Eighteenth-Century Ethiopian Coptic Bible
Christianity was gaining a foot in Egypt when the Arabs conquered it between 639 and 646 AD, ending the long Roman Byzantine reign in Egypt. The Arabs, adopting a Greek transcription, called those indigenous non-Arabic-speaking non-Muslims in Egypt الْقِبْط, al-Qibṭ, from which the words Copt (noun) and Coptic (adjective) derive. A Copt, thus by suggestion, was a Christian.
What makes Coptic Bibles particularly attractive for collection are their colorful, hand-painted icons. This copy, 16 x 10 cm in dimension, contains seven icons in 110 pages. Coptic icons are recognizable for their dark, thick lines to contour figures. Their eyes—drawn so wide—are often most striking. I am drawn to the small detail on top of the opening page in this copy: a mesmerizing manuscript decoration inside two Bowen knots (a lover’s knot) featuring eight disembodied, interlocking eyespots. So enigmatic are these eyespots that make me think of the Eastern Christogram, I C X C, which stands for the first and the last letters of Jesus Christ in Greek, IHCOYC XPICTOC (Ἰησοῦς Χριστός), with C becoming a pun on see, and X, an interlocking symbol.
The oldest Coptic icons, most specialists agree, were influenced by Fayum mummy portraits (naturalistic painted portraits bandaged to upper class mummies from Roman Egypt). Coptic icons appear to be more abstract, more expressionistic (less realistic) compared to Fayum portraits. Each of the saints stands with their arms upraised, in gestures that convey blessings on the liturgies they represent.
In a rather whimsical piece, a saint points up with one hand and with another points to an important piece of the script, as if encouraging the reader to find the answer there.
Here, St. Antony and St. Thomas wear bright, gold-trimmed attire, resembling those high-ceremonial, imperial wardrobes worn in Byzantine courts. In contrast, St. Paul wears a conventional monastic garb; interestingly, the pattern of his garb is conflated with his beard, both representing God’s power.
On a cloud stands St. Thomas, with a bright halo, his hands reaching out, palms up: he assumes the position of an orant, praying and accepting the grace of God.
Most well-known of the popular artistic renderings would be the Crucifixion, and here the piece is exceptionally well-crafted, with the bold-lined figures standing out from the golden background, both Mary and John standing with their arms crossed in supplication as Jesus dies on the cross.
An elderly saint dressed in the traditional greens and reds of Ethiopian tradition holds both hands to either side of his head, each of his fingers pointing toward the heavens as he smiles out toward the reader, as if acknowledging the readers’ desire to come closer to God.
One of the most popular subjects we find in Coptic art is the visit of St. Antony to St. Paul of Thebes, founders and practitioners of eremitical monasticism. Here, we see the raven (legend has it the raven once provided a half-loaf of bread to St. Paul to sustain him) and a pair of lions, burying St. Paul next to St. Antony.
Another much beloved biblical story for Coptic artists is the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, their home country. According to Matthew 2:13, the angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream: “Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” Usually, we see St. Joseph leading a donkey with Virgin on its back and the Christ Child in her lap. In this copy, we see the artist illustrating this story differently: on the first page, St. Joseph, with a short sabre and a long spear and his hands firm on the rein, is riding on a horse in full valor, and on the last, the Virgin wears a loros, the richly decorated, imperial attire in Byzantium, and Christ Child sits on her lap, making the gesture, “speaker”. The Virgin is crowned by two angels with scrolls in their hands.
This Coptic Bible emphasizes the glory of God through the depictions of saints and the Holy Family using the fantastic images from a bygone era that reminds us of the fine artistic traditions from ancient Egypt. As an art piece, this unique and rare manuscript deserves a place on the shelf of any collector or appreciator of Egyptian bibles. For the religious devotee or celebrant, the Coptic Bible opens new doors in the history of the faith.
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