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A FATIMID BOWL FROM THE 11th CENTURY DEPICTING A COPTIC PRIEST

March 24, 2011


Lustre bowl showing Coptic priest from the fatimid Period (Cairo; 1050-1100 AD)

This rare depiction of a Coptic priest from the Fatimid Period (969-1171 AD) is one of the beauties of that period. The priest is painted on a bowl, which was made in the years 1050-1100 AD, that is sometime during the reigns of the caliphs, al-Mustansir (1036-1094) and al-Musta’li (1094-1101), and the patriarchates of Christodolos (1047-1077), Cyril II (1078-1092) and Michael IV (1092-1102).

The Copts were fond of painting during this period, which witnessed a surge in Coptic art. Copts did not paint only religious figures and scenes from the Bible; they paid attention to human and daily life paintings, and so we read in the Abu al-Makarim’s book, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries,[i] that they painted themselves at their homes, churches, rest houses and tombs.

The bowl is owned by the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Museum, South Kensington, London, and can be viewed at:

http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1342_islamic_middle_east/index.php?id=1015

The Museum gives the following information about the lustre bowl:

The human figures in Fatimid art are often drawn with great decorative skill. On this fine lustre-painted bowl, details have been scratched through the lustre to prevent the design becoming too heavy. The man has standard features, with joined-up eyebrows and eyes drawn with a line extending to the temples, but he holds a lamp and is clearly a priest of the Coptic Church. The cypress tree seems to suggest a monastery garden, a common theme in Arabic poetry.

And again:

The decoration on the interior of the bowl shows a hooded man carrying a lamp or censer suspended on chains. The space to his left is filled with a cypress tree. The man has traditionally been identified as a Coptic priest.
The Arabic word Sa’ad سعد appears twice, back to front, on the outside of the bowl. It means ‘happiness’ but is also a common man’s name. The same inscription appears on many other Egyptian lustre wares. It is not clear what it signifies. It may be a potter’s signature, a workshop mark or the expression of a good wish by the maker for the future owner. Experts have dated this bowl to between 1050 and 1100. This is because a similar item was built into the facade of the church of San Sisto in Pisa, Italy, which was begun in 1070.

It is possible that this bowl was made by a Copt, perhaps Sa’ad, whose name we read on the bowl. Sa’ad may also be the owner of the bowel, however, and not the artist. It is a very interesting piece of art which I would like to bring to the attention of all Copts.


[i] Tarikh al-kana’is wa-l-adyira (The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries) was written by Abul Makarim, a Copt, in the early 13th Century, but it was attributed wrongly by B.T.A. Evetts to Abu Salih al-Armani (the Armenian). There seems to be no dispute now on the Coptic authorship of the book.

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