and two large portals, one on the west side of the atrium and the other leading into the north gallery. The triconch plan of the transept also appears in the churches of the White Monastery (Deir el-Abyad) and the Red Monastery (Deir el-Ahmar) near Sohag (c. 440 and 6th century respectively) and in those built into the temple of Hathor at Dendara and at Abu Fana in Middle Egypt. A characteristic of both monastery churches near Sohag is the prominent use of architectural sculpture: the arrangement of a row of columns around the central apse of the Red Monastery church was to be more commonly used after the 6th century.

Hermopolis Magna, cathedral, c. ad 430–40, ground-plan: (a) trilobe chancel; (b) annexes; (c) north gallery portal

In the late 6th century the adoption by the Coptic Church of the Syrian church plan with its semicircular or square apse, flanked by lateral chambers, is demonstrated at the monastery of St John (Deir Abu Hinnis). Among the surviving churches dated to the 7th and 8th centuries in Old Cairo are the Hanging Church (al-Mu‛allaqa) and those of St Sergius (Abu Sarga) and St Barbara (Sitt Barbara). St Sergius was venerated as the site where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed in Egypt. Despite undergoing restoration in the 10th and 11th centuries, all three buildings apparently preserve their original three-aisled basilican plan with continuous or tripartite transepts and three apses.

During the 9th century changing liturgical needs probably led to the development of an additional space before the sanctuary, known as a ‘hurus’: this is frequently found in churches with a triconch chancel, as in the main church at the monastery of St Pschoi (Deir al-Anba Bishay) and the church of the Virgin (al-‛Adhra) in the monastery of the Syrians (Dei es-Suriani), both in the Wadi Natrun. The church of the Virgin shows a further modification in the construction of a dome over the chancel’s square central bay. Another feature adopted in Coptic churches at this time was the placing of a wooden iconostasis across the breadth of the nave and aisles closing off the sanctuary area from the rest of the church.

During the Fatimid period (969–1171) Coptic architecture adopted more sophisticated dome and vaulting techniques. For example, the nave of the 11th-century church in the monastery of the Holy Martyrs (Deir Manayus wa Shuhada) at Esna is covered with two domes, while the lateral aisles are barrel-vaulted. The monastery church of Matias at al-Kubaniya, 13 km north of Aswan, with its prominent main dome over the centre of the nave, is directly related to middle Byzantine churches with a central dome. Some churches also have domes over the three eastern apses, such as at the 12th-century monastery of the Romans (Deir al-Baramus) in the Wadi Natrun. Under the Mamluks a church-plan developed in which the nave area is divided into a series of domed bays, terminating in five or more apses, as for example at the church of Theodore the Commander (Amir Tadrus) in the south of Old Cairo.


  • A. J. Butler: The Ancient Coptic Churches of Cairo, 2 vols (Oxford, 1884/R 1970)
  • C. Coquin: Les Edifices chrétiens du Vieux-Caire (1974), i of Bibliographie et topographie historiques (Cairo, 1974–)
  • P. Grossmann: ‘Früchristliche Baukunst in Ägypten’, Spätantike und frühes Christentum, ed. B. Brenk (Berlin, 1977), pp. 234–43
  • H.-G. Severin: ‘Zur Süd-Kirche von Bawīṭ’, Mitt. Dt. Archäol. Insts: Abt. Kairo, 33 (1977), pp. 113–24
  • P. Grossmann: ‘Zur christlichen Baukunst in Ägypten’, Enchoria: Zeitschrift für Demotistik und Koptologie, 8 (1978), pp. 135–46
  • P. Grossmann: ‘Recenti risultati degli scavi di Abu Mina’, Corsi di cultura sull’arte ravennate e bizantina, 28 (1981), pp. 125–47
  • P. Grossmann: ‘Esempi d’architettura paleocristiana in Egitto dal V al VII secolo’, Corsi di cultura sull’arte ravennate e bizantina, 28 (1981), pp. 149–76
  • H.-G. Severin: ‘Gli scavi eseguiti a Ahnas, Bahnasa, Bawīt e Saqqara: Storia delle interpretazioni e nuovi risultati’, Corsi di cultura sull’arte ravennate e bizantina, 28 (1981), pp. 299–314
  • H. Torp: ‘Le Monastère copte de Baouit: Quelques notes d’introduction’, Acta Archaeol. & A. Hist. Pertinentia, 9 (1981), pp. 1–8
  • P. Grossmann: Mittelalterliche Langhaus-Kuppelkirchen und verwandte Typen in Oberägypten: Eine Studie zum mittelalterlichen Kirchenbau in Ägypten (Glückstadt, 1982)
  • Le Site monastique des Kellia (Basse-Egypte): Recherches des années 1981–3 (Leuven, 1983) [excavation report issued by the Mission Suisse d’Archéologie Copte de Genève]
  • P. Grossmann and others: ‘Abū Mīna: Elfter vorläufiger Bericht: Kampagnen 1982 und 1983’, Mitt. Dt. Archäol. Insts: Abt. Kairo, 40 (1984), pp. 123–51
  • H.-G. Severin: ‘Beispiele der Verwendung spätantiker Spolien: Ägyptische Notizen’, Studien zur spätantiken und byzantinischen Kunst: F. W. Deichmann gewidmet, ed. O. Feld and U. Peschlow, 2 (Mainz, 1986), pp. 101–4

III. Sculpture.

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt

Stone sculptures of the 4th to the 6th centuries from Egypt comprise capitals, especially of imported marble, as well as other architectural elements (e.g. friezes, cornices, consoles, lunettes, niches and reliefs) and stelae carved in local limestone. Many marble capitals from Alexandria, Abu Mina and sites in central Egypt have either been dispersed in museum collections or reused in the mosques of Cairo. Architectural pieces from Oxyrhynchus (now el-Bahnasa), Herakleopolis Magna (Copt. Ahnas) and the monasteries of Bawit and Saqqara have shared the same fate, although much sculptural decoration remains in situ in the monastery churches near Sohag.

