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Work Square of fabric illustrating "Aphrodite's marriage"

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

Square of fabric illustrating "Aphrodite's marriage"

© Musée du Louvre/G. Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Author(s):
Lyon-Caen Christiane

This colorful, illustrated piece of fabric probably once adorned a tunic. Despite the schematic and awkward quality of the weaving, the theme of Aphrodite's marriage to the handsome hunter Adonis is recognizable. It is interesting to note that pagan traditions were still prevalent throughout Christian Egypt, as illustrated through the ironic eye of this weaver.

Popular images

Aphrodite is standing and twisting her hair in a minimalist landscape, represented by a spindly tree with two leaves and a feline in an odd pose. This gesture refers to the day of her birth, when she emerged dripping wet from the sea. She reveals her charms to a hunter leaning languidly on his spear. Aphrodite's famous girdle, described by Homer, has become merely a long straight scarf draped from her arm to her legs, passing inelegantly between her thighs, and then rising up to her right elbow. Her right hand is waving a flower meant to be a rose. The altar near the goddess, from which rises a simplified design of fire, symbolizes the altar of marriages. The spouse is most likely Adonis, son of Myrrha, who was transformed into a tree (the myrrh tree), in punishment for her involuntary incest. Adonis was a skilled hunter; he is armed with a spear and barely visible bow, and is accompanied by his dog. This Coptic image is interesting when compared to a 6th-century silver Byzantine prototype of this same scene.

Faith or fidelity?

Who wore such a pagan image three or four centuries after Christianity had taken hold? Who dared to show a scene from the love life of the goddess of Love and Fertility, when the early church patriarchs were so ferociously opposed to paganism?
The existence of such mystery cults as Dionysius, Isis and even Mithras at this late date is still uncertain, but we do know that there were sporadic pockets of pagan resistance throughout the entire Empire. The persistence of Aphrodite's cult of fertility does not seem very credible in a society wealthy enough to produce high-quality clothing and cultivated enough to know the ancient Greek myths.
These images were kept alive by the weight of tradition and the popularity of the adventures of the Greek gods, which were illustrated both in the decorative arts and in texts, notably the theater (an example being the Metamorphoses by Apuleius, inspired from Ovid's Metamorphoses). They may have been somewhat controversial, but no longer expressed their original meaning.

Bibliography

Catalogue de l'exposition "Antinoé cent'anni dopo", musée archéologique de Florence, Florence, 1998, n 216, pp. 184-185.

Technical description

  • Square of fabric illustrating "Aphrodite's marriage"

    Coptic-Arabic Period, 7th-8th century

    Antinoe (?), Egypt

  • Linen tapestry and wool

    H.: 16.5 cm; W.: 16 cm

  • Gift, division of excavation finds, 1903

    AF 5438, E 29090

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Gallery of Coptic art
    Room B

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