Late Antique Egyptian Sculpture

The Late Antique Egyptian period can be characterized by the numerous influences that were at play during this period, ranging from ancient Pharaonic Egyptian tradition to the diminishing Roman Empire to the rise of Christianity. Sculpture created during the Late Antique period exhibits these influences to varying degrees. Though this body of sculpture is commonly referred to as “Coptic” due to prevalent oversimplification in scholarship, Late Antique is a more fitting term given that the former implies Christian construction, which may not always be the case (Russman 13).

According to Thelma Thomas, an authority on Late Antique Egyptian sculpture, this period ranged from the third century until the seventh century CE. The fourth through fifth centuries can be considered the “core” period in which the most changes occurred and the “style” we know as Late Antique was truly developed. Sculpture that is strictly Coptic emerged during 450 CE and all preceding work is viewed as “proto-Coptic” from a Coptic standpoint.

Attributing these sculptures’ origins is difficult, given that few were excavated with any documentation. Based on limited archaeological finds as well as comparision and speculation, most works in this period are attribute to either Oxryhnchus (Upper Egypt) or Heracleopolis Magna (Lower Egypt); other major sites include Alexandria, Memphis, Latopolis, Bawit, and Antoinoe (Thomas 6). Even though the Egyptians no longer mummified their dead during the Late Antique period, they still valued the afterlife and thus built complex cemeteries, also known as the “necropolis”. If one was wealthy enough, his or her tomb would be intricately ornamented with sculpture. Sculpture was also featured in both coenobitic monasteries and churches after Christianity’s advent in Egypt (Gabra 3).

There are three main forms that comprise Late Antique Egyptian sculpture: stelae, friezes, and niche decorations. Columns and pediments have also been recovered, but their existence is limited. Freestanding statuary is virtually non-existent. Stelae are decorated stone planks, similar to a modern day gravestone, and were commonly used to mark the front of a tomb and to advertise its occupant to passersby with paint and inscriptions (Thomas 13). The wealthier the patron, the grander and more ornate their stelae were. Stelae have been the easiest objects for modern people to locate, given their location exterior to the tomb itself; Thomas noted that farmers have stumbled upon them while working their fields (13). Scholars have much less information about friezes, by comparison, given their location on the tomb’s interior that makes them more difficult to locate for excavation purposes. Based on the appearance of the objects themselves, we can tell that they were sometimes painted, often situated above eye-level (and carved to reflect such an angle), and adorned the insides of both tombs and monasteries. Niche decorations are another form we know little about; they are differentiated from friezes based on their slight curvature to accommodate the top of an arch.

Stelae, friezes, and niche decorations can be best described as archetectonic— they serve more to enhance the architecture itself than as stand-alone objects themselves (Badawy 117). Their purpose was a purely aesthetic one, given that they offer no structural support. Limestone seems the choice material for sculptors, though sandstone was used as well. Wood and ivory are also components of Late Antique Egyptian sculpture, though not for stelae or friezes. Common tools included pointed chisels, rasps, and from the fourth century onwards, the running drill (Thomas 23).

While the images that appear on these objects are clear, their ancestry is less so. Most scholars agree that the general trend that occurred during the Late Antique period in Egypt was that that the extant Greco-Roman imagery repertoire was slowly appropriated by Coptic Christian sculptors. Exactly when this shift occurred is a blurry line given the numerous and geographically different sites. Depending on when and where an object was sculpted, gods and mythological figures could represent either their pagan selves or Jesus Christ (Weitzman 142). Pharaonic images from the Old Kingdom, such as the fish, also translated well into Christianity. The most common images we see during the entire Late Antique period in Egypt are: plants (acanthus scroll, floral scroll, lotus, fruit, tri-lobed plant); humans or gods; abstract shapes (quatrefoil, lozenge); mammals (lion, gazelle, canine, deer, hare); birds (duck, crane, ibis); fish; and episodes (Leda and the swan, Daphne in her tree, Orpheus playing the lyre, etc). While Copts adopted many pagan forms for Christian uses, they also introduced forms of their own, including apotheosis portraits and crucifix/cross images (Badawy 223). The result is a mélange of rich yet at times puzzling iconography during the Late Antique period.

The appropriation of pagan and mythological symbols was partly inadvertent; continuity in cemetery sites, which changed from necropoleis to Christian koimeterion, corresponded with continuity in imagery as carvers relied on extant sculpture there (Thomas 7). Part of the appropriation was probably intentional as well; by relying on the powerful cultural precedents of the Old Kingdom and Roman rule, Coptic artists legitimized their own relatively recent religion. Referencing the Pharaonic period in particular –for example, through Nilotic fishing scenes or hunting scenes— was a method of “Egyptianizing,” or connecting to a potent cultural past (Badawy 131). The images and iconography that exhibit the greatest continuity are typically those of nature: a personification of seasons/times, earth’s bounty, elements of nature, and cosmological extension.

Compared to the slow iconographic evolution, stylistic shifts occurred relatively faster. The high naturalism characterizing Greco-Roman style disappeared, resulting in a much more stylized approach (Badawy 125). Figures were often “rubbery” looking with prominent bulbous eyes, geometric hair, and “deformed” proportions. We also see overly broad haunches and short legs. Though sculpture was less naturalistic in general, narrative was still legible.

One of the main themes we can see while examining Egypt’s Late Antique period is the importance of local artistic tradition, or in other words, the power of pagan imagery that has accumulated over centuries. This imagery is so influential that it can trump religious doctrine, seen in the Coptic use of ancient Egyptian or Greco-Roman imagery that is not “intrinsically” Christian. This period can also be characterized by immense diversity and heterogeneity; the mingling of different cultures, religions, and traditions results in a sculpture era that is neither ancient nor modern.


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