The study of both the stylistic development and the iconography of this sculptural material is bedevilled by problems. In most cases the context of the finds is unknown, since they were largely uncovered during the late 19th century, either for the benefit of museum collections or as a consequence of the search for papyri. Consequently, the function and date of buildings, under or near which sculptures were found have often been misinterpreted, as, for example, at the important site of Ahnas (Herakleopolis Magna). The recognition in the 1960s that mythological pieces found at Ahnas, supposedly of the 5th and 6th centuries, were in fact spolia from a 4th-century funerary structure was a turning point in the re-identification of much sculpture with pagan imagery as part of late Roman funerary art. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the art market was flooded with sculpture of the ‘Sheikh Ibade’ group from Antinoöpolis (now el-Sheikh Ibada), much of which has been shown subsequently to be modern, either in whole or in part. Under these conditions, any attempt to differentiate the various regional schools of production or assess the strength and multiplicity of outside influences becomes difficult.

A general move away from naturalism towards greater stylization in Coptic stone-carving is compensated for by the more elaborate use of polychromy. Furthermore, this tendency is no longer perceived as the mere degeneration of the Classical capital as was once argued. Imprecisely termed as ‘proto-Coptic’ are several early funerary stelae, including the 3rd- to 5th-century examples from Oxyrhynchus (London, BM; New York, Brooklyn Mus.) and Antinoöpolis (Berlin, Bodemus.) with boys holding bunches of grapes or garlanded women following Isis or priestesses, which preserve a naturalism comparable to mummy portraits and stucco masks. The stylistic development towards an abstract, stylized form was accompanied, according to Kitzinger, by changes in technique from a ‘soft’ to a ‘hard’ working of stone. The latter evolved in the early 5th century and was suitable for carving in soft sandstone, which permitted deep cutting and the creation of increasingly abstract forms, as on four gables from Ahnas (Cairo, Coptic Mus.). The co-existence of pagan and Christian iconography in Coptic sculpture is particularly evident in the architectural fragments from Ahnas and Oxyrhynchus. Among the many recurrent pagan themes are Leda and the Swan (e.g. Alexandria, Gr.-Roman Mus.), Dionysius (e.g. 5th-century relief, Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks), Aphrodite, Pan (e.g. niches in Cairo, Coptic Mus.) and a putto on a dolphin between dancing nereids (e.g. architectural relief, Trieste, Mus. Civ. Stor. & A.). The repetition of mythological subjects, which probably derived from the Greco-Roman sepulchral art of Alexandria, was due to their prevalent popularity rather than a specifically sensual element in Christian sculpture, as has often been suggested. The primary, though not exclusive, function of such subjects must have been funerary (Torp, 1969).

Christian iconography includes, as in other areas of Coptic art (e.g. wall painting; see §IV, 1 below), rider-saints. Examples are those of St Apollo between angels at Dashlut and a 5th-century relief (Alexandria, Gr.-Roman Mus.) from the ruins of what may have been the former monastery of St Thekla at the Ennaton in the Dakhla Oasis, which shows St Menas flanked by two camels and is probably based on a relief known to have decorated his underground chamber tomb (see Abu Mina). The sculpture (Paris, Louvre; Cairo, Coptic Mus.) from the South Church at Bawit includes two reliefs showing scenes from the stories of Daniel and David, as well as friezes and cornices carved with acanthus leaf scrolls and entwined vines, some inhabited by animals and birds. The chronology of these pieces is uncertain, since the monument was apparently rebuilt in the late 6th century or early 7th, incorporating earlier building materials and sculpture.

The Constantinopolitan links of a group of 6th-century sculptures shows the continuation of Byzantine influences in Egypt. A vine frieze and pilaster with two angels from Bawit (both Paris, Louvre) are similar respectively to a niche from the church of St Polyeuktos, Istanbul (Istanbul, Archaeol. Mus.), and to a 5th- or 6th-century Byzantine ivory of the Archangel Michael (London, BM). Related to this group of architectural sculpture is a stele from Bawit with a praying figure (orant) led by an archangel under a pediment (Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyp.). This adopts a similar composition to that used on an earlier stele probably from the Faiyum (Berlin, Bodemus.), in which a female orant identified by an inscription as Theodora is depicted under a pediment enclosing a shell niche and supported by columns. Above her praying hands are crosses and above the pediment are two birds with scroll motifs on either side.


  • E. Kitzinger: ‘Notes on Early Coptic Sculpture’, Archaeologia, 87 (1938), pp. 181–215
  • J. Beckwith: Coptic Sculpture, 300–1300 (London, 1963)
  • H. Torp: Two Sixth-century Coptic Stone Reliefs with Old Testament Scenes, Acta Archaeol. & A. Hist. Pertinentia, 2 (1965), pp. 105–19
  • H. Torp: ‘Byzance et la sculpture copte du VIe siècle à Baouît et Sakkara’, Synthronon: Art et archéologie de la fin de l’antiquité et du moyen âge: Recueil d’études, ed. A. Grabar (Paris, 1968), pp. 11–27
  • H. Torp: Leda Christiana: The Problem of the Interpretation of Coptic Sculpture with Mythological Motifs, Acta Archaeol. & A. Hist. Pertinentia, 4 (1969), pp. 101–12
  • H.-G. Severin: ‘Frühchristliche Skulptur und Malerei in Ägypten’, Spätantike und frühes Christentum, ed. B. Brenk (Berlin, 1977), pp. 243–53
  • G. Vikan: ‘The So-called “Sheikh Ibada Group” of Early Coptic Sculptures’, 3rd Annual Byzantine Studies Conference: New York, 1977, pp. 15–16
  • M. Bell: ‘A Coptic Jason Relief’, Gesta, 18/1 (1979), pp. 45–52
  • H.-G. Severin: ‘Problemi di scultura tardoantica in Egitto’, Corsi Cult. A. Raven. & Biz. (1981), pp. 315–36
  • H.-G. Severin: ‘Beispiele der Verwendung spätantiker Spolien: Ägyptische Notizen’, Studien zur spätantiken und byzantinischen Kunst: F. W. Deichmann Gewidmet, ed. O. Feld and U. Peschlow, 2 (Mainz, 1986), pp. 104–8
  • T. K. Thomas: Niche Decorations from the Tombs of Byzantine Egypt: Visions of the Afterlife (diss., New York U., 1990)

