Egypt. 4th century.
Diameter 25.5 cm. Inv. No. ДВ-11440.Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage MuseumPhoto by Sergey Sosnovskiy
Medallion with Gaia, the Earth Goddess.
Egypt. 4th century.
Diameter 25.5 cm.
Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
(Санкт-Петербург, Государственный Эрмитаж).
THE ART OF COPTIC EGYPT (4TH — 12TH CENTURIES)
By the end of the 19th century, excavations of ancient monuments in Egypt had discovered artefacts which were not directly attributable to any of the previously known cultures: Hellenistic, Roman, or Byzantine. After they were studied, a new term “Coptic art” was added to the history of world art. The word “Copt” is Arabic and is descended from the Greek Αιγύπτιος (Egyptian). After the subjugation of Egypt in 642, the Arabs used this name to refer to the inhabitants of the Nile valley who continued to practice Christianity and speak the Egyptian language. The term “Coptic” was extended to the entire culture of Egypt’s population between the 4th and the 12th centuries. At the present time, the Coptic artefacts have a new definition of “Egyptian works from the Late Classical, Byzantine, or Islamic period”, which omits the mention of their religious affiliation. From the moment when the first artefacts emerged, some scholars attributed them to the final stage in the development of Classical art, characterized by a complete deterioration of forms and degradation of the Classical style. Nevertheless, it is a credit to many scholars that they treated this newly-discovered art as an original phenomenon of Late Egyptian culture which featured a tight interlacement of Classical, Near Eastern and Christian pictorial motifs and symbols. An amalgamation of very diverse sources, in the end it attained a vibrant individuality of its own. Full of immediacy and artless charm, unusual in form and style, these Egyptian antiquities will not leave either amateurs or scholars of antiquities indifferent.
This extremely rich collection of Late Egyptian art from the 3rd—
Coptic textiles are a glorious page in the history of fine art in Egypt between the 4th and 12th centuries. These are artefacts with figured and ornamental patterns of various functions (veils, scarves, tunics, hangings, tablecloths) made of undyed linen thread and coloured wool in the tapestry technique. The Hermitage collection makes it possible to study all the periods of late Egyptian weaving, including individual masterpieces such as a medallion depicting Gaia, the earth goddess (4th century), a purple insert with a scene "Twelve Labours of Hercules" (6th century), a large veil with a column and two trees (5th century), a clavus showing scenes from the life of Christ (7th—
The Christian state in Egypt borrowed its themes from the rich Hellenistic heritage. The most in-demand subjects were those related to the idea of resurrection and promise of eternal life. The images of Classical gods on Coptic fabrics are rare since artists were primarily interested in more dramatic and easily recognizable symbolic scenes. These include artefacts of the Dionysian cycle, including scenes depicting the gathering of fruits and grapes, the seasons and months of the year which underscored its cyclic nature and the repetitive rhythm of life. Hunting scenes were an allegorical way of expressing the triumph of good over evil, life over death. They showcased the valor, strength, and virtue of the hunters, who were associated with the dead and thus close to immortality. A favorite theme of Alexandrian art was the depiction of Nile motifs, which spread outside the Egyptian capital and became very common in Coptic weaving. The Nile fauna and flora: ducks, fish, pink lotus flowers, the hippo and crocodile hunts, boats with fishermen and Cupids were prominent in Late Classical textiles as inalienable aspects of the Nile landscape which was interpreted as the landscape of paradise. The depiction on veils and medallions of vases and baskets full of flowers and fruits, both as large-scale scenes and ornaments, were a token of prosperity and painted the image of the Christian Heaven.
The majority of these images were focused on the idea of salvation and resurrection, which was naturally associated with the many thousands of years spent by Egyptians in the pursuit of immortality.
The El Bagawat necropolis [see photo] is one of the world’s most ancient Christian burial sites, dating back to the fourth — sixth centuries. The burial chambers (263 of them survive) are shaped like chapels with a small portal and dome. The walls of some are painted with Biblical scenes. The best-known chapels of Exodus and Peace have been so named because of the theme of their central painting: The Flight of the Jews from Egypt and the personified figure of Peace. The selection of early Christian subjects is strictly regimented and shows ties with the memorial prayer known from the Apostolic Constitutions: Noah’s Ark, The Sacrifice of Abraham, Daniel in the Lions” Den, Three Young Men in a Fiery Furnace, The Raising of Lazarus. All the subjects featured in the wall paintings can be interpreted as an intense image of the salvation of the righteous, the hope of their future resurrection and victory over death. Thus, the mural showing the flight of the Jews from Egypt is a clear demonstration of the idea that only faith in the true Cod can offer help and salvation. The images of a soaring eagle, phoenix and peacock in the pendentives of the chapel vaults symbolize the Ascension, demonstrating a central Christian idea of the Resurrection.
The people buried in such chapels were clad in tunics and wrapped in shrouds or veils which had sometimes been used in their life. The images on the clothing are as deeply symbolic as those in the paintings. They serve as apotropaia, talismans of eternal life.
Medallion with Gaia, the Earth Goddess
Text: museum label and museum information stands.