Coptic Art / by Chris Hall

I’ve always loved early Christian Art, from the late Roman era to the Byzantine and Romanesque.  Somewhere in between this time period, and nearly forgotten, is Coptic Art.  Coptic Art is essentially early Christian Art in Egypt.  Coptic art and culture is heavily influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) and Egyptian art and culture.  Historically, the Coptic Period began around the 3rd century with the Roman occupation of Egypt, until the Muslim Conquest in the 7th century, although Coptic art and culture can be found as early as the 1st century and as late as the 9th century CE.  Christians never left Egypt, however, and there was a brief demand for new Coptic icons in the mid 18th century.  

Icon painting has a lengthy tradition in Coptic Egypt, dating back to St. Luke the evangelist, author of the Gospel of Luke in the Bible.  Born in Antioch Syria, Luke was not a witness to Jesus teachings, but was among the first generation of Christians afterward and traveled with Paul to Rome to spread Christianity.  According to tradition, Luke wrote his gospel around 60 CE.  Luke also painted the portraits of Mary, mother of Jesus, and of Paul and Peter, making him the first icon painter.  Luke resided for a time in Egypt and contributed to Coptic culture.  Luke was tortured before being hanged from an olive tree on his last missionary trip in Beothia, Greece.  

The Coptics followed Egyptian burial traditions and mummified their dead (the Greeks would cremate their dead).  Coptic artists would paint portraits of the dead in encaustic (pigment suspended in wax) and in tempera (pigment suspended in egg yolk) on to wooden boards, which they would then attach to the mummified bodies, acting as a funeral mask.  This tradition is known as Fayum (or Faiyum) mummy portraiture, due to the majority of the mummy portraits being found in the Faiyum Basin.  Unlike Egyptian aesthetics, the Fayum mummy portraits are more naturalistic, following Greek tradition.  Due to the hot and dry Egyptian climate, the mummy portraits are often very well preserved, retaining their brilliant colors as if freshly painted.  I’ve always been haunted by these portraits.  Looking at the apparent age of the portraits, it seems the vast majority of the dead are very young, some are even children.  Examination of the mummies confirms that the age distribution of the dead reflects the low life expectancy of the time.  Not everyone could afford a mummy portrait, however.  The vast majority of mummy portraits belong to the affluent upper class, high ranking military personnel, civil servants, and religious dignitaries.  Fayum mummy portraits were lost to European consciousness until the Italian explorer Pietro della Valle rediscovered them in a visit to Saqqara-Memphis in 1615.