BMCR 2002.02.28

Late antique Egyptian funerary sculpture: images for this world and the next

, Late antique Egyptian funerary sculpture : images for this world and for the next. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. xxv, 163 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0691034680. $55.00.

“Style has long been at the crux of interpretive problems, in large part because we expect it to symbolize…one kind of culture, one that is ethnically pure or, at the least, hegemonized. Late antique Egypt does not present such a scenario…but a truly densely woven fabric of multiculturalism, which our limited, polarized terminology does not reflect at all in its richness.” (p. 45)

In the book, based on her doctoral dissertation, Thelma Thomas presents us with a nuanced view of Late Antique Egyptian funerary sculpture reflecting contemporary awareness that many societies, ancient as well as modern, are ethnically mixed and syncretic in culture. The result is an impressive re-reading of the art and its cultural matrix that makes her work fundamental for the field: not only the field of Late Antique sculpture in Egypt, but also that of Late Antique and Early Christian culture, and even of the funerary arts of the Middle Ages. At the same time, many chapters provide an excellent introduction for students and non-specialists to Late Antiquity, its Egyptian sculpture, and the ways in which individuals chose to commemorate themselves. In gracefully written, tightly condensed, 83 pages of text, Thomas covers traditional approaches to Late Antique Egypt, literally redraws the map for the area, characterizes the communities that commissioned the sculptures, describes styles and artistic techniques, and interprets funerary imagery for Egyptian polytheists and Christians of the first through fifth centuries. The major drawback of the book is presumably not the author’s doing: not one color image accompanies this study of the technique and affective impact of painted sculpture!

To begin, Thomas demonstrates the incongruity of the old view of Late Antique Egypt, culturally isolated from the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and sharply divided into a Hellenized ruling class and a downtrodden indigenous populace that embraced Christianity as a nationalistic act. In the writing of art history, this segregation was supposed to be manifest in an Egyptian Christian, or Coptic, style, less naturalistic than contemporary Hellenistic art. In fact, Egyptian culture of the period was bilingual and syncretic in its approach to the funerary arts as well as to many other elements in life.1 Thomas centers the historiographic problem around “Leda Christiana”, the idea that the image of Leda copulating with Zeus as a swan was believed to have a Christian moralizing sense when used on funerary reliefs assumed to be Christian only because of their style. Such decontextualized images, most no longer in situ, lent themselves to the “misdirected stylistic analysis, creative iconology, and imagined lust” of scholars, their interpretations often more informative of modern notions of the chronologically distant and exotic Other than of the historical facts and archeological remains. A mis-restoration neatly characterizes the extent to which the myth of “a Coptic obsession for nudity” could lead to distortion: the swan’s head on a funerary relief from Oxyrhynchus now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (1970.403, figs. 7, 8, and dust jacket), was repositioned and transformed from his original gesture of nipping at Leda’s veil to pull it away from her body, into the more randy action of nuzzling her buttocks. Such misconceptions created by earlier historians may startle us now, but they still permeate teaching and writing about “peripheral” areas such as North Africa or the Iberian Peninsula, and they must be shaken off—as Thomas has done for Egypt.

To provide the needed correction, Thomas provides a survey of funerary sculpture in Late Antique Egypt that acknowledges its heterogeneous society and also the meager state of our archeological records. While traditional maps of the region, such as those by Wessel, divide Greek and Coptic Egyptians by listing the same sites on different maps by different names, Thomas provides a new map integrating important Late Antique cemeteries into a single landscape (pp. 33-34, figs. 1, 2, 10). The sites vary, some monastic and others urban. Stone sculpture does not appear at poorer, more isolated sites, hence was probably an option available to the affluent but not required by funerary theology. Several forms are identified: stelae, cenotaphs, and other engraved or painted inscriptions, as well as decorated niches. Stone sarcophagi are not found in Egypt at this time but are atypical in Late Antiquity as in Syria, Armenia, and Nubia.

Valuable evidence for the configuration of these funerary monuments is provided by the tomb-mounds at Terenouthis, intact on discovery. Whitewashed apses, with the white as ground for painted motifs, contained a centrally placed offering table extended to the far front of the mound, while a rectangular limestone stela representing the deceased was set in a deep niche. An inscription in the Tomb of Isidora at Hermopolis West explains the function of the niche: the space created a grotto-like sanctuary in which funerary rituals took place. The epigram describes the young deceased girl as an abductee now deified and to whom offerings will be made. This corresponds to the architectural tradition of the niche as the place where a deity or dignitary appears, a tradition recorded by Vitruvius and maintained by Christianity. The active interchange between living and dead occurred in part through inscriptions calling upon the living to pray for the dead who would, in turn, protect the living.

