Ancient Coptic Christian Fabrics from Egypt

Ancient Coptic Christian Fabrics
by Jimmy Dunn

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Coptic textiles had many uses during Egypt's Christian period, including bed sheets and covers, towels, napkins, tablecloths and carrying sacks, while in churches and other public buildings, these decorative fabrics were used for curtains and hangings.

The development of pattern weaving is one of the important achievements of the Coptic weavers that distinguishes their textiles from those of the Ancient Egyptians. Patterned textiles were brought into the mainstream around the time of Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in the fourth century BC. Some Greek textiles were patterned and featured the use of dyed wool. Patterned textiles were valued because their production was quite labor intensive.

Coptic textiles are characterized by the "S-twist" of thread. After washing, the natural flax fibers have an inherent sense of rotation, in the anti-clockwise direction. Therefore, when they are spun into thread, they were twisted in this direction, which is called "S-twist." Wool does not have a tendency to rotation, so it followed convention that wool was also spun in the "S-twist" technique.

Fabric with fish on wool from Antinoe, and dating to the 2nd or 3rd century AD

The Egyptians used the weaving techniques of tabby weave, half basket weave, and looped or soumak. Tabby weave is the simplest form of weaving, consisting of horizontal threads (weft) interweaving with vertical threads (warp). Soumak had the effect of making distinct outlines of the designs. Other techniques they used were brocading and tapestry. The tapestry technique allowed wool decorations to be woven into the surrounding linen. The Copts invented the flying shuttle technique, which uses a second shuttle to insert an extra linen weft thread into the fabric.

Most commonly, textiles during the Coptic period were sued for clothing which, during that time period, most frequently took the form of a tunic, or rectangular shirt-like garment which was usually fastened at the waist by a belt. Textiles were also used for belts, cloaks and shawls. The tunics of Copts was most often made of plain wool or linen and adorned with either a single vertical band (clavus) that ran down the center of the garment, or two vertical bands (clavi) that fell over each shoulder and ran down to the knee or the bottom of the garment on both the front and back.

As early as the Pharaonic period of Egypt's New Kingdom, and because of increasing contact with the Near East, a fashion developed in Egypt of wearing ornate garments decorated with colorful decorations. This fashion disappeared during the Late Pharaonic Period only to reappear during Roman times, with the spread of the use of wool. Flax (linen), which was used almost exclusively until the Greek period was very difficult to dye, but in contrast, wool allowed colors to be applied that have lasted into our own time. There also evolved silk garments with shimmering colors that obviously had their origins in the east, consisting of caftans, leggings and tunics, for example. As in the pharaonic period, Coptic fabrics remained well known for a long time and even in distant lands. For example, in India, they were called kabati, which comes from the plural form of the Arabic Qibt (Copt, Egyptian).

The decorations on unbleached flax and purple wool reproduce geometrical and vegetal motifs identical with those of the sculptures and mosaics of the same period. In Egypt, the paintings of the third and fourth centuries often represent the dead clad in garments ornamented in the same way. These fashions spread throughout the whole of the Mediterranean basin, as one can examine in mosaics (Piazza Armerina, Sicily) and paintings in the Roman catacombs.

A Coptic Roundel dating between the 6th and 8th century AD

However, thanks to the dry climate and sandy subsoil, these fabrics have mostly only survived to our own time in an unrivalled state of preservation in Egypt. There are sites such as Antinoe and Akhmin where tens of thousands of these textiles have been unearthed, particularly in the necropolises. This is due to the fact that when, in the fourth century mummification was no longer practiced, the dead were buried in their clothes. Sometimes these were very sumptuous, consisting of tunics, cloaks, shirts of fine linen, shawls, headdresses with hair nets and shoes. These dead were also often surrounded by a substantial amount of funerary furniture and with large fabric panels adorned in the same patterns as the clothing. In fact, these panels may have been originally used as household furnishings such as altar covers, blankets and curtains, and later reused as shrouds.

One particular series includes large printed linen panels, of which only fragments remain. Like the great "Antinoe veil" (fourth century, Paris, Louvre Museum), they had several tiers of decorations. In order to create this effect, the material was immersed in a bath of dye, but certain parts of it were covered with a protective substance such as clay or wax to prevent that area from being dyed.

A Coptic Textile dating from between the 6th and 7th century AD, apparently depicting two (dancing?) saints on Wool, with some lacunae

The decorations in tapestry using the "Gobelins" stitch have backgrounds of cloth or tapestry. The decorations themselves and the background were rarely woven separately and later sewn together. Most often, they were woven together on the loom. Thus, tunics were made in a single piece or in three pieces and then assembled. The intricate dye work was done in specialized shops which used mostly vegetal dyes, including madder and Mediterranean lichen for the reds, indigo and woad for the blues and reseda, pomegranate and saffron for the yellows. Rarely used in Egypt were the animal dyes like the kermes of a Mediterranean red oak and the Armenian cochineal, where were all very expensive. There is no trace in Coptic fabrics of the true purple color extracted from the shell of murex brandaris which was so highly prized in the Roman Empire.