IV. Painting.

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt

1. Monumental.

The precursors of Coptic wall painting include the paintings in the Roman sanctuary within the Temple of Amun at Luxor (see Thebes, §III) and the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel (see Hermopolis Magna [anc. Egyp. Khmun; Arab. el-Ashmunein]) in Middle Egypt, where mythological scenes are depicted alongside geometric and floral motifs combining Greek and pharaonic elements. In the early years of Christianity numerous pagan monuments were painted over with Christian scenes or, in the case of ancient temples converted to churches or chapels, with rows of venerated hermits, monks and founders of monasteries. The frescoes (destr.) in the catacomb of Karmouz in Alexandria included such New Testament scenes as the Marriage at Cana, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and a funerary meal. A 5th-century painting (destr.) in the tomb chapel of Theodosia at Antinoöpolis depicted a young woman standing in prayer (orant) between St Kolluthos and the Virgin (all destr.). The hand of St Kolluthos on her shoulder was a sign that through her prayer she would meet her saintly protectors, a gesture that derives from pharaonic funerary art.

Surviving paintings (see Jewish art, §I, 4, (i)) and inscriptions in the necropolis of el-Bagawat in the Kharga Oasis distinguish the Christian from the pagan tombs, which together number 263, all of which are uniformly domed cubes in plan. The paintings in the Exodus Chapel (no. 30) of the 4th and 5th centuries and the slightly later Mausoleum of Peace are of particular interest. The Exodus Chapel contains scenes of salvation relating to Moses, Noah, Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Susanna and the Trial of Job, as well as the martyrdom of St Thekla. Several of the same scenes appear in the Mausoleum of Peace, together with the personifications of Peace, Righteousness and Prayer. Some of the best-preserved paintings from the 6th to 8th centuries come from the memorial chapels of the monasteries of Bawit and Saqqara (now Cairo, Coptic Mus.), corresponding to their periods of greatest expansion. The focus of the painted programme is the niche, enclosing Christ or the Virgin and Child. A niche painting from chapel 6 at Bawit is in two registers. The upper shows Christ in Majesty blessing and holding an open book displaying the text of the Trisagion (Gk. ‘thrice holy’; Ordinary chant of the Eastern Christian liturgy). He is flanked by the four apocalyptic beasts of Ezekiel’s vision, with the sun and moon and archangels. Below is a scene of the Virgin and Child with the Apostles, each holding a jewelled Gospel book. The figures are arranged frontally, moulded in yellow, black, green and blue. Old Testament iconography, especially the life of David, New Testament and hunting scenes also find a place alongside depictions of monks and saints at Bawit.

Between the 12th century and the mid-13th there was renewed interest in wall paintings, especially in the monastery churches where the contributions of Syrian and Armenian artists are apparent. Examples include the main apse painting of Christ in Majesty (1124) in the church of the White Monastery (Deir el-Abyad), Sohag, which is inscribed in Armenian, and a painting in the south chapel at the monastery of St Anthony (Deir Anba Antunyus) on the Red Sea, also showing Christ in Majesty accompanied by apocalyptic beasts and angels, the Virgin and St John, beneath which is a draped cross with angels bearing censers. The richly coloured choir paintings of the Annunciation, Nativity and Death of the Virgin in the church dedicated to her at the monastery of the Syrians (Deir es-Suriani) in the Wadi Natrun are inscribed in both Syriac and Coptic. They are stylistically aligned to contemporary secular and religious painting in Syria and Palestine and can be associated with a period of artistic activity in the second quarter of the 13th century that culminated in the Copto-Arabic New Testament (see §IV, 3 below) and the icon of Christ Enthroned at St Catherine’s Monastery (Deir Sant Katarin), Mt Sinai (see §IV, 2 below).

2. Icon.

The Faiyum (see Faiyum, §2) or mummy portraits (see Mummy, Egyptian, §1) in encaustic and tempera form the basis for icon painting in Egypt. Two of the best-preserved icons come from Bawit. One shows Christ with his arm around the shoulder of Abbot Menas (6th century; Paris, Louvre) and the other is of Abbot Abraham, Bishop of Hermonthis (590–600; Berlin, Bodemus.). The latter is painted in encaustic in brown, red and yellow, with black and white. A damaged icon (8th century) from St Catherine’s Monastery (see Sinai, §2, (iii)) bears the earliest known equestrian representation of St Makarios. The rounded face of the victorious saint turns to the viewer as he spears the figure of Julian the Apostate (reg 361–3) lying beneath the hooves of his horse. The hand of God and an angel complete the panel at the top. This scheme has been interpreted as a prayer for help by an increasingly anxious Christian population under Muslim rule. A mid-13th-century icon of Christ Enthroned at St Catherine’s Monastery may be by the same artist who was responsible for the monumental wall paintings in the choir of the church of the Virgin at the monastery of the Syrians (see §IV, 1 above) as well as part of the illuminations in the Copto-Arabic New Testament (see §IV, 3 below).

3. Manuscript.

The collections of Coptic manuscripts found in many major European and Armenian libraries were largely brought together between the 17th and 19th centuries and mostly originate from the White Monastery (Deir al-Abyad), Sohag, the monastery of St Michael (Deir al-Malak Mikha’il) in the Faiyum and from the Wadi Natrun monasteries. Characteristic features of Coptic illuminated manuscripts are their brightly coloured, interlace frontispiece crosses, headpieces, initial letters, paragraph marks and marginal zoomorphic motifs. Several manuscripts also preserve their original bindings: for example the leather binding, complete with boards and straps, of the Glazier Codex (c. 400; New York, Pierpont Morgan Lib., MS. G.67) and the binding tooled with star patterns and animals on a 6th- or 7th-century Psalter (London, BL, MS. or. 5000).

