Art of Egypt during the early Christian era: Coptic art

The other major center of artistic production in the early days of Christianity was the ancient Egypt. In order to find Christian buildings in Egypt with their own individual style it is necessary to mention the art called Coptic mainly produced by the famous monks of the Thebaid. The word Coptic derives from the Arabic Qubt, a corruption of the Greek Aigyptios (Egyptian).

Egypt remained faithful to its own ancient religious concepts well until the third century. Its conversion to Christianity seems to have been more out of defiance to the Roman Empire than by pious conviction. But once Egypt embraced the new doctrine it glorified it tremendously. It was also in Egypt where monastic life first appeared which initially spread through the East and then to the Latin West. Anthony and Paul with his disciple Macarius are considered the founders of Christian monasticism. Coptic monasteries of the Schenudi rule were the direct ancestors of the Benedictine and Basilian monasteries of the West and East. Egyptian monasteries reached exaggerated proportions. Egyptian monks tried to reconcile the themes of the ancient pharaonic religion with Christianity and with this purpose they saw in Isis a symbol of Mary and in Horus a symbol of Christ. Even the cross was replaced by the former ancient hieroglyph Ank represented by a key meaning life and formed the crux ansata* (from the Latin meaning “cross with a handle”). To define the dogma of the Egyptian Church the clergy moved from Alexandria to the inner areas of Egypt. That is the reason why the Eastern Christian art from Alexandria which was exported mainly to the West was of purely Hellenistic influence while Coptic art developed by the monks of inner Egypt continued the local traditions of ancient Egypt and soon began to show its own original features.

A crux ansata at the end of the Codex Glazier, a Coptic manuscript of the New Testament dated to the 4th or 5th century.

Thus it can be said that Coptic art was born as an autochthonous expression of the Egyptian-Christian populations in contrast to the official Hellenistic culture of Alexandria. This explains that during its development Coptic art moved away from Hellenistic naturalism to move towards an increasingly abstract art in which sacred images became hyeratic over plain two-dimensional backgrounds and rejected any illusion of perspective or depth while decorative motives became more geometric.

Perhaps the distance or divergence between the metropolitan church and the Egyptian monasteries led many Coptic monks to emigrate in order to establish monasteries in the West. In Gaul (or center Europe) Coptic monks spread mainly from a monastery founded by the Egyptian St. Honorato located in the island of Lérins (modern French Riviera) from which they went to Christianize the Celtic Ireland. Other Coptic monks spread to North Africa and others to Spain.

The great monasteries of the Thebaid were large rectangular precincts surrounded by smooth walls topped with the typical ancient Egyptian molding. Inside these walls was the church with domes on the crossing or in the apses. These domes were supported by squinches unlike the churches of Syria whose domes were supported by pendentives. Sometimes in the apses there were opened niches separated by decorative columns. The decor included angular leaves that filled the entire field of the reliefs.

Remains of the White Monastery located near the Egyptian city of Sohag and about four kilometers south east of the Red Monastery.

In the fourth century with the founding of the White Monastery (Deir-el-Abiad) and the Red Monastery (Deir-el-Akhmar) -the two major monastic centers of Egypt- the peculiar characteristics of Coptic architecture appeared. The White Monastery founded near Sohag in 440 by Schenudi himself had a church with three apses arranged in a clover shape (which were invisible from the outside because they were embedded within the cubic mass of the temple) and a stair to access the stands of the upper floor which started at the same narthex. The type of the White Monastery is repeated in the Red Monastery (which was smaller) and also in the basilica of Denderah.

Above: The remains of the Red Monsatery in the governorate of Sohag, Egypt. Right: Floor plan of the apse of the White Monastery shaped as a clover.


The sculpture of these monasteries’ walls recalls that of ancient Egypt. Its hieratism was perfectly adapted to the new Christian symbolism mixed with themes from classical mythology (Leda and the Swan, the myth of Orpheus, Venus rising from the sea, etc.). The capitals with stylizations of spiny leaves and vines with grape bunches recalled the type of the Byzantine style capital.

