By Nadja Tomoum

An exhibition of Coptic art, presenting rarely seen objects to spread knowledge and learning about Coptic culture, enthralled audiences at the Amir Taz Palace in Cairo. We present the highlights right here, in case you missed it.

The Coptic era (284–642 CE) was a period in Egyptian history that yielded refined art, architecture, manuscripts, bookbinding and crafts. It was also the time when monastic orders – perhaps the Copts’ most significant contribution to Christianity – were first established in the country. In order to highlight such outstanding achievements, and the Coptic period’s vital place in the long and diverse history of Egypt, the Amir Taz Palace was recently home to a first-of-its-kind art exhibition.

What began as a modest plan to display fifty hidden artefacts from the Coptic Museum’s storage, gradually developed into an ambitious and complex exhibition. Coptic Art Revealed comprised more than two hundred priceless items, which were carefully selected from several museum collections across Egypt to present Coptic heritage in a new light.

Detail of Archangel Michael brandishing a sword and holding a disc.

SANDRO VANINI

Rediscovered Treasures of the Coptic Museum

The exhibition would never have existed without Marcus Pasha Simaika (1864-1944) who, one hundred years ago, founded the Coptic Museum beside the famous Hanging Church in Old Cairo. Simaika spent his life rescuing Coptic monuments and artefacts from oblivion and destruction, and thanks to his tireless efforts the museum’s collection grew over the years into a remarkable institution, housing 16,000 priceless objects. A fine selection of these, long protected in the museum’s storage, was presented in the exhibition. Visitors enjoyed seeing colourful icons and textiles; precious manuscripts with impressive illuminations; an excerpt from the famous Nag Hammadi Library; stone and wooden friezes with intricate designs recovered from ancient Coptic monasteries; pottery and metal items, and objects from daily life. The exhibition was also enriched with some wonderful pieces borrowed from collections in Alexandria, Beni Suef and al-Arish, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat and the Museum of Islamic Art. These objects were displayed together for the first time in order to shed light on important aspects of Coptic culture in its historical context.

A painting of the enthroned Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, painted in the eighteenth century by Ibrahim al-Nasikh and Yuhanna al-Armani.

SANDRO VANINI

The Holy Family in Egypt

The first section of Coptic Art Revealed was devoted to The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. The evangelist Matthew records in his gospel that Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph the Carpenter escaped from the persecution of Herod the Great, King of Judea, and took refuge in the country on the River Nile. To this day, Copts commemorate the journey of the Holy Family through Egypt, while many towns, said to have been blessed by the presence of Christ the Child, have become important pilgrimage centres. Exhibition visitors were able to track the Holy Family’s footsteps through Egypt on a map, allowing them to see where these important sites are located. The special position of Jesus and his mother in the Coptic Church can be found everywhere, in all forms of art and areas of life, exemplified by some refined artwork.

Detail from an illumination of a liturgical book, which was written in Arabic, represents baptism and the Eucharist in the sanctuary of a Coptic church. Written for the deacon Simaika, Minister of Mu’allaqa Church, 1687.

Traces of the Ancient Past

The exhibition continued with the Survival of the Old Religions, which focused on the intermingling of earlier Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman motifs to represent the beliefs of the new religion. Still, the monotheistic religion required a new visual language to create its own identity and to clearly separate it from the polytheistic ideas of previous periods. During the Coptic era, Egypt was a major centre of Mediterranean commerce, allowing influences from the multicultural milieu to blend with Coptic art, and for cultural exchanges to occur across the Mediterranean region. Nevertheless, even with these many influences, local traditions were maintained and reshaped.

The Early Years of Christianity

The exhibition then focused on St. Mark the Evangelist, who is said to have brought Christianity to Alexandria, and the important role of Coptic martyrs, men and women persecuted by their Roman masters because of their faith. Even today, the Coptic Church is one of martyrs; their reputation is based on the belief that they guard and protect the Coptic Church and its faithful believers. Here, the exhibition also presented the early hermits, who moved to the desert for a life of solitude and to devote their lives entirely to God. These hermit monks came to be known as the desert fathers, men of spiritual knowledge and wisdom, who established the first monasteries in Egypt. They include: St. Antony, who is called the father of all monks and credited with initiating the monastic movement in the Christian world; St. Pachom, who established the first Egyptian monastery in the early fourth century, and initiated communal monasticism, binding the monks to set rules; and St. Shenute, the most prolific Coptic author of the fifth century.