A group of Gnostic texts written on papyrus, the Nag Hammadi Codices (Cairo, Coptic Mus.), have paragraph marks and title headings. Illustrations proper are also evident in surviving papyri, such as a drawing of Christ and the Apostles at Lake Tiberias on a papyrus fragment (5th to 6th century; Florence, Mus. Archeol., MS. 8682).

Manuscripts on vellum include the Glazier Codex, which contains part of the Acts of the Apostles; its frontispiece shows an interlaced dankh-symbol (signifying life) flanked by affronted birds and peacocks painted in yellow, red and brown. This illumination has prompted discussions on the relationship between Coptic art and that of the British Isles. Later in date (probably 7th to 8th century) are the illustrated papyrus fragments accompanied by Greek text from the Alexandrian World Chronicle (Moscow, Pushkin Mus. F.A., MSS 310/7 and 310/8). They are stylistically comparable with the wall paintings from Bawit and Saqqara, as are the painted standing Evangelists on the wooden covers of a Gospel book (Washington, DC, Freer). Roughly coeval with the Chronicle, but demonstrating another aspect of Coptic book illumination, is the line drawing of Job and his Family on the last page of a copy of the Book of Job (Naples, Bib. N., MS. Borgia 25). Careful draughtsmanship is also evident on a frontispiece washed with colour showing St Paul with Timothy in a manuscript of the Pauline Epistles (892; St Petersburg, Saltykov-Shchedrin Pub. Lib., MS. Arabe 327). In the 9th and 10th centuries illustrations were also included in hagiographical, liturgical and theological manuscripts. An example of the latter (989–90; London, BL, MS. or. 6782), perhaps from Sohag, has a drawing of the Virgin and St John as its frontispiece.

Increased contact with Byzantine and Syriac manuscripts during the 12th and 13th centuries led to the growing use of New Testament imagery in Coptic manuscripts, as, for example, the Evangelist portraits in two Gospel books, one with a collophon dated 1173 (Oxford, Bodleian Lib., MS. Hunt. 17) and the other from the 1220s (Rome, Vatican, Bib. Apostolica, MS. Copto 9), and a cycle of vividly painted New Testament scenes (1178–80; Paris, Bib. N., MS. Copte 13). The frontispieces in the latter manuscript provide rare insight into the circumstances of its production, reflecting the influence of contemporary Coptic Church propaganda. They were originally organized in pairs in such a way as to show Christ receiving the Gospels from the four Evangelists across facing folios; similarly the contemporary Patriarch Mark formerly faced a portrait (lost) that probably showed Coptic bishops. The Copto-Arabic New Testament of 1249–50 (Paris, Inst. Cath., MS. Copte-arabe 1; Cairo, Coptic Mus., MS. Bibl. 94) includes Evangelist portraits, Gospel scenes and frontispieces for the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles. These illustrations draw on Eastern Christian and secular traditions of painting and were executed in subtle colours of pale pink, purple, orange, red and green by two artists, one of whom may have painted the apse frescoes in the church of the Virgin at the monastery of the Syrians in the Wadi Natrum (see §IV, 1 above) and an icon of Christ Enthroned at St Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai (see §IV, 2 above). During the Mamluk period Coptic manuscript illuminators were increasingly influenced by contemporary developments in Islamic art, as is evident in the frontispiece of a Gospel book (1340; Cairo, Coptic Mus., MS. Bibl. 91), which has much in common with contemporary Koran decorations (see Islamic art, §III, 3(i)).


  • K. Weitzmann: ‘An Early Copto-Arabic Miniature in Leningrad’, Ars Islamica, 10 (1943), pp. 119–34
  • A. Grabar: Martyrium: Recherches sur le culte des reliques et l’art chrétien antique, 2 vols (Paris, 1943–6)
  • T. C. Petersen: ‘Early Islamic Bookbindings and their Coptic Relations’, Ars Orientalis, 1 (1954), pp. 41–64
  • T. C. Petersen: ‘The Paragraph Mark in Coptic Illuminated Ornament’, Studies in Art and Literature for Belle Da Costa Green, ed. D. Miner (Princeton, 1954), pp. 295–330
  • C. Ihm: Die Programme der christlichen Apsismalerei vom viertel Jahrhunderts bis zur Mitte des achten Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden, 1960)
  • M. Cramer: Koptische Buchmalerei: Illuminationen in Manuskripten des christlich-koptischen Ägypten vom 4. bis 19. Jahrhundert (Recklinghausen, 1964)
  • H. Bober: ‘On the Illumination of the Glazier Codex: A Contribution to Early Coptic Art, and its Relation to Hiberno-Saxon Interlace’, Homage to a Bookman: Essays on Manuscripts, Books and Printing Written for Hans P. Kraus on his 60th Birthday, ed. H. Lehmann-Haupt (Berlin, 1967), pp. 31–49
  • M. Krause: ‘Zur Lokalisierung und Datierung koptischer Denkmäler’, Z. Ägyp. Spr. & Alterknd., 97 (1971), pp. 106–11
  • N. S. H. Jansma: Ornements des manuscrits coptes du Monastère Blanc (Groningen, 1973)
  • J. Leroy: Les Manuscrits coptes et coptes-arabes illustrés (Paris, 1974)
  • J. Leroy: La Peinture murale chez les coptes, 2 vols (Cairo, 1975–82)
  • L. S. B. MacCoull: ‘Sinai Icon B.49: Egypt and Iconoclasm’, XVI Internationaler Byzantinistenkongress: Vienna, 1981, 2/5, pp. 407–14
  • M. Rassert-Debergh: La Décoration picturale du monastère de Saqqara: Essai de reconstitution, Acta Archaeol. & A. Hist. Pertinentia, 9 (1981), pp. 9–124
  • M. Rassert-Debergh: ‘La pittura del Convento di S. Geremia a Saqqara: Temi e tecniche’, Corsi di cultura sull’arte ravennate e bizantina, 18 (1981), pp. 255–79
  • M. Rassert-Debergh and J. Debergh: A propos de trois peintures de Saqqara, Acta Archaeol. & A. Hist. Pertinentia, 9 (1981), pp. 187–205
  • P. Van Moorsel and M. Huijbers: Repertory of the Preserved Wallpaintings from the Monastery of Apa Jeremiah at Saqqara, Acta Archaeol. & A. Hist. Pertinentia, 9 (1981), pp. 125–86
  • L.-A. Hunt: ‘The Commissioning of a Late Twelfth Century Gospel Book: The Frontispieces of MS Paris, Bibl. Nat. Copte 13’, Byzantinische Forschungen, 10 (1985), pp. 113–39
  • L.-A. Hunt: ‘Christian–Muslim Relations in Painting in Egypt of the Twelfth to mid-Thirteenth Centuries: Sources of Wallpainting at Deir es-Suriani and the Illustration of the New Testament MS Paris, Copte-arabe 1/Cairo, Bibl. 94’, Cahiers archéologiques, 33 (1985), pp. 111–55
  • A. Iskander Sadek: ‘L’Icône copte’, Le Monde copte, 18 (1990), pp. 11–18

