Textiles

One of the areas of Coptic culture that has attracted attention in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is that of textiles. Many thousands of fragments and partial garments from cemeteries are scattered throughout collections worldwide, often with insufficient information about their find-spots. Many of these were from excavations initiated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the search for papyri, predominantly in Middle and Lower Egypt, including those in the desert sands of Akmim and Antinopolis. Modern study is refining the description of items with the aim of standardizing cataloguing. There is attention to weaving techniques, and textile production as well as the use of colour and conservation methods. Aspects of life, material culture and death of late Roman and east Christian communities are revealed through the textiles. There had been a gradual change from ancient Egyptian mummification practices. Characteristic of the change is the use of the wax portraits, commonly known as Fayyum portraits from the area in which many were found, in the early second to third centuries ce. By the Christian period people were buried in their own clothes. Commonly worn were tunics woven from sleeve to sleeve in one piece and sewn together at the sides, and tucked in at the side to fit the individual. Some church fathers disapproved of the fine clothes used in burying the dead.

Where there is information about the contents of a burial, the objects and materials retrieved are very personal to the individual. Sometimes the headgear, beads and jewellery and the outer wrapping, which was occasionally a hanging, has been retained. The fabrics were made of wool and linen. Decoration took the form of tapestry and embroidered medallions, neck borders, shoulder bands and shoulder or knee patches. This decoration, which was consistent with the late Roman decorative repertoire, used figures as well as animal, plant, fruit, flower and geometric motifs. Alongside this was the use of Christian imagery from the Old and New Testament. An example of the former is a roundel in the St├Ądtischen Museum Simeonstift in Trier in Germany that has scenes from the life of Jacob. This is one of two in this particular collection and several are preserved elsewhere, including Athens, Berlin, London, Moscow, Paris and Prague. The bands which ring the scenes demonstrate the richness of Coptic textile ornament, while the colours, red for the base, with red, greens, yellow ochre and black, are an example of the vivid use of colour in Coptic textiles. Carbon 14 dating of a piece in a private collection has dated this group of textiles to between the eighth and tenth centuries.

New Testament scenes include the Annunciation, the Nativity, which is depicted on a linen fragment from Akmim dated to the fifth to sixth centuries in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and miracle scenes, including the raising of Lazarus. The Alpha and Omega appear on textiles, as does the symbol of the fish. Some of this imagery can be related to that preserved in Coptic sculpture. Other images are of praying saints, military saints, as well as animals and plants. A large hanging of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels, from the sixth century (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art), has the function of an icon, and is similar to wall-painting as found at Bawit.

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