Figure of an angel carved in a pillar in the Coptic monastery of Bauit (Louvre, Paris)

The first manifestations of Christian painting in Egypt are found in the catacombs of Alexandria. Their frescoes show little originality repeating themes imported from Syria and Mesopotamia as those found in the Roman catacombs. Later Coptic monks painted churches and copied manuscripts some of them illustrated with great originality such as the Codices from the convents of the Fayyum. A sixth-century Coptic gospels with wooden covers had painted on the covers the Evangelists holding their writings on their hands. This is the first case of the Evangelists standing holding their work a theme that will be repeated many times during the Middle Ages.

Coptic decoration included a bold and original iconography which in time came to penetrate the distant Latin West and also guided the art of the European high Middle Ages. The Virgin for example breastfed Jesus just as Isis breastfed Horus (see a painting in the Temple of Saqqarah). Angels had singular importance these appeared dressed as centaurs, nymphs, satyrs, women… With their great imagination Coptic monks represented all kinds of devil’s incarnations mixed with local saints and placed them in frescoes and friezes or framed them inside medallions decorating fabrics.

Stone capital from the monastery of St. Jeremiah (Coptic Museum of Egypt).
Isis nursing Horus from Saqqarah, ancient Egyptian figurine (Louvre, Paris).


Mary breastfeeding Jesus, fresco in the Coptic monastery of the Holy Virgin and St. John, Wadi Natroun, Egypt.
The Virgin and the Apostles under the vision of the Lord surrounded by the angelic hierarchies. Coptic painting of the Coptic Monastery of Saqqara.

The Coptian storied frescoes from the apses often included the Virgin and the Apostles under the vision of the Lord surrounded by the angelic hierarchies. In other cases represented an apocalyptic Theophany or the appearance of the Lord to Saint John and other visionaries. This topic is of Egyptian origin since the Apocalypse was never popular in the Syriac and Byzantine churches. For Coptic monks however astronomical or cosmic catastrophes foretold in the Apocalypse must have been almost natural phenomena. All the iconography and bestiary of Pharaonic times were identified with texts of the Apocalypse announcing falling stars and blood, scorpions, and voracious locusts. No wonder that the Comments to the Apocalypse were first written and illustrated in Egypt and later in Carthage and Spain provinces profoundly influenced by East and the Coptic Egypt.

Coptic painting shows a schematization process analogous to that of the sculpture which was not limited to the graphical structure of the portrayed image but that also influenced the chromatic relationships of a few basic colors: yellow, red, and blue. The most important centers of Coptic painting -besides those of Saqqarah and Bauit- were Deir Abu Hennis (near Antinoe), Abu Girge, and the White and Red monasteries.

Painting on wood from Bauit, ca. sixth century (Louvre, Paris) depicting Christ and Abu Menas or St. Menas, the great Egyptian thaumaturger or saint that worked with magic or miracles. Coptic art is characteristic by the disproportionate heads with big, almost tangent halos and bodies wearing rigid togas. This style was not intended as a portrait of a historical being, but a representation of the spirit.

Of great importance for Coptic art were the weaved fabrics of which many fragments have been preserved. Coptic textiles weaved with undyed linen and woven with wool in bright colors showed a geometrization of figures even more audacious than that used in painting which enriched their sumptuary purpose and gave them an inimitable ornamental power.

Coptic textile depicting a character with a peacock, an animal prized as a decorative element at the time (Provincial Textile Museum, Tarrassa, Barcelona).
Coptic textile depicting a Nereid riding a sea monster (Provincial Textile Museum, Tarrassa, Barcelona).
Fragment of a Coptic textile from the necropolis of Antinoe , IV or V centuries. The scene represented is still Hellenistic: cupids reminiscent of Bacchic scenes. However, the decorative organization is influenced by the spiritualism of the early Christian Egypt: raw colors accompanied by sharp color transitions (Provincial Textil Museum, Tarrassa, Barcelona).


*Crux ansata(From the Latin meaning “cross with a handle”). The Christian cross of Coptic Christians based on the shape of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph “ankh” represented with a circle in place of the upper bar. The “ankh”, also known as breath of life or the key of the Nile or crux ansata , was the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character that read “life”. The character represents the concept of life which is the general meaning of the symbol.