V. Other arts.

1. Bone- and ivory-carving.

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt

Collections of carved bone plaques from Egypt are housed in a number of museums (e.g. Cairo, Coptic Mus.; Alexandria, Gr.-Roman Mus.; Paris, Louvre; Athens, Benaki, Mus.). Although many examples have been found in the rubbish heaps of Alexandria and, to a lesser extent, in other centres such as Memphis, Arsinoë (now Madinat al-Faiyum), Herakleopolis Magna (Copt. Ahnas) and Oxyrhynchus (now al-Bahnasa), their exact provenance and chronology are generally unknown. Their motifs are mostly derived from the Hellenistic repertory of pagan gods, nereids and epic stories, as well as from Egyptian divinities. Among Christian subjects are Christ (e.g. Florence, Mus. Archeol.) and the Sacrifice of Isaac (Berlin, Bodemus.). Bone reliefs served as a cheap substitute for ivory and were glued or riveted to caskets, pyxes, furniture and other objects as decoration. Marks on the plaques indicate the use of various tools, including a flat chisel or knife, compasses and a pointed instrument for anatomical details; the plaques were then painted.

Among the surviving ivory-carvings executed in Hellenistic style is a poet or philosopher with an attendant (Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks), identified by a Greek inscription as coming from Andropolis, a Roman district of Egypt. A medicine box (4th–5th century; Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks) is also believed to have come from Egypt. Its base is carved with acanthus leaves and the figure of Dionysus standing between a maenad and a satyr, while the lid depicts a female figure wearing the crown of Isis and carrying a cornucopia and a rudder; to her left a flying cupid holds a mirror. As the personification of Tyche–Fortuna, she is meant to bring good luck and health to the owner. Other ivory-carving is more closely related in style to stone sculpture from Ahnas and Oxyrhynchus, for example a pyxis (Wiesbaden, Mus. Wiesbaden) decorated with a scene from the festival of Isis, in which a personification of Egypt reclines against a sphinx and one of the River Nile is surrounded by cupids, lotus flowers and a crocodile. Another example is a small panel with scenes of the Dioscuri and Pasiphaë and the Bull (Trieste, Mus. Civ. Stor. & A.). Pagan deities also appear on two of the ivory panels from the ambo of Henry II (reg 1002–24) in Aachen Cathedral: Dionysus and a female figure, personifying either Isis or Isis of the Sea, bearing a cornucopia and a ship. Other figures include a nereid riding a sea-monster in a Nilotic setting, and two warriors, one on horseback and one standing. Dates in the 6th century, early 7th and even the 8th have been attributed to these ivory panels.

As with bone reliefs, few ivories with Christian scenes survive. Two 6th-century examples are a leaf from a five-part diptych carved with Old and New Testament scenes (Ravenna, Mus. N.) and a comb (Cairo, Coptic Mus.) from Antinoöpolis (now el-Sheikh Ibada) depicting the Raising of Lazarus and the Christ Healing the Blind Man on one side and, on the reverse, angels holding a garland that frames an equestrian saint. A relief panel showing the Virgin and Child (Baltimore, MD, Walters A.G.) can be dated later, in the 9th to the 10th century, by comparison with manuscript illumination of that period.


  • J. Strzygowski: Koptische Kunst: Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Cairo (Vienna, 1904)
  • W. F. Volbach: Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters (Mainz, 1916, 3/1976)
  • J. Beckwith: Coptic Sculpture, 300–1300 (London, 1963)
  • J. Kollwitz: ‘Alexandrinische Elfenbeine’, Christentum am Nil: Internationale Arbeitstagung zur Ausstellung ‘Koptische Kunst’: Essen, 1964, pp. 207–20
  • Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (exh. cat., ed. K. Weitzmann; New York, Met., 1977)

2. Ceramics.

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt

The study of Coptic ceramics remains relatively unexplored, except at Kellia, where excavations in the 1960s led to the establishment of a typology of 4th- to 8th-century pottery, which revealed the same diversity characteristic of other Mediterranean types from North Africa, Cyprus and the Byzantine empire. Egloff divided the pottery into three periods: 4th to 5th century, 6th to mid-7th and mid-7th to early 8th. Although the influence of Hellenistic and pharaonic symbols is particularly evident in the earliest examples from Kellia, and elsewhere in Egypt, considerable advances were made in the development of oxidizing and firing techniques, and in the application of textured decoration (e.g. carving, moulding, incising and grooving) to the outer surfaces of vessels. Painted decoration was used more extensively but is found on a limited number of shapes, including water-coolers, incense burners, shallow bowls, basins, jugs (see fig.), pots and plates. Among the wide range of decorative motifs employed are geometric designs (cross-hatching, twists, undulating motifs, dotted lines, garlands and dotted borders), figures, plants (e.g. tendrils, flowers, leaves, lotus buds and palms) and zoomorphic imagery, especially fish and birds. The fragments of a flat plate found at Kellia (Cairo, Coptic Mus., 269) are painted with vegetal motifs, fish, tortoises, molluscs and birds in red and black on a pale slip. Among the wares with relief ornament are many ovoid clay lamps, often shaped like frogs or shoes, that gradually developed into pointed ovals. There are also numerous pilgrim flasks from Abu Mina with the figure of St Menas in relief (Cairo, Coptic Mus.); some are inscribed with the name of the saint in either Coptic or Greek.

