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: A Coptic Textile: Iconography and Function


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A large linen and wool panel dating from the late antique or early medieval period adds to the textile collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts a rare example of early Christian art. Although little is known about the provenance of the piece, its materials and weave structure place its origin in Egypt, and the design and decoration suggest that it was made during the sixth century.The probable date of the piece lies within the so-called Coptic era in Egyptian history and culture. Although the period is a subject of much debate among scholars, it is largely overlooked by the general public in favor of the more dramatic pharaonic era and the more recent history of Egypt following the Arab conquest. In a strict sense the term Coptic is applied to the Christian communities in Egypt from approximately the fourth through the seventh centuries, although it is also used to refer to Christians in Egypt up to the present day.Until the Arab invasion in the middle of the seventh century made Egypt an Islamic country, the dominant religion there was Christianity. Christian monasticism, which has played such an important role in church history and tradition, originated in rural communities of Egypt, as did the theory and practice of asceticism. Monasteries as well as the many urban churches in the Coptic era were increasingly decorated with Christian iconographic motifs, often incorporating Hellenistic and Roman elements as well. Thus surviving art of the Coptic period is largely liturgical and ecclestiastical in nature: stone sculpture, wall painting and perhaps above all weaving were put to the service of the early church in Egypt.The present example is not an exception. The central image of the Minneapolis panel, a large, jeweled cross encircled at its intersection by a fruited wreath, is bordered by a pattern of alternating rosette and leaf forms along the panel's vertical edges. Both the primary and secondary design elements are worked in a tapestry structure, that is, a plain weave in which discontinuous colored weft threads form the pattern.Textiles of this size and age are rare, but the conspicuous Christian imagery of this example gives it special significance. In no other known late antique or early medieval textile panel does a cross so dominate the design; when the cross appeared in woven form at this time it was almost always relatively small and subordinate to the main design.1 Moreover, in the textiles surviving from this period, the Greek, or equal-armed, cross is most often pictured, rather than the Latin cross seen here.The cross was not widely used as a reference to Christ until the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine adopted it as his ensign and his legions carried it throughout the Mediterranean world. Constantine's mother, Helena, is supposed to have found the “true cross” at Calvary in 327. During this period the cross symbolized Jesus's victory over death rather than his suffering and sorrow, which it came to signify during the Middle Ages. The wreath, another symbol of Christ's triumph in the resurrection, derives from Greco-Roman images of victory, such as the laurel wreaths awarded to winners of athletic contests.2The association of a symbol of Christ, such as the cross, the lamb, or the Greek cipher, with a wreath or related encircling form began to occur in various art forms toward the end of the fourth century and remained popular through the fifth and sixth centuries. These joined symbols can be seen in objects from throughout the Roman Empire of this period. From Egypt, several tapestry fragments discovered in a fifth-century cemetery show various styles of crosses encircled in a wreath, i.e. jeweled, Greek equal-armed, and ankh as well as the Greek cipher. They are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.3 A wreath-encircled cross appears on a limestone gable now in the Cairo Museum.4 In Rome the mosaic vault of the baptistery of St. John Lateran, with its wreath-encircled lamb, and the stone relief of the triumphal cross sarcophagus in the church prove that this form was not limited to the eastern half of the empire. But it is in Ravenna that the image seems to have been most popular. The mosaic work in both S. Vitale and S. Apollinare repeatedly depicts a wreath-encircled lamb or cross, and on St. Barbatianus's sarcophagus in the cathedral we see the Greek cipher at the center of the wreath form. These images proclaim Christ's triumph over the things of this world, offer a message of victory over death, and promise eternal life to all Christians.These examples of a Christ symbol paired with a Roman victory emblem share certain design features. The encircling motif is usually subordinate to a more important design element, such as a lamb or a cross form. And the wreath circle form and the image representing Christ most often are of equal size and design weight. The Minneapolis panel differs from the other examples in these two respects: first, the paired symbols form the focus of the design; second, the relationship between the two is unequal, with the much larger cross dominating the wreath in what is known as a developed ring cross. Because the form of the cross is unusual, it can help to establish the date and place of manufacture.During the fifth and sixth centuries several types of crosses were used to represent Christ: the Chi-Rho, the Greek equal-armed cross, the Latin cross, with its taller vertical shaft, and the ankh. With the exception of the ankh, which is rarely used outside Egypt and the Coptic Church, these cross variants were seen throughout the Roman Empire in numerous applications, from architectural details to diptychs.The cross in the Minneapolis panel, with its straight arms and slightly flared terminals, is a variation on the Latin cross that developed in the later half of the fifth century and continued to be popular well into the sixth. Examples appear throughout the Mediterranean world: in the mosaic designs of the churches of Sta. Pudenziana and Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome, S. Vitale and S. Apollinare in Ravenna, and in the architectural decoration of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This type of Latin cross also appears, though much less frequently, in