The Textiles of Coptic Egypt

Coptic Bust "They have invented some kind of vain and curious warp and 'broidery which, by means of the interweaving of warp and weft, imitates the quality of painting and represents upon garments the forms of all kinds of living beings, and so they devise for themselves, their wives and children gay-colored dresses decorated with thousands of figures."
--Asterius, Bishop of Amaseia of Syria, late fourth to early fifth century, condemning the spreading fashion of decorating garments with pictoral images

Nearly one hundred years ago, stunning textiles were unearthed from shallow burials in the sandy soil of Egypt. Though mostly fragmentary, their bold pictorial designs, saturated colors, and rich textures exerted an unmitigated appeal. As more textiles were brought to light alongside finds of architectural decorations, paintings, carved stone, ivory, and wood, the concept arose of a vernacular art characterized by a rustic, lively, and robust style. This native Egyptian art, first pagan, then Christian, was called "Coptic." Today the word "Copt" denotes Egyptians of Christian faith, but originally it simply meant "Egyptian" (from the Greek Aigyptios, from which derives the Arabic qpt, pronounced kibt or kobt).

The examples of Coptic art in the Indiana University Art Museum collection date from the third to the twelfth centuries, spanning late Roman, early Byzantine, and early Islamic times. Most numerous, however, is the collection of over 150 textiles.

Coptic textiles have survived the centuries due to the dry Egyptian climate, aided by the Christian practice of interring the dead in their garments, shrouded in cloth wrappings, rather than mummifying them as in Pharaonic times. These fragile woven remnants help us to realize the extraordinary mixture of traditions upon which the Coptic weavers drew.

During the first millennium, Egypt underwent profound changes. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the country, which shortly after became part of the Byzantine Empire. The old pagan customs were challenged and gradually disappeared. Following the Arab conquest in the seventh century, Egypt converted to Islam. By the end of the twelfth century, Islamic fashions had replaced Coptic designs, particularly in textiles.

One could imagine the Coptic world as a marketplace, where customers of various ethnicities and faiths--Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, pagans, Christians, and later, Muslims--shopped for fashions that best suited their practices and their needs. Weaving was done in the domestic setting and (as indicated by census reports and tax records) professionally, in workshops scattered about the country. When monasteries sprang up in the desert, centers of weaving developed around them. The weavers made ornamented garments, domestic furnishings such as cushion covers and curtains, and large decorative hangings used in many homes.

The craftsmen had at their disposal a vast storehouse of images, many of which circulated in the form of patterns, a few of which have survived on papyri. They used pictorial motifs from the Greco-Roman tradition, including pastoral scenes related to the Nile River and mythological characters such as dancers who evoke Dionysian celebrations. Of Egyptian lineage are hieroglyphic figures such as the hare, signifying the verb, "to endure." Eastern motifs from Syrian and Persian fabrics were also incorporated, as on a fringed shawl in the collection which combines oriental hunters on horseback with running lions and leopards, and with Christian crosses. As they integrated the images available to them into their weavings, the artisans created a distinct style, in which the figural and decorative ornamentation are treated equally as expressions of an exuberant universe, teeming with the pleasures of life and sensuous delight. Explicitly Christian subjects are fewer: the youthful Christ panel is a rare example.

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