THE BRILLIANCE AND GENIUS OF COPTIC ART AS REVEALED BY RECENT DISCOVERIES AND PRESENTED BY THE BRITISH ART HISTORIAN AND CRITIC ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON
The brilliance and genius of Coptic art and the Coptic artists have been hidden for centuries. The Copts, who are the direct descendants of the Pharaohs, once revitalised by Christianity, created some of the most beautiful art of humanity. This was despite the fact that the Copts never had a state of their own or a secure aristocracy that could sponsor art – rather, they experienced untold persecution and oppression by the Romans, Chalcedonian Byzantines and lastly the Muslims. The Islamic persecution, never remitting except during short periods of history, was particularly severe and systematic during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim (997-1021) and the Mamlukes (1250-1517) who launched in the 14th century a nation-wide series of campaigns of destruction of Coptic churches, manuscripts, works of art and culture. What was left us, or executed after the 13th century, was passed by some unsympathetic critics as great art “only in a very few cases.”[i] But does that represent Coptic art or the Coptic artistic talent and genius?
Thank Providence that modern renovation and restoration work in Coptic churches and monasteries across Egypt have revealed old works of art that lied hidden by layers of plaster or accumulating soot and dust. We are able now to look at Coptic work produced in the early Christian centuries and up to the 13th century, and evaluate it; and what a new understanding of brilliance and genius of Coptic art it has brought us.
Perhaps there is no live art historian or critic in the world who matches the British Andrew Graham-Dixon.[ii] It was great, certainly Coptia’s good luck,[iii] when he showed some interest in Coptic art in 2006. The result was Art for Eternity, a three-part television series for BBC4, which was first broadcast on 20 Aug 2007.[iv] The journey of the series – which runs, broadly speaking, from the third century AD to the early years of the fourteenth century – included a study of early Christian art in Roman, Byzantine, Coptic and early Renaissance tradition. Speaking about it, he says: “Above all, I hope to show that the achievements of Christian art during its first thousand years and more are still capable of speaking to anyone, of whatever faith (or even of no faith). This is an art that communicates a religious message, certainly, but it also speaks to the most fundamental and universal human emotions: the fear of death; the love of a mother for her child; the agony of seeing those who are loved subjected to the violence of war and persecution. It might have its eyes set on another world, beyond time and space, yet it also remains rooted in the perpetual facts of human existence. I really believe that it is – in both senses of the phrase – an art for eternity.”[v]
About his encounter with Coptic art, he writes on his website:
One of the principal aims of the series is to explore some of the least visited corners of early Christian art, and for me one of the greatest revelations came when I travelled to Egypt to look at the art of the Christian Copts. This was a tradition with which I was previously unfamiliar – and about which precious little has been written – yet which includes some of the most profoundly moving works of Christian art ever created. It is a tradition that survives only in fragments, many preserved in Cairo’s Museum of Coptic Art. This is where the earliest examples of the Coptic style – withdrawn, solemn but tremendously vivid images of Christ and his Apostles, the Virgin Mary and the saints, dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries – may be found. But the real treasure, the culminating masterpiece of this much vandalised and fragmented art tradition, is to be found in the wild and mountainous landscape of the south eastern desert. Travelling there, I visited the ancient monastery of St Anthony – the first Christian monastery ever established – and was quite simply stunned by the painted decorations of its great church. Only recently discovered and restored, after centuries of neglect, this cycle of frescoes is like nothing else in the Christian art tradition: stark but simple images of monks, priests and martyrs, with wide and staring eyes; a Madonna and Child painted in a style of such almost abstracted power and force that it resembles nothing so much as a late Picasso (who himself looked back to the art of earlier periods for inspiration, but could never have known this particular image); a depiction of the Vision of Ezekiel that might evoke comparisons with the sharp, dream-like paintings of the Dada and Surreal movements of the early twentieth century.
One of the most fascinating things about the art of the Copts is that it was created by a Christian community that has never enjoyed any great worldly power, that has suffered persecution throughout its history. It stands, in this sense, at the very opposite end of the spectrum to the glittering mosaics of Christian Rome or Byzantium. Coptic art, an art created in the humbler medium of fresco, its colours those of earth and stone, is an art rooted in a very different sense of poverty and humility – and a strong sense of the vanity of the things of this world.[vi]
Graham-Dixon visits the Hanging Church (El Muallaqa) and the Coptic Museum, both in Old Cairo (Coptic Cairo), the Red Monastery (Monastery of St. Pishay) outside Sohag in Upper Egypt, and the Monastery of Saint Antony at the Red Sea in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. While other European visitors to Egypt were mostly visiting Egypt to explore Pharaonic Egypt, Graham-Dixon went, as he tells us, “in search of different kind of treasures, the great masterpieces of art – the early Christian paintings obscured by centuries of neglect but which have recently been discovered here. And they are truly are amongst the artistic wonders of the world.”
Graham-Dixon starts his journey by visiting Old Cairo in the feast of St. George. The occasion reminded him of South Italy; and he was not just struck by the depth of the faith of the Copts but also by the friendliness and the festivity of the event. Rather than lamenting and wailing the martyrdom of St. George, the Copts were ululating at his festival in an expression of joy, almost “persecution joy”. For a nation that has lived almost all its Christian history under persecution, martyrdom must represented triumph of the spirit over the forces of oppression and fear.
