In common with the other Eastern Christian churches the Coptic Church had a flourishing tradition of illustrated manuscripts, many produced in monastery scriptoria. Several manuscripts survived in the Egyptian climate, including the well-known Nag Hammadi Gnostic codices, written on papyrus, whose preservation also extends to their bindings. Others too are of singular importance. The Glazier codex, named after William S. Glazier who acquired it in 1962, is in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (G. 67); it is a vellum codex of c.400, its text being part of the Acts of the Apostles written in an archaic Coptic dialect of Middle Egyptian proper. It survives with its original binding of wooden boards and has a tooled leather spine secured by wrapping bands with ornamental bone pieces. At the end of the book is a finispiece depicting a cross, which was common practice in early Christian books. But this is the particularly Egyptian ankh cross, which is shaped as a tau connected to a circle above it. A representative symbol of life, the upper part is derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph with this meaning. The cross is filled with interlace patterning, with a bird in centre of the circle, while others are perched at ends of the cross arms and peacocks are on either side below. The peacocks, like the bird at the centre of the circle, are pecking at branches. This represents the Resurrection and the eternal life that its offers.
Monastic communities relied on their scriptoria for their spiritual, liturgical and other religious needs. Examples of monastic libraries are those in the Wadi Natrun (Scetis) monasteries between Alexandria and Cairo, the Monastery of St Shenoute, the
White Monastery near present-day Sohag and the Monastery of St Michael at Hamouli in the Fayyum in Middle Egypt. Among the illustrated manuscripts are some with full-page illustrations. Frontispieces in ninth-to-tenth-century manuscripts sometimes have 'icons' of frontally-facing holy figures. An example is the frontispiece of a ninth-century manuscript containing the works of Shenoute from the White Monastery which shows the nursing Virgin flanked by angels, framed with an interlace band (now in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 612). This emphasizes the Incarnation and the humanity of Christ and is comparable to wall-paintings from the Monasteries of Bawit and Saqqara. Below the feet of the Virgin the scribe, or artist, Isaac has signed his name. The equestrian St Theodore, as defender of the faith, striking an enemy as the devil shown with a human head and the body of a serpent, appears in the frontispiece of an early tenth-century manuscript with hagiographical texts (in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 613). Manuscripts of this period are often decorated with marginal vegetal, animal and bird motifs. Similar motifs also appear calligraphically to form capital letters. Punctuation and paragraph marks are also used.
Manuscripts of the twelfth-to-fourteenth centuries reflect contact with Byzantine and other Eastern Christian manuscript traditions, including the evangelist portraits and other illustrations in New Testament books. An example is the Gospel book with an extensive cycle of scenes (in Paris, Biblioteque Nationale, Copte 13), which was made in Damietta in northern Egypt between 1178 and 1180. Others balance Byzantine with secular Arab concerns. An example is the New Testament now divided between Cairo and Paris (Institut Cathlique Copte-Aabe 1/Cairo Coptic Museum Bibl. 94), produced in Cairo in 1249-50, which is written in Bohairic Coptic and Arabic. While its figurative imagery relates to Byzantine and other Eastern Christian book illumination, its ornamentation and aniconic imagery is more in keeping with Arabic books, including Our'an manuscripts, and this trend continues through the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. A manuscript copy was made as late as 1733, which is now in the British Library in London (BL. Or. 1316), the line of descent from the Cairene New Testament mediated by way of engravings in Tempesta's printed Arabic Gospels in Rome of 1590.
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