architectural and sculptural remains from the fifth and sixth centuries in Syria and Egypt: the sarcophagus of Barbatianus in the cathedral of Ravenna, the sarcophagus of a child at the Archeological Museum in Istanbul, and several ivory diptychs from northern Italy now in churches in Ravenna.A minor variant of the ring cross in which the arms flare out from the center instead of at the ends appears on architectural and sarcophagus fragments as well as on some metal processional crosses from Ravenna, Constantinople, and Old Cairo. These examples also date to the end of the fifth century and sell into the sixth.5 Although stylistic evidence indicates that the Minneapolis panel was not woven before the fifth century, the slight change in form just mentioned would not preclude its having been woven later, since styles often persist in provincial areas long after their popularity has waned in urban centers.As the mosaics in Rome and Ravenna clearly show, the jeweled cross was not an unusual symbol among Christians of this period. Jeweled crosses were beyond the means of many congregations. Nevertheless, worshippers wanted to adorn their churches with objects of inspiration, and to this end they compromised in the use of materials. Some examples are a fifth-century wooden cross set with paste jewels, now in the Cairo Museum and several small tapestries with equal-armed jeweled crosses incorporated into the design, which are now in various museum collections.6 It is in the Minneapolis panel, however, that the woven jeweled cross image is most highly developed.The cross is a light orange color, undoubtedly meant to represent metallic gold, and is outlined with a narrow band of tan and brown. The body of the cross is ornamented with large “jewels,” each composed of four sections: a green and an orange triangle, a narrow band of natural linen connecting the triangles along their somewhat undulating hypotenuse, and a thin band of green triangle. Each jewel is surrounded by small white “pearls.” The effect is magnificent, but there is more here than worldly splendor to inspire the worshiper.A close study of the panel reveals many iconographic references in addition to the cross and wreath. The twelve pieces of fruit making up the wreath, and the twelve pearls surrounding each large jewel, undoubtedly refer to the twelve apostles. Within the wreath, four small equal-armed crosses signify the four evangelists. The sixteen large jewels ornamenting the cross stand simultaneously for the apostles and the evangelists. It is quite possible that the green base supporting the cross refers to Golgotha, as is the case in an ivory diptych probably from Ravenna. The nine pearls on the base, when regarded as three units of three, probably relate to the Trinity.The secondary design elements of rosette and leaf forms along the panel's vertical edges began to appear in the fourth century and remained popular for at least four hundred years. They appear in many kinds of textiles, including costumes and wall panels. The rosette and leaf design is most commonly associated with Egyptian design, but we must keep in mind that few textiles of this period have survived elsewhere, while climate and burial practices in Egypt were conducive to their preservation: the Egyptian dead were wrapped in textiles and buried in dry, above-ground tombs.7Because we know of no examples of a Latin cross with flared terminals before the end of the fifth century, we can assume that the Minneapolis panel was produced—at the earliest—at that time. A more probable date would be the sixth century, although the seventh cannot be entirely excluded. But since the basic iconographic elements were used throughout the Roman Empire over several centuries, we must move to an investigation of the physical properties of the panel in order to pinpoint the time and place of its manufacture.The panel is made from linen and wool threads. Although flax, from which linen is made, was grown in many parts of the Roman Empire, Egypt was a primary source, not only for the fiber, but also for the finished linen articles that were exported to all parts of the empire.8 Sheep raising was not a major factor in the Egyptian economy, and therefore it is interesting to note that the Judaean and even the Cappadocian [military] commands placed orders in Egypt for woolen garments, which were not an Egyptian specialty.Weavers were organized into small provincial workshops and into urban guilds. Some were also government workers. Even in the late antique period, the Pharaonic tradition of the weavers' connection with temples was occasionally observed, although there is not evidence that they had a monopoly on the production of temple vestments. Tax records indicate the value of weaving equipment: “a loom was regarded as real property and the sale was recorded similar to sales of the land and houses.”9Examination of the weave structure of the panel also points to Egyptian manufacture. The design areas, combined units of the warp threads, form a new base upon which a tapestry structure is woven. In these areas the weft, which is usually wool, is frequently eccentric to accommodate the design, and at times the warp is exposed to create a shaded effect. These techniques are associated with the Egyptian weaving tradition, particularly textiles produced from the third through the eleventh centuries.Unfortunately there are too few documented finds to ascribe production of the panel to a specific locale within Egypt. However, some theoretical deductions may be hazarded. The simple design is both expertly woven and beautiful. Although it is not the work of a sophisticated designer, its rich symbolism reflects an awareness of Christian iconography. The panel could have been created by a sensitive, well-trained weaver who had seen a glass-studded wooden copy of a jeweled metal cross that had been placed in front of a wreath. Such circumstances, the creation of a copy of a copy from readily available materials, would seem to suggest that it was produced within and for a relatively poor Christian community.10Although the original inspiration for the cross depicted on the Minneapolis panel was undoubtedly the metal, jewel-encrusted crosses used in Christian services, the tongue-and-groove construction of the fitting for the cross and its base indicate that the artist may have been influenced more directly by a wooden cross of this type of construction. We know