A dancer on Coptic Textiles, date uncertain

In his Natural History, Pliny states that this technique was particularly utilized in Egypt. Printed material is only represented by fabrics of the fourth century at the earliest and continues until the Arab period. In those days, there were great textile centers such as Alexandria, Panopolis, Oxyrhynchus, Tinnis and Damietta, but regrettably we know this only from texts, because any trace of weaving shops and their fragile wooden looms has vanished. However, by studying the fabrics themselves, scholars are often able to derive their origins.

Actually, only two groups of fabrics have been dated with any certainty. One group was a pair of medallions and a band of flax and purple wool coming from a tomb in Hwara in the Fayoum Oasis, which were found together with a coin dated to 340 AD. These medallions are adorned in a manner that is virtually identical with that of painted Egyptian shrouds of the Roman period and fabrics discovered in Syria. Next to the body of Aurelius Colluthus, in his tomb at Antinoe, were discovered sales contracts and his will, all written in Greek between 454 and 456 AD. He was wrapped in a large tapestry with an upper tier showing two busts under arcades supported by two large columns. A geometrical network with florets and leaves covers the space between the columns, which is a composition very similar to the decorations in paintings and mosaics of the same period.

It is essentially on the basis of iconographic, stylistic and technical comparisons that one can attempt to establish a relative chronology of most ancient fabrics. In the oldest of fabrics, dating from the second through the fifth centuries, one must rank those which show naturalistic forms and those which, thanks to the gradation of colors, succeed in imitating the three dimensional technique favored by the Greek and Roman artists. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the progressive disappearance of these effects entails an increasing use of flatly applied colors and an ever growing simplification of forms. During the Arab period, there was a dislocation of elements resulting in the loss of comprehension of the subject, which lead to schematization and even a purely ornamental abstraction.

As with all regions that became a part of the Roman Empire, Egypt was rapidly submerged by the artistic and iconographic formulas made fashionable by its new masters, to the point of causing the nearly complete abandonment of pharaonic images, despite their being several millennia old. However, one of the oldest pharaonic images is certainly that of the ankh, which symbolized life to the ancient Egyptians, and it was especially reproduced on Coptic objects because it appeared so similar to the sign of the cross. Intended to breath life into Egypt's ancient gods and the dead, it was adopted by Christians because of its signifying resurrection and life and also because of its likeness to Constantine's cross, the labarum, made of a cross surmounted by a crown encircling the Chi-Rho (chrismon).

Subjects related to the Nile River, showing its fauna and flora, became extremely popular themes throughout the Roman world. However, if the flat application of colors can be reminiscent of a convention of pharaonic painting, the treatment of human figures would now follow Greek and Roman models. Thus, Isis become the goddess Euthenia, Hapi, the personification of the Nile in pharaonic times, becomes a typical Roman river god sporting a thick head of hair and holding a cornucopia. The art of Coptic fabrics transforms in an original way the subjects drawn from the repertory of classic mythology.

Fabric wiht the representation of the birth of Aphrodite

Some of the mythological scenes lent themselves to being Christianized in an effective way. Thus, Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree as the soul is transformed when it leave the human body. The attribute of the purity of the pearl to Christ could be linked with the myth of Aphrodite's birth, and Orpheus holding the animals under his spell, was compared to Christ because the former had the revelation of "divine unity". Nevertheless, many of the scenes must be regarded as mere adornment empty of any meaning. Thus, Artemis the hunter, Bellerophon and the Chimaera, Jason and the Golden Fleece, scenes from Homer's poems and Euripides' tragedies, bucolic subjects, dancers and so on made their appearance on Coptic Christian fabrics.

Eastern motifs such as double palms, floral backgrounds, winged animals, griffins, human heads arranged in staggered rows all decorate wool tapestries and may have been borrowed directly from silk materials found in Egypt in vast quantities and probably imported from the east, particularly from Sassanid Persia. Some of these tapestries may have actually been produced in Egypt.

