There is an essential problem with an introduction to any art; that art is something bounded and contained. This is the problem that arises now with an art tradition that has spanned centuries and has been the product of conflict and reinvention. It would be a disservice to just give an account of styles of line or architecture and not pay homage to the variety and scope that not only exist for art, but specifically Coptic art.
It would be easy to say that Renaissance art was the return to realism, or that any art is ‘simply’ anything. Simply, Coptic art is the artistic tradition beginning in the 4th century in Egypt. It is the blending of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt at their historical meeting. It is the expression of Egyptian Christians in churches, monasteries, and homes. It is the product of a funerary culture as well as a tool in a culture of resurrection. It is the markings of devotion and imitation, carved and painted in all directions as reminders of another life. It is embodied in infamous textile techniques and colors as well as icons of striking candor. It is both the recipient and inspiration of Islamic style and development. Simply, Coptic art is none of these things.
Rather than define what it is then, a supposedly easy task, it would be better to introduce the term ‘Coptic art’ as the sum of many parts. It is true that Coptic art emerged from the melding of ancient empires and their mythologies, incorporating the symbols and deities that had been used for centuries. Yet, from these traditions, Coptic art developed to represent the growing worshippers of Christ.
Christ and his prophets, like particular gods and goddesses in the ancient world, were the emblems of salvation. Their images served as reminders and instructions for the saintly life, providing entrance into another world. As such, the Coptic tradition infuses art with a material use, as tools for resurrection in the spaces of the living and the dead. From the walls of St. Anthony Monastery from the 12th Century to the icons hung in churches across the globe, these images and symbols cover the spaces of Copts, serving as windows and anchors for the devotional life. In some of the earliest monasteries in the world, the colors and shapes of Coptic art were dynamic participants in the lives of ascetics. In fact, it is this seamless blend of art and function that left Coptic art questionable in the eyes of traditional art historians and without academic attention for many years.
Textiles of Coptic weavers, on the other hand, have been the best known products of Coptic art known throughout the world. The techniques and patterns of these textiles have served the most religious and most prestigious roles, functioning as both practical symbols of wealth as well as religious reminders of piety. Numerous examples of this tradition are housed in museums throughout the world and many others are in the private Victorian collections of European families.
Throughout the cities of Egypt and especially in Cairo, the incorporative and stimulating nature of art is echoed in the styles of Islamic and Coptic art. Rather than—simply—two separate traditions independent of the other, each influenced and inspired the other within Egypt. As an active witness of history, Coptic art provides a visual tale of incorporation and reinvention, death and resurrection. It is both the remnant of ancient empires and the modern devotion of Christian worshippers. Though it may be the sum of so many parts, it is far from tied to those parts. It is a product of changing societies, religions and histories as well as their counterpart. It is a living, breathing continuation, resurrected and reinvented in the hands of every generation of Egyptian Copts. How else could it remind them of the salvation of resurrection if it had never experienced it itself?
Myriam Lynn Makram Salib Bestowrous