from the wooden cross decorated with jewellike objects in the Cairo Museum that such objects existed in Egypt at this time. Since the artist so clearly indicated the relationship between the cross and its detachable base, the original cross as well as the textile cross may have had a dual function: one stationary, the other processional. As can be seen in the mosaics of the Baptistery of the Arians and S. Vitale in Ravenna, jeweled crosses were used in religious processions as well as in sanctuaries and on altars.It is possible that the cross in the Minneapolis panel could have served as a processional banner, but considering its overall size it is even more likely that it functioned as a curtain. Contemporary records show that curtains were widely used in both homes and churches, and sanctuary curtains are known from Egypt, Syria and Pontus.11 Fifth-century churches remaining in Cairo support the possibility that the sanctuary curtains in these churches commonly have a large Latin cross as a central image and are approximately the same size as the Minneapolis panel. During mass the curtain is pulled to the right and often draped through an opening in the sanctuary screen,12 a practice that, over a period of time, would cause the fabric to wear. The Minneapolis panel was patched with a plain-weave linen fabric sometime before it was interred.A letter addressed to John of Aelia, Bishop of Jerusalem at the end of the fourth century, mentions the use of a church curtain as a burial wrapping. This correspondence as well as the archaeological evidence indicates that quite possibly a worn but valuable curtain was used as a pall at the death of an important person.In technique the Minneapolis panel is a precursor to the large tapestries created some centuries later in western Europe. Its design may have an even more direct relation to diffused Christian iconography in Western Europe in the following centuries. Recent research has posited a connection between the activity of Coptic missionaries in the establishment of Christianity in Ireland and the subsequent development there of the ringed cross motif in large-scale sculpture.13In conclusion it can be stated with assurance that The Minneapolis Institute of Arts panel was made in Egypt, probably during the sixth century. That it was made for a Christian church or monastery is obvious, but to ascribe a specific use is not possible. Its size, fine state of preservation, artistic quality, and distinctive Christian iconography place it among the outstanding late antique and early medieval textiles to survive into the twentieth century.Lotus Stack is Curator of Textiles at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Endnotes
  1. Textiles woven during this period that incorporate crosses in their design can be found in a number of museum collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Louvre, the Vatican Museum, and the Israel Museum.
  2. André Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1968.
  3. A. F. Kendrick, Catalogue of Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt, vol. 2 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum), 1920-22.
  4. Catalogue general: Koptische Kunst # 7285 (pictured in Dalton's Byzantine Art and Archaeology, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1911) 67.
  5. Perhaps the most famous example of this style is Justinian II's jeweled processional cross of mid-sixth century.
  6. The Brooklyn Museum, no. 41.798; Israel Museum, no. 205 80; Musée National du Louvre X4563; Kendrick, Catalogue of Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt, nos. 211, 314-18, 321, and 327.
  7. One of the lesser-known non-Egyptian textile finds of this period is documented by R. Pfister, Textiles de Halabiyeh (Zenobia): Découvertes par le Service des Antiquités de la Syrie dans la Nécropole de Halabiyeh sur l'Euphrate, (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1951).
  8. Upon receiving news of a revolt in Egypt, Gallrenus, a third-century Roman, exclaimed, “What! Can we get along without Egyptian flax?” (Allan Chester Johnson, Roman Egypt to the Reign of Diocletian, vol. 2 of An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome [Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1936] 3).
  9. A. H. M. Jones, The Roman Economy: Studies in Ancient Economic and Administrative History ed. P.A. Brunt (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974) 356.
  10. Chester Johnson, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, 333.
  11. Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453: Sources and Documents, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1972) 43; Thomas F. Mathews, The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), 162-71.
  12. Rohault de Fleury, La Messe, vol. 5 (Paris: A. Morel, 1888) Plate 913.
  13. Walter Horn, “On the Origins of the Developed Irish Ring Cross: a New Interpretation” in Walter Horn, Jeremy White Marshall, and Cuellen Rourke, A Forgotten Hermitage on Skellig Michael (Berkeley: The University of California Press, in press). See also Martin Werner, “On the Origin of the Form of the Irish High Cross,” Gesta 29 (1), (1990), 98-110.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Textile panel
    Coptic, probably 6th century
    Linen and wool
    The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
    Gift of the Aimee Mott Butler Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. John F. Donovan, the estate of Margaret B. Hawks, and Eleanor Weld Reid 83.126
  2. Architectural fragment (gable)
    Coptic, probably 4th-5th century
    The Cairo Museum
    Photo courtesy Marburg/Art Resource, N.Y.
  3. Apse mosaic, Sta. Pudenziana
    Roman, 5th century
    Stone and glass
    Photo courtesy Alinari/Art Resource, N.Y.
  4. Nave mosaic, San Vitale
    Ravenna, 5th century
    Stone and glass
    Photo courtesy Alinari/Art Resource, N.Y.
  5. Altar cross
    Coptic, 5th century
    Wood, metal and glass
    The Cairo Museum
  6. Diptych panel
    Ravenna or northern Italy, 5th century
    Milan, Cathedral treasury
  7. Dome mosaic, Baptistry of the Arians (detail)
    Ravenna, about 500
    Stone and glass
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Source: Lotus Stack, "A Coptic Textile: Iconography and Function," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 66 (1983-1986): 97-104.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009