Coptic jug with painted and incised decoration, marl clay, h. 296 mm, from Wadi Sarga, 5th–7th centuries ad (London, British Museum); photo © The British Museum For more information:

From the 9th century, Fustat, near Old Cairo, became the main centre of ceramic production, and kilns remain active to the present day. Bright-glazed pottery was among the ceramics manufactured here. Metallic lustreware inscribed in Arabic and decorated with floral and geometric designs as well as Christian motifs later became popular. Among the surviving examples of this lustreware are a fragment decorated with the figure of Christ Blessing (Cairo, Mus. Islam. A.) and a bowl inscribed with the word Sa‛d and depicting a Coptic priest holding a censer (London, V&A). This bowl has been attributed to Coptic workmanship of the late 12th century, on the basis of comparison with a Patriarch frontispiece in a Gospel book of 1178–80 (Paris, Bib. N., MS. Copte 13).


  • M. Egloff: Kellia: La Poterie copte: Quatre siècles d’artisanat et d’échanges en Basse-Egypte, 2 vols (Geneva, 1977)

3. Textiles.

  • Hero Granger-Taylor

Tunic, linen, wool, 72 in. high 53.00 in. wide (183 cm high 135 cm wide), Coptic, 5th century(?) AD (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1926, Accession ID:26.9.8); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most textiles known as ‘Coptic’ are from Christian cemeteries in Egypt. They date from the 3rd century ad onwards, finally merging with Islamic textile types in the 11th or 12th centuries. The exceptionally dry conditions in Egypt have made possible the survival of all kinds of organic material, including many large Coptic textiles, with well-preserved colour. Considerable numbers of these textiles were excavated between c. 1880 and c. 1910, particularly at Akhmim and Antinoöpolis and in the region of Faiyum. Many museums worldwide have small collections (e.g. Paris, Louvre; Lyon, Mus. Hist. Tissus; Berlin, Bodemus; London, V&A; New York, Met.; Moscow, Pushkin Mus. F.A.). Items recovered are mainly fragmentary or complete tunics (see fig.), mantles and furnishing textiles; the latter were wrapped around the bodies over the clothing. Most pieces show signs of wear and repair. It was formerly the practice after excavation to cut out and keep only well preserved and decorated areas.

(i) Materials and techniques.

Coptic textiles are principally of linen, the traditional fibre of Egypt. This was almost always left undyed, but dyed wool was inwoven to create areas of decoration. Cloths were also woven from wool alone and, from the 6th or 7th century, from cotton and increasingly from silk. Dye analysis has shown that traditional plant dyes were used (see Rome, ancient, §X, 10, (ii)); blue and red (indigo and madder) were combined to give a dark purple, but true purple dye was also used on rare occasions (see Dye, §2).

The most common method of decoration was tapestry-weave, used both for isolated panels and motifs and for large-scale designs. Tapestry panels were originally woven in one with the rest of the cloth, for example in a piece with four registers of Old Testament scenes (5th–6th century; Riggisberg, Abegg-Stift.) and on tunics (4th–5th century; Moscow, Pushkin Mus. F.A., 5823), but later began to be woven separately and sewn on, a quicker method (e.g. roundel of the Adoration of the Magi, c. 8th–9th century; London, BM). The detail within the tapestry was outlined, particularly in the early period, by discontinuous wefts in the soumak or weft-wrapping technique, often incorrectly called ‘flying shuttle’. Some large-scale textile furnishings are decorated not with tapestry but with brocaded weft loops, an effect reminiscent of mosaic, as in the representation of Cupids in a Boat (4th century; London, BM, EA 20717). A related technique, though generally later, used brocaded threads but without loops, either in coloured wool on a linen ground or, for narrow ribbons sewn to clothing, in undyed linen on a dyed woollen ground (e.g. hem decoration of a tunic, London, V&A, 409-1890). There are a few examples of knotted carpets with cut wool pile including one from Buhen and another from Qasr Ibrim (both c. 6th century; London, BM, EA 66708 and EA 67073). More complex weaves are compound tabby and compound twill, both weft-faced with repeating patterns (see Textile, §II, 1). Compound tabby, usually in wool in two contrasting colours, was used mainly for cushion and mattress covers (e.g. 4th–5th century; Washington, DC, Textile Mus., 31.111, 31.112 and 31.114). Compound twill, a slightly later technique, is associated with expensive multicoloured silks which, in provincial Egypt, were cut up into strips and applied to clothing (e.g. Lyon, Mus. Hist. Tissus, 887.III.1). The most common loom was the two-beam upright loom, but the compound weaves must have been produced on a variety of horizontal loom (see Early Christian and Byzantine art, §VII, 8).

Fragment of a hanging,linen and wool, 41 in. high 24.75 in. wide (104 cm high 63 cm wide), Coptic, 5th century AD (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George F. Baker, 1890, Accession ID:90.5.905); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Minor techniques include sprang, a process involving the manipulation of a set of stretched threads, which was used for women’s hair-nets (e.g. Paris, Louvre, AF 5868; New York, Met.); single-needle netting, which resembles knitting and was used for socks; and resist-dyeing, in which a linen cloth with a large-scale painted design in wax was dyed in indigo, as in the depiction of Artemis in a stepped aedicule surrounded by mythological heroes and hunting scenes (Riggisberg, Abegg-Stift., 1397). Embroidery was little used beyond some coarse early furnishings in chainstitch wool (see fig.) and a group of later panels in split-stitch silk, the latter usually depicting religious scenes, as in the medallion of the Annunciation and Visitation (5th–6th century; London, V&A) and the galloon representing the Nativity (5th–6th century; Paris, Louvre).

(ii) Iconography and style.

