After the Pharaohs

Treasures of Coptic Art from Egyptian Collections

18 March 2005 - 18 April 2005

The achievements of Egyptian culture of the pharaonic period have dazzled the western world ever since the ancient Greeks made their first acquaintance with the land on the Nile. With the early nineteenth-century decipherment of the hieroglyphs, the large-scale archaeological exploration of the monuments of Egypt and the foundation of collections of Egyptian antiquities, pharaonic Egypt became an organic element of general culture all over the world. New discoveries in the land of the pharaohs continue to make headlines in the journals and there is no year without a major travelling exhibition of pharaonic art fascinating tens of thousands of new fans of ancient Egypt.

As opposed to pharaonic Egypt before the conquest of the land by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the culture of Egypt under Ptolemaic (332-30 BC) and Roman rule (30 BC-639/646 AD) remains largely unknown and generally unappreciated. Exhibitions organised in the past few decades highlighted some important aspects of the period between the foundation of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the Arab conquest in 639/646 AD, as, e.g., the interaction between traditional Egyptian religion and Hellenistic and Roman cults, political ideology and art forms, or the formation of special Egyptian stylistic features in the Coptic, i.e., late Roman-early Byzantine period (AD mid-3rd to 7th centuries). On the whole, however, the social context, chronology and international context of the art of these periods remained obscure and Coptic art, though generally celebrated as a very special chapter of art history, is especially poorly understood. Following the trends set by early twentieth century historiography, art historians interpret traditionally the monuments of Coptic art along ethnic (Greek/Roman versus native Egyptian), social and ethnic (non-Egyptian ruling classes versus native peasantry), religious (pagan versus Christian) and confessional (Monophysite versus Orthodox) dividing lines.

The understanding of the history and culture of the Coptic period underwent radical changes in the recent years and art historians made attempts at the correction of this biased picture of Coptic culture. The Budapest exhibition, which comprises eighty-six objects from the collection of the Coptic Museum, Cairo, thirty-five objects from the collection of the Graeco-Roman Museum, Alexandria, as well as eight objects from the recently opened Alexandria National Museum, intends to illustrate the new assessment of Coptic art as an organic part of Mediterranean late antique-early Byzantine art. Another principal aim of the wide-ranging research work preceding the exhibition was to place the objects in a possibly firm chronological and style-historical framework.

Besides these comprehensive aims of the exhibition, the selection of the objects was also influenced by further considerations. Namely, the organisers intended to exhibit major works of art which visualise the principal stylistic trends and the activity of important masters/workshops in the period between the mid-third and seventh centuries AD. They also intended to present paradigmatic examples for the relationship between Coptic Egypt and other great artistic centres of the contemporary world as well as for the impact of elite workshops in- and outside Egypt on the production of provincial workshops. A further important aim was to place so far neglected, misinterpreted or forgotten objects of high artistic value in the focus of interest: more than half of the exhibits was selected from the storerooms of the Coptic Museum and the Graeco-Roman Museum, and a considerable part of the objects is unpublished.

The exhibition contains three interrelated units. The first consists of figural tomb stelae, architectural carvings, figural bone reliefs, textiles and pottery vessels dating from the period between the 2nd-4th centuries. A part of the objects represents the last phase of the traditional Egyptian canon of representation; other objects illustrate the continuity of Alexandrian Hellenistic types and forms; again others demonstrate the influence of the major Roman centres of artistic production, both eastern and western. The figured and ornamental textiles represent a unique Egyptian achievement.

The second, larger unit presents works of art from the 4th-6th centuries. The figural and ornamental carvings in stone, wood or bone, fragments of painted ceilings, bronze vessels and textiles visualise the luxury of elite households and the quality of aristocratic "good life". "Reading" their figural decoration, we may also form an idea of the political, religious, and ethical ideals that were essential to the aristocratic self-image formulated in the visual arts. A remarkable group of objects in this unit - architectural carvings with figural decoration - originates from elite funerary chapels at Oxyrhynchos (el Bahnasa) and Heracleopolis Magna (Ahnas). The figural decoration of these carvings presents a pictorial discourse not only on the classical education of the elite but also on the virtues by which it hoped to achieve eternal life. The works of art in this second unit of the exhibition also demonstrate the unity of the pagan and Christian elite of the 4th-5th centuries and some of them betray that art objects were produced in the same elite workshops both for pagan and Christian clients. Some carvings in bone represent the output of workshops producing for a humbler clientele. They indicate, however, remarkable connections between "great art" and the taste of artisans satisfying simpler demands: e.g., a unique carving covering the surface of the fragment of a bovine tibia copies a grand model representing enthroned late Roman co-emperors and their attendants.

The third unit of objects demonstrates the emergence of Christian art in Egypt and the stylistic trends unfolding during the course of the 5th-8th centuries. The monumental art created for the churches and monasteries is represented by column capitals and wall painting fragments from the Monastery of Apa Jeremias at Saqqara and figural reliefs from the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit. A so far disregarded fragment of a large-size, double-faced processional icon from the 6th century corroborates the view according to which a part of the earliest icons (the bulk of which is preserved in the Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai) was painted in Egypt and not in Constantinople. Greater role is assigned in this unit to works of art originating from provincial workshops in order to visualise the stratification of artistic production, the Christianisation of traditional Egyptian symbols and sacral images in private religiosity and the impact of "great art" on the manufacture of objects of everyday use, including children's toys.

As an important addition to the 129 objects from Egyptian collections, a number of objects from the collections of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts (a superb 4th century figural relief from Oxyrhynchos and terracotta statuettes) and of the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts (textiles) will also be exhibited.

Curator of the exhibition: László Török