Article

Coptic Art

K.C. Innemée

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online February 2014 | | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0137
Coptic Art

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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Christianity must have come to Egypt in the 1st century ce, probably through converts in the Jewish community of Alexandria, at that time still an international center of culture and science, where philosophical and religious movements from the entire Mediterranean were received with interest. Christian theology could develop here, inspired by Platonism and the Jewish philosopher Philo, whose writings were at the basis of the Christian concept of Christ being the Logos (the Word of God, both in the creation and in incarnation of God the Son). Clement and Origen, leaders of the Alexandrian catechetical school, stood at the cradle of Christian theology, but in spite of their enormous immaterial contribution, nothing tangible has remained of early Christian culture in Egypt. This is not surprising: strong eschatological beliefs and the necessity to keep a low profile in the face of periodic persecutions must have played a role in this. Only after the Edict of Milan (313 ce) did the young religion step out of the shade and were the first official churches built. After the edict of Theodosius of 391, which forbade pagan cults and made Christianity the official state religion, Christian culture became a dominant factor in Roman culture and also in Egypt. But the introduction of a new religion did not mean a total transformation of culture, merely a combination of continuity and modification in certain cases—for instance, in funerary customs. Until 451, Christian Egypt was part of the catholic church (“catholic” in the meaning of general, undivided). Then, a decade-old dispute over the human and divine natures of Christ came to a climax at the Council of Chalcedon. The result was a schism between Alexandria and Constantinople that put the majority of the Egyptian Christians into an isolated position, since they refused to give up support for their excommunicated patriarch. The patriarchate of Alexandria was now in open conflict with Constantinople, which led to the emergence of a national (Coptic) church in the course of the 6th century. The Coptic Church has been considered monophysite by the pro-Chalcedonian churches, a not entirely correctly used term, based on the supposition that it accepted only the divine nature of Christ. This position of Egypt as a breakaway province of the Byzantine Empire lasted until 618, when Egypt was overrun by the Sassanids. After the country was liberated by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 629, a new confrontation between the Coptic Church and Constantinople seemed inevitable. The Arab conquest of Egypt in 640 meant a real change in culture. For the following centuries it would be under Muslim rule, which meant a gradual reduction of Christianity to a minority position, while the Egyptian language, known as Coptic in its last phase, and Greek were replaced by Arabic. The Coptic Church, in other words, has never been under patronage of the state, and as a result its art is of a more modest and simple character than Byzantine art.

Article.  8705 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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