‘COPTIC ART’ (L’ART COPTE), A CHERISHED BOOK BY PROFESSOR PIERRE DU BOURGUET
I would like to recommend Coptic Art (L’Art Copte) by Prof. Pierre Du Bourguet to my readers. Although published more than forty years ago (1964), it is still perhaps the most helpful book for a beginner in the study of Coptic art – it is comprehensive, sympathetic and is based on a solid knowledge of Coptic history and culture. Many discoveries in Coptic art since 1964, particularly in the Monasteries of St. Antony and St. Paul at the Red Sea and the Red Monastery in Upper Egypt, have enriched our appreciation of Coptic art, but the book still retains its usefulness as a solid foundation in understanding the art of the Copts. It traces the development of Coptic art from its origins in Pharaonic Art to its eventual decline under the Muslims, and surveys its relationship with Early Christian Art.
Pierre Du Bourguet (1910-1988) was a French Jesuit archaeologist, Egyptologist and historian of early Christian, Byzantine and Coptic art. He was chief curator at the Louvre (Musée du Louvre). After training at the l’École pratique des hautes études puis and the University of Oxford, he became a scientific member of the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale) in Cairo between 1953 and 1972. He taught at the l’École du Louvre (Egyptian art from 1949 and early Christian, Byzantine and Coptic art from 1958) and the l’Institut catholique de Paris.
Pierre Du Bourguet, who wrote several other interesting books,[i] wrote L’Art Copte[ii] in 1964. Two editions were published in the same year, and was later translated to many languages, and got held by prestigious and university libraries worldwide. The English translation was made by Caryll Hay-Shaw, and the book was published as Coptic Art by Methuen in 1971 under the series Art of the World.[iii] Printed in 234 pages, in dust-jacketed hardcover, the book includes more than 50 colour plates, 80 drawings, and an appendix of black and white photographs.
A record of its sections may give the reading an idea of its rich contents:
I. History and discovery.
The Copts. Coptic art. Interpretations. Diversity of themes and styles. The Copts in history. Roman Egypt. Christian and Byzantine Egypt. Muslim Egypt. Coptic Christianity. 1st period: birth and growth. 2nd period: flowering. 3rd period: regression.
II. An imaginary exhibition.
Architecture. Architectural sculpture. Sculpture. Painting. Ivory work. Bawit. Tapestries.
III. On the threshold: Pre- Coptic art.
Doom of Pharaonic Art . The role of Hellenistic art. Architecture. Ornaments. Themes. Techniques. The arts of colour.
IV. The awakening Proto: Proto-Coptic Art (end of 3rd cen. – first half of 4th cent.).
Conditions at the beginning. A country under foreign occupation. Social diversity. Evidence of an élite. Architecture. Textual evidence. Monuments. Decoration. 1. Themes. 2. Plastic arts. Human figure. 3. The arts of colour. Mosaic. Painting. Illustrated books. Pottery. Textiles.
V. The establishment: ‘Coptic Art’ (second half of 5th cent. – end of 7th cent.).
Birth of national consciousness. Architecture. First stage. Second stage. Third stage. Conclusions. Decoration. 1. Themes. 2. Plastic arts. Human figure. Wood sculpture. Ivory of bone. Ornamental motifs. Angle pillar. Friezes. Pediments and niches. Capitals. 3. The arts of colour. Painting. Icons. Mural painting. Illumination. Painted ceramics. Tapestry. Nilotic themes. Dionysian cycle. Cycle of Aphrodite. Pastoral scenes. Cycle of the hunt. Portraits. Weaving technique.
VI. ‘The Art of the Copts’ (8th – 12th cent.).
Coptic art under Moslem domination. New social conditions. Influence on the victors. Outburst of originality. Architecture. Coptic share in Moslem architecture. Coptic churches. Monasteries. Decoration. 1. Themes. 2. Style. Omayyad period. Abbasid period; Tulunid period in Egypt. Fatimid period. Spread and survival of Coptic art. Conclusion.
I shall finish this article by reproducing Pierre Du Bourguet’s Conclusion to his book:
“For an art of a popular nature to survive ten centuries of foreign domination is a very rare, if not a unique, phenomenon.
Coptic art owes this long existence to a combination of circumstances which never became wholly unfavourable – except during its phase of decline – and particularly to the modest but continuing financial competence of the Coptic lower middle class and of an extensive monastic community. It owed its persistence no less to a force of inspiration in which one is tempted to see, subject to the variations dictated by circumstances, certain imperatives, originating perhaps in the distant Pharaonic past; their successors served, albeit unconsciously, as a vehicle through which those imperatives could continue to exert a guiding influence.
The fact is that Coptic art, in the period of its full flowering, displays traits of remarkable homogeneity. In this it stands apart from all the other arts of its time. These traits only manifested themselves gradually but, in this very progression, this struggle ending in victory, which one can hardly observe unmoved, Coptic art replaced, even while carrying on its traditional themes, the Graeco-Roman art which had possessed the field before it.
Once in full possession of its style and its professional skills, Coptic art might have risen to the level of a very great art, armed as it was with a vision of reality astonishingly well attuned to Christian symbolism. The Moslem conquest interposed an impassable barrier to this legitimate ambition. Far from withdrawing into itself, Coptic art directed its energies into the only channel which, among the range of possibilities proper to it, remained open: that of decoration. Without ceasing to participate in the Moslem art of Egypt, it brought to bear in its works a fantasy that has perhaps no equal. It fell victim to its own enchantment, at the expense of subject-matter, and in this respect proclaimed allegiance to that quality which distinguishes the most successful examples of modern art.”[iv]
[i] On Ancient Egypt, he wrote:
– Les Pharaons à la conquête de l’art (avec Étienne Drioton), DDB, 1965.
– Histoires et légendes de l’Égypte mystérieuse, Tchou, 1968.
– Contes de la vallée du Nil, Tchou.
– Grammaire fonctionnelle et progressive de l’égyptien démotique, Peeters, Louvain, 1976.
– Grammaire égyptienne, Moyen Empire pharaonique, Peeters, Louvain.
– L’Art égyptien, DDB, 1979.
– Le temple de Deir el-Médineh, éd. par Luc Gabolde, dessins de Leïla Ménassa, Le Caire, 2002 (Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire, 121).
On early Christian, Byzantine and Coptic art, he wrote:
– Peintures chrétiennes, Famot, 1980.
– Les Coptes, Que sais-je ? n° 2398, 1989.
– La Peinture paléochrétienne, Robert Laffont, 1992.
– Art paléochrétien.
[ii] L’Art Copte (Petit Plais, Paris, 1964).
[iii] Coptic Art by Pierre du Bourguet; translated by Caryll Hay-Shaw (London, Methuen, 1971).
[iv] Ibid; p. 192.