Linen panel, wool, 8.62 in. high 13.37 in. wide (22 cm high 34 cm wide), Coptic, 4th century AD (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George F. Baker, 1890, Accession ID:90.5.873); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although their technical evolution was slow, the design of Coptic textiles changed considerably over the centuries. Since there are few firmly dated examples, style is the best indicator of date. Clothing of the 3rd and 4th centuries was simply decorated with panels of purple wool, usually with geometric curvilinear, or occasionally floral, designs brocaded in seemingly superimposed linen thread, for example the shoulder and sleeve decoration of a tunic (c. 300; London, V&A, 361-1887). This type of ornament persisted for some time, as can be seen in the flower-buds that decorate the hem of the tunic worn by Empress Theodora in the mosaic panel in S Vitale (see Early Christian and Byzantine art, §VII, 8). By the 5th century, however, figurative designs based on pagan mythology and on secular and Christian iconography were common (see fig.). Examples include a rectangular panel with Dionysos on a chariot drawn by panthers (c. 4th century; New York, Met.; see fig.); a panel from the neck area of a tunic showing satyrs and maenads (Cleveland, OH, Mus. A., 75.6); and a square with a man and his dog hunting a panther (6th century; Paris, Louvre). During the 6th and 7th centuries, partly as a result of Iranian influence, bright green, yellow and red appeared on clothing alongside purple and white, for example in the medallions, squares and galloons that decorated the Sabine Shawl from Antinoöpolis (6th century; Paris, Louvre, E 29302) and in a tunic roundel decorated with river gods (Paris, Louvre, AF 5448). In the 8th and 9th centuries red was a common ground colour and designs were increasingly multicoloured, with outlining often in dark blue, as in the roundel with the Adoration of the Magi. The iconography owed much to Byzantine and Iranian silks, but the figure style was increasingly distorted and provincial. The period from the 10th century onwards is characterized by the use of black and of simplified Greek inscriptions, perhaps influenced by Islamic Tiraz fabrics (e.g. London, V&A, 292–1891). By this time, any human figures had become tiny, part of a hectic pattern of mixed stylized motifs.

Coptic tapestry showing Artemis and Actaeon, wool and linen, 1.47×1.83 m, from Akhmim, c. 4th century ad (London, British Museum); photo © The British Museum For more information:

Furnishing textiles followed a similar stylistic progression, but from the beginning they were more colourful and figurative. Two splendid tapestries are the fragmentary wall hanging of Dionysian procession (c. 4th century; Riggisberg, Abegg-Stift.), which was originally more than 7 m wide, and the hanging with the Virgin and Child (1.78×1.10 m, c. 6th century; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.). In both the figures are shown within architectural niches.


  • A. F. Kendrick: Catalogue of Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt, 3 vols, London, V&A cat. (London, 1920–21)
  • O. Wulff and W. F. Volbach: Spätantike und koptische Stoffe aus ägyptischen Grabfunden in den Staatlichen Museen (Berlin, 1926)
  • E. Wipszycka: L’Industrie textile dans l’Egypte romaine (Warsaw, 1965)
  • L. Kybalova: Coptic Textiles (London, 1967)
  • Textiles from Egypt, 4th–13th Centuries C.E. (exh. cat. by A. Baginski and A. Tidhar, Jerusalem, Mayer Mem. Inst. Islam. A., 1980)
  • The Roman Heritage: A Journal of Southern Sudanese Cultures: Textiles from Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, 300–600 A.D. (exh. cat. by J. Trilling, Washington, DC, Textile Mus., 1982)
  • J. Lafontaine-Dosogne: Textiles coptes (Brussels, 1988)
  • M.-H. Rutschowscaya: Tissus coptes (Paris, 1991)

4. Woodwork.

  • Lucy-Anne Hunt

Coptic woodwork was produced both in local woods, especially sycamore, tamarisk and acacia, and in imported materials, such as cedar. Wood-carving techniques and designs are related to those used for ivory and bone. Many of the surviving wooden objects are architectural elements, such as doors, screens, lintels and consoles; there is also a number of smaller wooden panels and friezes, probably from boxes or coffins. Recognizing the original context of individual pieces is as problematic as analysing their sculptural qualities. The carvings comprise a wide range of animal and floral motifs, including Nilotic, floral and figural scenes, which are not always easily identifiable. One such example is an intricately carved wooden bracket (probably 5th century; Berlin, Bodemus.) depicting the capture of a city, made in a dark wood (dikotyle) and possibly from a palace at Shumun (Hermopolis Magna). It is not clear whether the scene represented Roman infantry routing barbarian soldiers or a specific biblical event, such as Joshua defeating the Amorites at Gibeon (Joshua 10:10).

Several pieces of architectural sculpture survive from Bawit (Paris, Louvre), although in these the decorative themes are clearly Christian in inspiration. They include a carved panel of a standing saint and a console depicting Daniel in the Lions’ Den (6th century), and three lintels from the South Church, each carved with a cross, either in a crown of laurels or beneath a church façade. The largest lintel also has an inscription referring to SS Michael and Gabriel, and to Abbots Apollo and Phib; figures of a lion and lioness at either end represent the Church’s protectors. Another object of particular interest is the two-leaved door (Cairo, Coptic Mus.) from the church of St Barbara (Sitt Barbara) in Old Cairo. Only the upper and middle sets of panels survive. At the top are two rectangular panels, each showing a bust of Christ encircled by a victory wreath borne by winged angels, with an Evangelist carrying a Gospel book. The panels below depict Christ in a mandorla to the left and a figure, possibly the Virgin, to the right, each accompanied by Apostles and flanking the central panels of Christ and, probably, St Mark. The style of the rinceaux and flying angels in the upper panels is comparable with Byzantine ivories, such as the Barberini Diptych (c. 500; Paris, Louvre); the other panels are later.

The sycamore lintel (Cairo, Coptic Mus.) from the Hanging Church (al-Mu‛allaqa) in Old Cairo, usually attributed to the 5th or 6th century, has been re-assigned by MacCoull to 735 on the basis of its partially preserved inscription. It is carved with the Entry into Jerusalem, the Ascension and other scenes, and is elucidated by a Greek inscription, which includes, as part of a hymn, the trisagion with a Psalm to denote Christ’s simultaneous entry into the earthly and heavenly cities. The earthly city is represented by the Roman fortress of Babylon (i.e. Old Cairo) and the dancing woman is the daughter of Sion celebrating the arrival of her King (John 12:15). Originally the lintel surmounted the inner doorway to a funerary chamber, thus linking Christ’s triumphal entry with a more general triumph over death.

