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Work Pillar said to be from Bawit

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Pillar said to be from Bawit

© 2003 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Author(s):
Lyon-Caen Christiane

This pillar, said to be from Bawit, is richly decorated on two adjacent faces and was no doubt a corner stone or door jamb. The meticulous relief decoration consists of geometric motifs and luxuriant foliage populated by birds; it is completed by two drapery-clad figures in the rectangular frames at the top of the pillar: an archangel and an apostle.

A pillar

This pillar is a quadrangular shaft with no base or capital. It is decorated on two adjacent faces, and was probably part of a doorway or gateway. The two undecorated faces were engaged in the stonework. Two long, symmetrical, rectangular panels are filled with non-figurative decoration, and each of the smaller rectangular frames at the top of the pillar houses a full-length figure.

The decoration

The decorative themes in the two long rectangular panels are very different in style. The first evokes a garden with luxuriant foliage in which large birds nestle and peck at the plentiful fruits. The naturalistic theme of "inhabited foliage" on this panel is of Hellenistic inspiration. The second panel is decorated with a clever geometric design in flat relief alternating hexagons and four-pointed stars, spirals and crosses. This delicate, deeply chiseled pattern with its varied geometric combinations evokes woodcarving - an activity at which the Copts excelled. In the frame above the "garden", a draped figure leans proudly on a spear, holding a (now damaged) globe in his left hand. According to an ancient stereotyped image, this is an archangel: the right wing is still visible, he wears a long tunic, a heavy, antique-style cloak, and has a crown of thick hair. The hem of his tunic is raised, suggesting a walking movement. The other small panel frames a figure whose face is as damaged as that of his neighbor. He is dressed antique-style with a tunic and a cloak thrown over his shoulder, and was probably heading leftward; he holds up an open book that he seems to be reading. According to biblical iconography, and because of the presence of the archangel, this reader could be a prophet, an apostle, or an evangelist; none of his visible attributes allows us to determine which.

Architecture

Coptic architecture was very sober in style, using (or re-using) inexpensive materials such as wood and sandstone blocks. The vast majority of buildings were of limited proportions, and the decoration consisted for the most part of carved elements which were either part of the structure or served to accentuate the articulation of the building. Embellishment was provided by columns, capitals, door and window frames, and friezes. Buildings give us invaluable information about the art of Coptic sculpture between the 5th and 8th centuries - an art which drew its inspiration from Hellenistic and Oriental models, with traces of pharaonic imagery. However, Coptic art succeeded in assimilating these various influences and treating them in its own way.

Bibliography

- Egyptes…l’Egyptien et le copte, Catalogue de l’exposition au musée Henri Prades de Lattes, Lattes, 1999, n° 130, p. 307-308

Technical description

  • Pillar said to be from Bawit

    Byzantine Period, AD 395-643

  • Limestone carved in flat relief and bas-relief, traces of polychromy

    H. 1.71 m; W. 23 cm

  • Gift of the Egyptian government, division of excavation finds

    E 16921

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Bawit room
    Room C

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