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THE COPTIC TUNIC OF SAINT MENAS

December 7, 2017

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Figure 1: Saint Menas ivory in the so-called Grado Chair

In a previous article, ‘The Coptic Ivory Pyxis of Saint Menas’, I spoke about the looks and attire of Saint Menas shown in one of the scenes of that beautiful pyxis. The pyxis is dated to the sixth century. It represents the earliest fine image of Saint Menas. Saint Menas is represented as a young man, wearing a Coptic tunic, a lacerna cloak and a calcei boots. The last two items of his attire represent his profession as a general in the Roman army before he left the army in AD 303 in protest of the edict of persecution by Emperor Diocletian.

As the lacerna which Saint Menas is depicted in the image wearing covers his trunk on the front and back, his rich Coptic tunic is not depicted in detail. Fortunately, the ivory of Saint Menas in the so-called Grado Chair, which is kept in Milan but originally from Alexandria, and dated to the seventh century, gives us more detail of Saint Menas’ beautiful tunic.

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Tunics were the national dress of the Copts in the first millennium of our era for men, women and children. Thanks to the change in our tradition of how to deal with the bodies of our dead with the advance of Christianity, and from the 3rd century, with the abandoning of mummification and the burial of bodies in full garments, we now have hundreds of tunics excavated from Coptic necropolises in Akhmim, Ashmunein and elsewhere that were retained in good shape due to the dry conditions of Egypt, and now scattered across Europe and America in their museums. Coptic tunics were made in linen from the cellulose fibres in the stalks of the flax plant (linum usitatissimum) that was grown in Egypt. Linen was worn by Egyptians from the days of Predynastic Egypt; and was the right fabric to wear in hot climates, like Egypt, as it provides remarkable coolness and freshness to the body. Wool did not become a medium from which tunics were made in Egypt until after the 5th century. When talking about tunics of the period of the Great Persecution (284 – 311), or the periods preceding it, one should talk about linen tunics, not wool. Later on, tunics were made of linen, wool or a combination of the two. Copts continued to produce and wear tunics until after the Arab occupation in the 7th century; however, the quality of tunics gradually deteriorated; and, by the 11th century, the Arab garments, mainly jalabiyas, took over, and the Copts abandoned their national beautiful attire to wear Arab garb. And the ugliness of jalabiyas was made even worse by the dark and plain colours imposed on the Copts by Muslim authorities to make them stand out for discrimination and public insults and humiliation.

Tunics were made in Coptic looms, in small workshops, usually family-run, across Egypt. The garment is made as a whole in one piece – and not from different pieces of fabric[1] – from sleeve to sleeve, leaving a horizontal slit for the neck-opening.[2] For the production of such tunics, the Copts needed wide looms. The Coptic man tunic (see Fig. 2), for instance, which is kept at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, dated to AD 670-870, measures  131 cm in height and 209 cm in width when the sleeves are included, and 124 cm when the sleeves are excluded. Edges of the produced flat piece of fabric at what will become the bottom and cuffs of the tunic are tightly woven to prevent them from unravelling. The piece is then folded over the shoulders and sewn together along the sides. The sleeves were either short or narrow and long extending to the wrists.

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Figure 2: Coptic tunic kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dated to 670-870 AD. Made of red wool and tapestry-woven ornaments. Dimensions: Height: 131 cm, Width: 209 cm including sleeves, Width: 124 cm excluding sleeves. The tunic shows signs of an after-5th century period (wool; made of several parts and not as one piece; neck cut).

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Figure 3: Coptic tunic kept at Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dated to 600-800 AD. From Akhmim necropolis. Made of woven linen, with tapestry-woven woollen decoration. Dimensions: Height: 120 cm, Width: 104 cm. This tunic also shows signs of a late period (made of two pieces; neck style).

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Figure 4: Fragment (Hanging), from Egypt, 5th/6th century, kept at the art Institute, Chicago. Made of linen and wool, plain weave with weft uncut pile and embroidered linen pile formed by variations of back and stem stitches; having dimension of 136.5 x 88.3 cm. The figure wears blue woollen tunic with yellowish decorations.

Men wore their tunics short reaching usually to their knees, while women had their tunics long dropping to their heels. They wore with the tunic a belt to hold the folds of the huge garment in place. The belts were usually woven but sometimes braided or knitted.

The basic linen tunic had the natural white colour of linen and was rarely dyed. Colour, however, was brought in by adding decorations to the garment. By weaving[3] on the loom coloured threads as the weft[4] into the warp[5] of the tunic, the Copts produced beautiful patterns:

  • Clavi (sing. clavus): these are two narrow vertical bands/stripes that are placed across the shoulders, one from each side, usually from the edge of the neck slit, and the run down the shoulders at the front and back; and they usually end at a small leaf, heart or a circle.
  • Orbiculi (sing. orbiculus): these are circular or oval decorations that are woven at the shoulders and the lower part of the tunic, front and back, at knee height.[6]

Other woven decorations include stripes woven on the sleeves, the lower edge of the tunic and the neck. Several motives are used in these decorations: Christian symbols (crosses, angels, saints, etc.); humans (dancers, knights, children, etc.); animals (birds, fish, lions, rabbits, etc.); vegetation (leaves, plants, flowers, etc.); and different geometric motives. Various colours were employed in these decorations: red, blue, green, orange, purple, etc. Dyes were obtained from plants (rubia, idigo, saffron, woad, etc.), sea shells (the Tyrian or royal purple) and from some insects.

The tunic is usually worn over a simple undergarment; but the tunic often formed a sophisticated garment in which the Copts showed their artistic skills; and the greater the decoration of the tunic the higher the social position of its wearer.

Everywhere in the Roman and Byzantine Empires people wore tunics manufactured by the Copts; and art of that period often shows us men and women wearing some of these beautiful garments.

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The tunic of Saint Menas in the ivory of the so-called Grado Chair above represents one of the most beautiful and rich representations of the Coptic tunics of those times. Saint Menas wears a linen, long-sleeved, a bit long tunic that is richly decorated, pointing to the social position of the saint as a son of nobles and himself a general in the Roman army (which his calcei boots and lacerna cloak show). The rich decoration, made of criss-cross geometric pattern, include clavi, orbiculi and stripes along the lower edge of the tunic. The tunic, which reaches to the calves of the saint’s legs is pulled up on the sides and made loose over the belt, which makes the tunic appear shorter on the sides.

Coptic artists and producers who create works or art and cinematic productions need to study the costumes of that period very well, and use that knowledge in their productions.

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[1] Only from the 5th century that tunics started to be made from two or three pieces.

[2] In later tunics, the neck-opening was shaped and not just a horizontal slit.

[3] At a later stage, decoration were sewed in rather than woven into the tunic fabric.

[4] The horizontal threads on the loom that are woven from side to side, interlacing through the warp in a woven fabric.

[5] The vertical threats on a loom that run up and down, and over and under which the horizontal threats (the weft) are passed to make cloth.

[6] From the 5th century, square decorations started to make their way; and these are called tabulae.

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