He then visits the Hanging Church and Coptic Museum. There he was struck with the intense spirituality of the Copts. At the Museum he talks about the “pride of the place” – the Psalms of David in the Coptic language; a manuscript from the fourth century, which is the earliest and complete manuscript of the Psalms. “It is a battered book, as if it was an object that survived from a fire. It is a symbol of not only how Coptic Christians treasure relics of early Coptic Christianity but also a symbol for more – of Coptic art tradition as a whole because it is a battered tradition; a tradition that had to live through persecution, through migration of populations. It is amazing that anything survived at all.”
to appreciate the high quality of Graham-Dixon’s documentary
To the Copts just as precious as the word is the image. There were there some of wall paintings from the six century, with very vivid faces. These are “master pieces”. “Tremendously vivid, Picasso would have called it primitive power.” The Madonna suckling the Infant Christ “has got something of Picasso about it”. “Perhaps the most striking thing about Coptic art is the way the artist represents these eyes – these extraordinary staring eyes. There is something peculiarly transfixing about that gaze. It is not a gaze that is addressing you – it looks through you; fixed on the idea and image not of this life but the life to come.”
Coptic art tradition, Graham-Dixon says, is essentially mysterious. So much of it has been lost during centuries of persecution and destruction which makes tracing its origins particularly difficult, but “The earliest origins of Coptic art lie in the funerary art of Ancient Egypt; which, with its own cult of afterlife, suggests why Christianity found fertile ground here. There is a direct connection between the art of Ancient Egypt and the art of Coptic Egypt.” In Room 14 of the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, he finds another link – the Fayum Mummy Portraits, which are almost Greek, and date from the first and third centuries. They must have influenced the vivid Coptic depiction of Christ and his Apostles. In this nexus Coptic art is also connected to the ancient Greek painting tradition.
But reading about it is not like watching and seeing it. I strongly advise all of you to watch these two videos that talks about Coptic art in Art of Eternity. Each is roughly 15 minutes long. Here is the first part:
Covers Graham-Dixon’s visits to Old Cairo, where he attended the Feast of St. George celebration and visited the Hanging Church and the Coptic Museum, and then to the Egyptian Museum
Graham-Dixon then goes to visit two Coptic monasteries, the Red Monastery in Sohag and the Monastery of Saint Antony at the Red Sea. As he says, Coptic monasticism influenced not just Christianity but also world’s art and culture.
The Red Monastery in Sohag dates back to the six century. There he meets Professor Petsy Bolman (Elizabeth Bolman), from the Temple University in Philadelphia, USA, and Director of the White and Red Monasteries Project in Egypt.[vii] She was responsible for supervising the restoration and renovation of the Red Monastery. There a new world of beautiful Coptic art had been revealed. Bolman says about the fantastic art work that her project has revealed, “It has enormous force. There is something magnificent about this expanse of paint from floor to ceiling.” There was no disagreement that Sohag’s Red Monastery was “one of the miracles of early Christian art”. Graham-Dixon was struck by the explosion of colour in the wall paintings; the vivid colour of late antiquity. As he says, “It is a work of art created by masters of their art the equal of any in the Byzantine Christian Empire.” Bolman mentions the outline, strong colour, fraternity, intense gaze of the figures, and explains that the Coptic artists were “not interested at all in creating a window into space on this surface. We tend to think that great art is that which takes a flat surface and gives it a feeling of illusion of the natural world around us. Here we see none of that whatsoever – not because they couldn’t do it but because they didn’t want to do it.”
At the Monastery of Saint Antony, Graham-Dixon meets the charismatic Coptic monk, Abuna[viii] Maximus, who was responsible for restoration and renovation of the monastery’s architecture and wall paintings. And there also a wonderful world of Coptic art had recently been revealed. Graham-Dixon says, “I have heard the results were impressive but nothing prepared me for the experience itself.” As Fr. Maximus shows him round, he remarks, “The style is nothing like I have ever seen before in these unique and utterly fascinating thirteen century wall paintings.” Fr. Maximus points to the Ancient Egyptian motif in the pictures; and they both find a connection in them between Ancient Egypt and Coptic Egypt. It is not only the ecstatic connection but the sense of line, the symmetry, the design and interest in math and geometry.
“Like some of the faces,” Graham-Dixon says, “were painted by Picasso”. The Madonna, particularly (with everything in it being circular) draws his attention. “This is not primitive (art). This is very sophisticated use of symbolism, very subtle, very clever art.” And he adds, “And also, she is so full of joy,” unlike the Madonna figures in the West where she is depicted sad as she laments the death of her Son. Fr. Maximus explains, “She is happy because she is the Mother of the Saviour.”
But Fr. Maximus saved the best until last, and the two went to the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures where a depiction of the Apocalypse was. There the fantastic colours and intense spiritual feeling dominated. “It was a work of genius; a masterpiece of mystic surrealism.” “Even the sun and the moon have faces like a modern children story book.” That was a masterpiece that reminded him of religious surrealism – “fantasy paintings of the 20th century; total freedom”.
At the end Graham-Dixon concludes, “Coptic painting, little known but full of its fiercely expressive sense of divine mystery, seems to me to be a microcosm of an entire world of early Christian art. This was a vital tradition capable of assuming radically different shapes and forms at different times and different places, yet always connected to a central core – the life of Christ and the teachings of the Apostles.”
But again, reading about it is not like watching or seeing it:
Explores the recent discoveries at the Red Monastery in Sohag and the Monastery of Saint Antony at the Red Sea.
[i] Klaus Wessel, Coptic Art (London; Thames and Hudson; 1963); p. 231.
[iii] Coptia is a new coined word that means Coptic community/communities, nation or geographical space.
[v] http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/405 This article was published on 24 December 2006 in the Sunday Telegraph Features under the title: The Art of Eternity: The Genius of Early Christian Art.
[vii] Which is supported by grants, including USAID.
[viii] Abuna is the Arabic equivalent of “our father” or “father”.