THE WRONG IMPRESSION ABOUT COPTIC ART
The American writer and poet Dustan Thompson (1918 – 1975) visited Egypt in the post-war period (Sept. 1946 – March 1947). His visit was part of a tour to several cities in the Middle-East. When he returned to London he wrote about his travels in his book The Phoenix in the Desert (London; John Lehmann; 1951). Thompson had a characteristic sarcastic style, and he used a lot of it in his book. In Egypt he showed special fascination with the Copts. We shall write about that in a separate article. His sarcasm, however, did not leave him as he visited the oldest church in Egypt. Abu Serge[i] (Saint Sergius) has always been a tourist destination. Part of its attraction is that it was built above the crypt where the Infant Jesus, the Blessed Mary, and Saint Joseph lived for some time during their stay in Egypt.
The Coptic Church of Abu Sarga (Saints Sergius), in Old Cairo.[ii]Five of its columns are shown with the fainted paintings on them
I do not intend to talk about his visit to Abu Sarga in detail here – I am interested in the bit in which he sarcastically talks about Coptic art. His guide was a Coptic priest, and he says:
Someone, a very large someone, appears. He wears a dove-grey roble, a black turban, a fierce beard.
“Come with me,” he says.
And so, two foreign sheep, we are led about. The church is small, square, unremarkable. There are three isles, and elongated pulpit, an arabesque iconostasis. By now the plan of these Eastern sanctuaries seems commonplace, and Western surprise gives way to “of course” and “why not?” Only the horror of the chandeliers, here pendulous unfrosted bulbs, still startles. The Copts are Zoroastrian in their devotion to the Mazda lamp. But otherwise the note is very much the primitive one, early Christian: “Look out, or you’ll be eaten by those lions.” The catacombs do not seem far away.
They come closer when I see the crude representations of saints painted faintly on the columns dividing the isles. There are twelve columns, one for each apostle, which means eleven indefinite figures sketched in faded plaster. The twelfth column is unfinished, blank in memory of Judas. Our grey guide tells us this with gusto.”[iii]
There is no doubt that the representations of the saints painted on each of the eleven ancient columns of the church were faint and indefinite. Alfred Butler in his The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt writes, “On each of these eleven ancient pillars is painted the life-size figure of a saint or apostle, now so begrimed and obscured that in the doubtful light all may easily escape notice, and it requires close attention to make them out when discovered.”[iv] He adds that many were not aware of their existence. So Dunstan Thompson wasn’t absolutely incorrect in his description – what is unique, however, is that through sarcasm he passes on an impression on Coptic art which is unfavourable and misleading. Coptic art is depicted as crude, rudimentary, primitive, indefinite, commonplace, and unremarkable. But is it? We shall talk in a series of articles about the brilliance and genius of Coptic art, and try to clarify a few issues.
This article is intended to be mere introduction into the huge subject.
[i] As he calls it in his book. Locals call it Abu Sarga. He also says Abu Serge is the Arabised name of Saint George (p. 159). That, of course, is wrong – Abu Sarga is the Arabic equivalent of Saint Sergius.
[iii] The Phoenix in the Desert (London; John Lehmann; 1951); pp. 159-160.
[iv] Alfred J. Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt (Oxford; Clarendon Press; 1970); Vol. I; pp. 187-188. Butler studies The Church of Abu Sargah in pp. 181-205.