The expression “Coptic Art” practically deﬁnes artistic production in Egypt from the ﬁrst centuries of our time until the end of the Ottoman Empire. This time period can be recognized in three distinct phases: the ﬁrst extends from the Emperor Augustus to that of Constantine, who in 313 liberated the Christian religion; the second corresponds to when Christianity was most widespread in Egypt and lasts until the country’s Islamic conquest in 640 A.D.; the third takes place during this Islamic rule until its termination in 1798, marking the conclusion of the Ottoman domination.
Even if during the ﬁrst phase, Coptic Art found expression within artistic sectors not directly connected to the ﬁeld of Christian religion (i.e. wood relief, ivory, bronze works, painted ceramics), at the onset of the Islamic age it became practically synonymous with Christian Egyptian Art. In this age the Copts – a term now identifying solely the country’s Christian inhabitants – give life to a unique form of artistic production. This type of creative work, primarily cultivated in monastic communities, primarily found expression in the world of icons and textile art.
The textile is, in fact, among the best known artistic expressions relating to this cultural context. The pieces that have made their way to us are fragments of used clothing, commonly used liturgical garments, and, for example, tunics typical in men’s and women’s clothing. Other elements in this genre of art are found among the walls of religious buildings or sepulchral monuments, tablecloths, carpets, or curtains. The massive fabric production was favorable thanks to environmental conditions perfect for fostering the cultivation of flaxseed for linen, as well as by the high demand for such imports from centers of trade such as Rome or other imperial zones. Often textiles were used as money, as a method of exchange to bring other merchant goods into Egypt. It should not be forgotten that from the fourth century, the Christianization of the region was increasingly generated proportional to textile production: mummification practices had disappeared, and bodies were wrapped in simple bandages which essentially gave way to the custom of using ordinary clothing for burial.
A certain number of Coptic garments were conserved thanks to this practice of burying the dead in their own clothes. The dry Egyptian climate contributed to their well-preserved state. The clothes were generally in linen or wool, and the colors that were used included red, blue, yellow, green, purple, black and brown. Dyes were obtained from plants and natural elements such as rubia, indigo, Jerusalem woad, saffron, Tyrian dye from the murex shell, and from an insect known as carmine. Since the 17th century, Coptic cloths were transported to Europe because of grand curiosity expressive of an exotic and mysterious world, arousing the interest of collectors that throughout even the 19th century sought to claim by unconventional excavations, often cutting pieces to “fit” their various commissions.
The Vatican tunic was a discovery from the necropolis of Akhmim in Upper Egypt, the Greek Panopolis, towards the end of the 19th century. It was on display in 1898 in the Exposition of Sacred Art in Turin by the Missionary Fathers of Upper Egypt who subsequently donated it, along with other wearable art hailing from the same place, to the Sacred Museum.
Along with other works in the Vatican Museums, it is also reconstructed from various pieces. It presents an amply large area to be patched, approximately rectangular in form in the upper area found by the neck between the shoulder areas, along with several other intermediate attempts that were performed in an effort to fix the garment. The sleeves appear separate from the rest of the tunic and then re-sewn.
The decorative motif consists of the following elements: two red and green clavi, or elongated embellishments, which descend down the shoulders and back, terminating at a small green leaf; two yellow circles with a red dot on top and below (front and back of garment); two green heart-shaped leaves on the shoulders and at knee-height (front and back); wide stripes on the sleeves in green, red, and white. The tunic played a leading role in Egypt Coptic clothing design for both men, women, and children alike, generally woven in linen (even if the tunics during the later period were also in wool). Men’s tunics generally arrived to the length of the knee, while women’s went all the way to the foot. This fabric garment was normally woven in one piece, wherein the weaving pattern began on the frame at the end of one sleeve, expanded at the body – with the foresight to leave an opening for the neck – and then narrowed again at the second sleeve. The tunics for children were characterized by very narrow sleeves, and were typically long-sleeved as opposed to short. They added significantly to the figurative design repertoire also because they were generally brightly colored or included animal figures. Decorations were incorporated into the design for the purposes of compliance with Roman style in antiquity. The shorter Coptic tunics were richly bedecked by adding flair along the neck and edges. They actually appear as inserts, or additions to the tunic, called orbiculi (circular or oval form) or tabulae (square), which were woven or applied at shoulder to knee height. Decorating the Coptic tunics, unique in its time of fabric production of the age, created a type of language, which expressed the social position of the outfitted person.
Along with geometric motifs (i.e. stars, interlocking hexagons, circles) and natural vegetation (i.e. flowers, lotus buds, leaves and intertwining branches, often symbolizing abundant fertility), there were also more traditional and ancient motifs. These included animal decorations (especially birds, leopards, lions, fish, and the human figure), often classically inspired. With the liberation of the Catholic religion, Coptic tunics began to be decorated also with Christian symbols including crosses, images of saints, and scenes from the Bible.