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It is within this framework that the new religion, itself originating in the East, was born and grew. If Christian themes appear to be less frequent than pagan ones, it remains that they constitute a rich iconographic array which adorns without discrimination hangings, curtains and items of clothing. As Christianity evolved, the image of grape harvesting cherubs and the vine became a frequent theme because of its funerary and symbolic meaning. The harvest of ripe fruit symbolized the gathering of completed human lives but also the idea of sacrifice followed by resurrection, essential to the Christian faith. In John 15:1, we have "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower". However, next to scenes of orants, holy persons, equestrian saints and the motif of the cross, the Bible supplied the sources of inspiration for more elaborate decorations. In fact, the Old Testament was not forgotten, and gave rise to astonishing works of art. The series of fabrics devoted to the story of the patriarch Joseph has the particularity of showing medallions and bands on garments, depicting the episodes of his life as a continuous cycle. His father Jacob sends Joseph to his brothers and afterwards Joseph is plunged into the cistern and then removed from it. His tunic is dipped in goat's blood and he is sold to the Ishmaelites. He travels to Egypt on the back of a camel and he is sold to Potiphar, the captain of the pharaoh's guard. Joseph's dream is frequently placed in the center of this narration because it foretold Joseph's destiny. This particular garment, with bodies that are stocky and forms that are beginning to be dislocated and with square eyes, suggests that it was made in the seventh or eighth century. A garment with Jonah coming out of the mouth of a sea monster, the sacrifice of Isaac and the ascension of Elijah belong to the same period. In contrast, printed linen cloths, probably easier and quicker to execute, were often composed of several tiers and therefore represented several scenes, including Jonah, Daniel in the lions' den, Moses receiving the tablets of the Law and the vision of the burning bush.

Gospel scenes appear on tapestries and printed fabrics as well as on silk embroideries. The printed fabrics were still strongly influenced by antique and paleo-Christian art. Embroideries belong to the Byzantine world. Whether in wool, silk or gold thread, embroidery work seems to have come from the East and had an unequalled importance in the Byzantine Empire. However, in Egypt its use remained very scarce. Workers there were content with imitating tapestry decorations and copying Byzantine motifs. From the nativity to the miracles of Christ, the episodes which have been preserved on fabric attest to a custom anchored in a Mediterranean tradition of the use of ornamented textiles imitating paintings and mosaics. Some printed fabrics were almost certainly created as icons that were kept in churches and private homes, similarly to painted icons or those in mosaic, metal or ivory. This is very likely the case with the enthroned Holy Virgin tapestry dating to the sixth century and now in the Cleveland Museum. In it, the Holy Virgin is seated on a throne embellished with pearls and gems, as she holds the baby Jesus on her knees. She is flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, while above her, Christ enthroned is lifted up by two angels, an evocation of both the ascension and the apocalyptic vision of God. Twelve medallions containing the busts of the apostles are set off by a sumptuous vegetal border. This tapestry is very likely a copy of a composition found on the walls of a monastery church. The graphic style of the folds in the clothing and the schematic character of the faces, fashioned in a soft and nuance way, probably date this piece to between the fifth and sixth centuries, the period of the oldest known painted icons.

And so, the practice of wearing ornate garments begun in the Roman period naturally continued during the Christian period. It became customary to use not only securlar subjects, but also often complex biblical narrative scenes like the cycle of Joseph. The most celebrated example in the Byzantine world is the renowned cortege of the empress Theodora, the emperor Justinian's wife, in St. Vitalis in Ravenna (sixth century). In it, the court ladies are clad in luxurious garments covered with flowers, medallions and squares with geometrical motifs. The empress wears an ample cloak with the lower part adorned with the representation of the Magi brining their offerings. As a consequence, the Fathers of the Church and members of the clergy rose up against these artifices and attempted to fight this

"foolish industry. As soon as the art of weaving in imitation of painting was invented, and art both futile and useless - by combining the warp and the weft, which made possible the depiction of every kind of animal in fabric, everybody hastened to purchase for themselves as well as for their wives and children garments covered with flowers and offering images of infinite variety...When they show themselves in public in this sort of attire, they could be mistaken for painted walls...One sees on these fabrics lions, panthers, bears, bulls, dogs, trees, rocks, hunters, in a word everything that the art of the painter who strive to imitate nature can imitate...Those rich people who still have a veneer of piety take designs from the gospel stories and have their artisans execute them. They have them painted [weave or embroider] Jesus Christ in the midst of his disciples...They believe they are doing something pleasing to the Lord when they wear these fabrics adorned with holy pictures; but if they want to follow my advice, let them sell such garments in order to honor the living images of God"

Asterius of Amasia, Homily 1, "On the Abuse of Riches"






Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

Capuani, Massimo


Liturgical Press, The

ISBN 0-8146-2406-5

Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400

MacMullen, Ramsay


Yale University Press

ISBN 0-300-03642-6

Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture

Gabra, Gawdat


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 691 8

Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 692 6

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011