There was also considerable demand for sanctuary screens made from intricately carved interlocking pieces of wood, which closed off the presbytery from the nave. The earliest of several complete examples in the monastery churches of the Wadi Natrun are the ebony and inlaid ivory screens of the sanctuary and choir in the church of the Virgin (al-‛Adhra) at the monastery of the Syrians (Deir es-Suriani). They are dated by their Syriac inscriptions to 913–14 and 926–7, respectively, and their carved panels comprise foliate crosses and geometric designs, as well as images of Christ, the Virgin and the Fathers of the Syrian and Coptic Churches. Although these screens are probably of Syrian workmanship, they initiated a series of Coptic screens such as that (2.68×2.18 m, 11th century; Cairo, Coptic Mus.) from the church of St Barbara, Old Cairo, which is carved with animal, bird and figural imagery (e.g. camels, peacocks, equestrian figures) and is related to contemporary secular Fatimid woodwork (see Islamic art, §VII, 1(i)(b)). Similar carving is found on woodwork (New York, Met.) from the convent of St George (Deir Mari Girgis) in Old Cairo. A series of panels (London, BM), arguably from the baptistery sanctuary screen of the Hanging Church and dated to its refurbishment in 1301–2, are carved with feast scenes derived from Eastern Christian icon painting. They retain traces of gesso, indicating that they were painted or gilded, as in the case of a similar panel showing the Sacrifice of Isaac (Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks), which is datable slightly later in the 14th century. This panel may have formed part of a screen to the chapel of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the church of St Sergius (Abu Sarga) in Old Cairo. As a group, the Cairene panels reflect the high quality of Christian workmanship that was maintained in Egypt under the Mamluks.


  • E. Pauty: Bois sculptés d’églises coptes: Epoque fatimide (Cairo, 1930)
  • M. H. Simaika: Guide sommaire du Musée Copte et des principales églises du Caire (Cairo, 1937)
  • M. Sacopoulo: ‘Le Linteau copte dit d’Al-Moallâka’, Cahiers archéologiques, 9 (1957), pp. 99–115
  • M. Jenkins: ‘An Eleventh-century Woodcarving from a Cairo Nunnery’, Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. R. Ettinghausen (New York, 1972), pp. 227–40
  • M. H. Rutschowscaya: ‘Introduction à l’étude des bois coptes du Musée du Louvre’, Enchoria: Zeitschrift für Demotistik und Koptologie, 8 (1978), pp. 169–71
  • L. S.-B. MacCoull: ‘Redating the Inscription of El-Moallaqa’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 64 (1986), pp. 230–34
  • L.-A. Hunt: ‘The al-Mu‛allaqa Doors Reconstructed: An Early Fourteenth-century Sanctuary Screen from Old Cairo’, Gesta, 28 (1989), pp. 61–77

5. Personal art.

  • Dominic Montserrat

The principal manifestation of Coptic personal art is tattooing. The designs are invariably religious: for the Copts, a tattoo is an affirmation of belief and self-identity, the permanence of the tattoo being equated with the indestructibility of Coptic faith. It is also believed that the Copt’s tattoo will distinguish him from the Muslim ‘infidel’ at the Last Judgement. Coptic tattoos are striking for their continued use of ancient iconography and wide repertory of designs. The practice is of considerable antiquity and, according to documentary evidence, can be dated to the 5th century. Marks suggesting tattoos are painted on the outstretched arms of 5th-century praying figures (1989 exh. cat.), and recent analysis under infra-red light has revealed tattoos on mummies (Paris, Mus. Guimet); the custom was also noted by the earliest travellers to Egypt and the Levant.

The traditional tattooing technique used by the Copts is unique. Designs are carved on wooden stamps like printing blocks, and the chosen motif stamped on to the skin with ink: this outline is then traced with seven needles set in a stick, using lampblack for pigment. Many modern Coptic tattoo artists, however, use Western techniques (see Tattoo). The tattoo is usually positioned on the inside of the right wrist for small designs and on the upper arm for larger ones, which are contained in an oval. The most common motif is the Resurrection, with a haloed Christ rising from the tomb holding a cross and a pennant. Rider-saints, probably originating in the rider-gods introduced to Egypt by Danubian legionaries, occur frequently, as do the Crucifixion, the Annunciation (restricted to women), the Nativity and the Baptism: the composition of the latter two designs is directly derived from icons. Mermaids, who often figure in Coptic funerary sculpture, are another favoured design. Direct pharaonic antecedents may be traced for the geometric ‘flower-pot’ design, a version of the ancient kheker frieze, and the angelic head flanked by wings that originates in the winged solar-disc lintels of temple portals. The influence of calligraphy is evident on some tattoos that resemble manuscript colophons (e.g. Rome, Vatican, Bib. Apostolica, MS. Copt. 60, fol. 86v).


  • W. Blackman: The Fellahin of Upper Egypt (London, 1927), pp. 50–56
  • L. Keimer: Remarques sur le tatouage dans l’Egypte ancienne (Cairo, 1948), pp. 60–80
  • J. Muyser: ‘Survivance de tatouage chrétien en Egypte’, Cahiers coptes, 2 (1952), pp. 11–23
  • J. Carswell: Coptic Tattoo Designs (Jerusalem, 1956, rev. Beirut, 2/1958)
  • C. P. Jones: ‘Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies, 77 (1987), pp. 139–51
  • Art and Holy Powers in the Early Christian House (exh. cat., ed. E. Dauterman Maguire; Ann Arbor, U. MI, Kelsey Mus., 1989, p. 145)
  • V. Vale and A. Juno: Re/Search #12: Modern Primitives (San Francisco, 1989) [incl. detailed table of Coptic tattoo designs]
M. Restle and K. Wessel, eds: Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst (Stuttgart, 1966–)