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Work Jar with portrait

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

Jarre au portrait

© Musée du Louvre/G. Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Christiane Lyon-Caen

This large biconical storage jar was no doubt half-buried, with only the upper part showing. The typically Coptic decoration shows a couple of lions attacking a gazelle (or an onager), with fish, birds, and a female bust among berry-bearing plants.

A luxury storage jar

This large biconical vessel with its low wide neck and four small added handles typifies Coptic design and manufacture of storage jars. The lower halves of these vessels were simply coated with slip before being concealed in a storehouse floor or in stands made of wood or stone. Only the upper halves were visible, decorated with varying degrees of skill and care.
On this jar, a frieze features lions, birds, fish, and horse-like creatures surrounded by plants with black berries. A frame surrounds a female bust and a fish, which is standing on its tail like a leaping carp, apparently holding its belly in with the effort. Was this fish added to compensate for an off-center portrait, or was it the protagonist of a long-lost story?

Coptic fashion

The large black eyes in this simple portrait seem to gaze at the spectator (perhaps the customer). The woman's tunic is adorned with decorative motifs, and she has a shawl with crescent-shaped motifs around her shoulders. Her wealth is suggested by her jewelry: three neck rings, a diadem, and two large ribbed ball earrings with pendants, which are attached to her hair. Earrings of this kind were familiar items of Byzantine jewelry, but it is most unusual to see them attached this way. Was this a Coptic fashion, a liberal interpretation of the crown with pearl pendants represented in many imperial portraits, or was it simply the potter's choice? Coptic textiles often featured male or female busts as portraits or allegories of virtues, months, or seasons. This legacy from the Hellenistic and Roman world, often used in mosaic designs, continued long after the Arab conquest.
A frieze completes the decoration, with a couple of lions fighting over an onager or a gazelle. A flat "bolti" fish (a familiar feature of Coptic ceramics) is watching two ring-necked birds pecking at a berry-laden stem. Two other gazelle-like creatures gallop in front of them, and two more bolti fish are peacefully swimming.

Storage jars

A multitude of jars for protecting and preserving food have been found at every excavation site, but this one is exceptional in quality. The wide mouths of these large recipients made it easy to reach inside them. Their surface was usually given a protective coating, and sometimes the upper half was decorated with simple sketches drawn from a repertory of geometric or animal forms.
The jars often had two small symmetrical handles (not four, as is the case here), and lids in the form of plates or upturned dishes, which were probably secured to the handles.


C. Neyret, Les Céramiques coptes du musée du Louvre, Mémoire de l'Ecole du Louvre, 1966, n 161
C.Neyret, Panorama et évolution de la céramique copte d'après la collection du musée du Louvre, 1968, BAEO ano IV, Madrid, p. 153
C.Lyon-Caen, Catalogue de l'exposition "Au fil du Nil, couleurs de l'Egypte chrétienne", Nantes, oct. 2001-janv. 2002, n 55, p. 85
P.du Bourguet, L'Art copte, Paris, Ecole du Louvre, 1967, pp. 156-157
P. Ballet, "Céramic, Coptic", in Coptic encyclopédia, New York, Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991, t. 2, p. 486
C.Lyon-Caen, "La Vaisselle de céramique à la section copte du musée du Louvre", in Etudes coptes VI, Cahiers de la bibliothèque copte 11, Paris, p.53
Ch. Cannuyer, L'Egypte copte. Les chrétiens du Nil, Paris, Gallimard, "Découvertes", 2000, p. 58

Technical description

  • Jarre au portrait

    VIIe - VIIIe siècle après J.-C.

  • terre cuite

    H. 50 cm; max. W. 35 cm

  • E 10993, X 5527

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Bawit room
    Vitrine 1

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