Medieval Studies Coptic Art
K.C. Innemée
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0137


Christianity must have come to Egypt in the 1st century CE, probably through converts in the Jewish community of Alexandria, at that time still an international center of culture and science, where philosophical and religious movements from the entire Mediterranean were received with interest. Christian theology could develop here, inspired by Platonism and the Jewish philosopher Philo, whose writings were at the basis of the Christian concept of Christ being the Logos (the Word of God, both in the creation and in incarnation of God the Son). Clement and Origen, leaders of the Alexandrian catechetical school, stood at the cradle of Christian theology, but in spite of their enormous immaterial contribution, nothing tangible has remained of early Christian culture in Egypt. This is not surprising: strong eschatological beliefs and the necessity to keep a low profile in the face of periodic persecutions must have played a role in this. Only after the Edict of Milan (313 CE) did the young religion step out of the shade and were the first official churches built. After the edict of Theodosius of 391, which forbade pagan cults and made Christianity the official state religion, Christian culture became a dominant factor in Roman culture and also in Egypt. But the introduction of a new religion did not mean a total transformation of culture, merely a combination of continuity and modification in certain cases—for instance, in funerary customs. Until 451, Christian Egypt was part of the catholic church (“catholic” in the meaning of general, undivided). Then, a decade-old dispute over the human and divine natures of Christ came to a climax at the Council of Chalcedon. The result was a schism between Alexandria and Constantinople that put the majority of the Egyptian Christians into an isolated position, since they refused to give up support for their excommunicated patriarch. The patriarchate of Alexandria was now in open conflict with Constantinople, which led to the emergence of a national (Coptic) church in the course of the 6th century. The Coptic Church has been considered monophysite by the pro-Chalcedonian churches, a not entirely correctly used term, based on the supposition that it accepted only the divine nature of Christ. This position of Egypt as a breakaway province of the Byzantine Empire lasted until 618, when Egypt was overrun by the Sassanids. After the country was liberated by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 629, a new confrontation between the Coptic Church and Constantinople seemed inevitable. The Arab conquest of Egypt in 640 meant a real change in culture. For the following centuries it would be under Muslim rule, which meant a gradual reduction of Christianity to a minority position, while the Egyptian language, known as Coptic in its last phase, and Greek were replaced by Arabic. The Coptic Church, in other words, has never been under patronage of the state, and as a result its art is of a more modest and simple character than Byzantine art.

Defining Coptic Art

The term “Coptic art” needs some further explanation, both for the adjective and the substantive. When dealing with a bibliography we will use it as a synonym for “material culture from Christian Egypt.” The use of the term “Coptic,” however, can be misleading. It has been derived from the Arabic qubṭ, qibṭ قبط, which was used after the Arab invasion of Egypt (640 CE) to designate the indigenous population, which was in majority Christian. The term was a corruption of the Greek Αἰγύπτιος (Aiguptios, Egyptian), which, in turn, was a corruption of ḥwt-k3-ptḥ (“Hut-ka-Ptah”), literally “Estate (or House) of the Spirit of Ptah,” a name for the capital, Memphis. Although the Arabic term literally means no more and no less than “Egyptian,” it was also used to contrast the Christian population to the Muslims, and as such it has received its religious connotation. The fact, however, that the adjective “Coptic” did not exist before 640 makes it, strictly speaking, confusing to use for the Christian culture of Egypt of earlier times. Nevertheless, it is used for the combination script and language as it was used in Egypt from the end of the 3rd century, the language being the last phase of what was spoken under the pharaohs but now is written with the Greek alphabet. When it comes to church history, the word Coptic is used only for the national Egyptian church that started developing its own hierarchy and traditions in the course of the 6th century, after the schism that resulted from the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Christianity is detectable in religious architecture, in its decoration and furnishings, and in funerary contexts. In profane applied arts it is very often impossible to decide whether the maker or owner/user was a Christian or not. For just a short period, Christianity has had a cultural monopoly in Egypt (between 391, the edict of Theodosius, and the Arab conquest in 640), and part of this period has seen the confrontation of Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian (Coptic) Christians. Strictly speaking, therefore, it is hardly defendable to apply the term “Coptic” to secular arts and crafts, unless a clear connection with the anti-Chalcedonian church can be made. The term “Coptic art” has been used for over a century, and only recently have certain authors started avoiding it in favor of terms such as “Christian art from Egypt.” Although Coptic culture continues to the present day, within the framework of this article we will concentrate on the period before 1250 CE, which marks the start of the Mamluk period and its repression of Christian culture. The last monumental achievements, especially in mural painting, date from the 13th century. See Zaloscer 1991.

  • Zaloscer, Hilde. Zur Genese der koptischen Kunst: Ikonographische Beiträge. Stichwort Kunstgeschichte. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 1991.

    In this concise volume, containing a number of essays concerning various aspects of what is generally called Coptic art, the author discusses questions concerning the transition of Late Antique to Christian art in Egypt and whether we can speak of Coptic art at all.

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