Also in this section of the exhibition, an excerpt of the renowned Nag Hammadi Library (fourth century) gave visitors a flavour of the charged climate created by competing religious movements at a time when the Church had not yet found its structure. Here too, an example of one of the oldest leather bindings from the same library emphasised the Copts’ outstanding skill at bookbinding.

Coptic Art Centres

The exhibition’s following section, Sacred Spaces, opened a window onto monastic art and architecture, and the role of monasteries as major centres of art production. This was exemplified by splendid wall paintings, stone, and wooden friezes recovered from ancient monasteries, such as the ones of St. Jeremias at Saqqara and St. Apollo at Bawit, which flourished in the seventh century. Rare manuscripts from Coptic libraries and scriptoria, established within the walls of major monasteries by learned monks engaged in all stages of manuscript production, were also presented, and testified to the outstanding skills of Coptic scribes and manuscript illuminators. Two wooden sculptures featuring the archangels Michael and Gabriel, recently discovered at Bawit, were among the exhibition’s masterpieces, vividly proving that there are still many monuments to be discovered from the Coptic era, while an impressive wall painting from Abdalla Nirqi Church in Nubia attested to Nubia’s exposure to Coptic culture and art.

Part of the richly ornamented Psalmody, comprising an illumination of the story of the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace (eighteenth century).

SANDRO VANINI

Liturgical and Daily Practices

Many precious manuscripts from the Coptic Museum’s archives are decorated with Biblical stories, which include popular narratives from the Old and New Testaments, such as the sacrifice of Abraham and the raising of Lazarus. These stories were included to express hope for mankind and salvation, and to strengthen believers in their Christian faith.

Coptic Liturgy introduced visitors to various liturgical practices performed by the Coptic Church, such as the extensive use of incense, bible readings and hymns for major religious events. The first bilingual manuscripts in Coptic and Arabic were written in the eleventh century, and to this day the Coptic language is used in liturgy; this is mainly chanted, and can only be accompanied by cymbals and the triangle. To engage their senses and enhance their experience of the exhibition, visitors listen to a selection of Coptic hymns at this point in their tour.

Objects of Daily Life displayed textiles with colourful designs, oil lamps, and jewellery of costly gold and silver or more affordable materials such as bronze and wood. Personal letters written on papyrus, parchment or more accessible writing materials, such as limestone chippings or pottery shards, were among other precious items of daily life displayed in this part of the exhibition, providing a glimpse into the Copts’ daily affairs.

Design and Textual Information

In each thematic section of the exhibition, a special atmosphere was created through a distinctive design prepared by the company Space4, who emphasized the uniqueness of select objects by displaying them individually within separate showcases. The  exhibition’s construction and installation was implemented by Nadim Industries of Mashrabeya.

This triptych represents the last days of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, which are celebrated in the Coptic liturgical calendar during Holy Week. The sequence begins on the left panel with his Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (top), the Washing of the Apostle’s Feet (middle), and the Last Supper (bottom) on Holy Thursday. The Crucifixion on Good Friday occupies the upper portion of the central panel, while the events preceding it are shown in the lower register. The story continues on the right panel with the Descent from the Cross (top), the Lamentation (middle), and the Harrowing of Hell on Holy Sunday. The Resurrection, the most important day in the Christian calendar, follows the next day on Easter Sunday (thirteenth to fifteenth century).The geographical context of late antique Egypt was presented on maps throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to locate important religious and economic centres across the eastern Mediterranean, as well as renowned Coptic monasteries and towns. These were accompanied by a timeline, which provided an overview of crucial events that shaped the history of the Coptic period. The exhibition was accompanied by a 240-page illustrated catalogue with contributions from Egyptian, German, American, British and French scholars, reflecting the international interest in Coptic culture as an academic area of study. Guided tours in Arabic, English and German were provided for the exhibition’s duration, and educational workshops were offered to children and young people, ensuring that they had a great experience and got the most out of their tour.

CLAUDIA WIENS

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 2, 2011

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