Sculptural styles vary in depth of relief, activity, and in the mix of Egyptian with Greco-Roman details according to region and period, but, in Thomas’ view, not according to religion. This certainly corresponds to the experience at other locales, such as Rome, where style alone does not indicate whether a catacomb painting was executed for a Christian or a polytheist. As with Rome, it is only after the Edict of Milan in the fourth century that an independent, affirmatively Christian system of imagery can be identified. Interestingly, it is also at this time that a Hellenistic mythological repertory with references to the civic life of the deceased also develops in Egypt.

Thomas’ survey of materials, tools, and techniques will delight curators and historians of material culture as much as artists. The most commonly used material was limestone or sandstone, usually local, carved in relief, plastered and painted. The polychromed sculptures were set into a structure of brick and stone also plastered and painted. Changes in carving techniques are linked with changes in painting. The earliest stelae of the second through fourth centuries bear patterned reliefs with colors emphasizing the patterns’ shapes. During the fifth and sixth centuries paint is used to outline, or make more prominent, large shapes, or to add detail. The combinations of pigments employed to achieve subtle tonal variations were complex and specialized, with wall paint formulated differently than sculptural paint. Modern means of viewing, with photography or fixed light rather than flickering candles or torches, do not allow us to experience the vibrancy of the painted surfaces as they were intended to be seen. Alas, the reader will have to imagine even the photographed effect, due to the absence of color plates.

Egyptian polytheists and Christians shared belief in a continued existence after death in a paradisal region, and in heavenly spheres. For both groups the dead inhabited their tombs; for the polytheists, they could inhabit their images just as the gods could. The spirit after death was also capable of returning in the form of an astral or chthonic deity. These beliefs account for the structure and decoration of the tomb, a visualization of life beyond death. The funerary niche and the “tabernacle” stelae, with polychromed figures in relief that seem to coalesce from the shadowy space behind them, provided the illusion that the deceased was present and active.2 To that end, the sculptures employed not only high relief to convey physicality but also asymmetrical compositions to suggest movement. The heroized dead, now apotheosized, participated in the regeneration of life in their new forms. One striking example is a niche relief of Daphne parting the leaves of a laurel tree to look below, not only suggestive of the nymph’s transformation but also of her emergence from the tree to care for the deceased (fig. 52).

Portrait stelae represented the dead and their role in life but were not individualized in the modern sense; they were idealized types. Conventions of eikonismos, codified and formulaic description, were employed to identify the individual’s place in society; indeed, this is a mode that continues long into the Middle Ages. The literary equivalent in Roman biographies drew upon the characteristics of mythological figures to characterize people. In this way, a child who died at the age of three was identified by his name, an image of the divine infant Harpocrates, and an inscription specifying his age at death (p. 60 and fig. 18). One type of Heracles with a thick neck and small head could be used for professional athletes, while a slender beardless type could represent ephebes. Apollo suggested intellectual activity, married life, or both (p. 61). While men were more often commemorated for their physical prowess or intellect, women were commemorated in relation to their sexuality and fertility. Goddesses or nymphs represented women at different stages in life: newborn Aphrodite on a shell is prepubescent; Aphrodite with a marriage necklace is more mature; Daphne is a young woman not married; and so on. Leda, married before her abduction by Zeus, represents sexually active married women with children (p. 68). The Eros who assists Zeus in some scenes with Leda would, in this sense, be understood as a regenerative force. In most cases, the deceased is heroized, recast in mythological form.

Christians favored a different repertory for eikonismos, drawing upon descriptions of holy figures in the Scriptures, also associated with various categories of persons. A parallel exists with the different lections for these same categories in the funerary liturgy: adult men and women married or unmarried, clerics of varying ranks, children, and so on (p. 70-71). Again, one can identify this enduring principle in the literary composition of saints’ lives, with comparisons to Moses, Abraham, and other biblical figures. Unlike the direct use of mythological figures by polytheists, only suggestions of the traits of sacred figures were employed by Christians. For example, women with children resemble compositions of the enthroned Virgin and Child. Monks may be given the attributes of monastic saints, the primary distinction being whether or not the figure has a halo. Widowed but wealthy women past childbearing age who had worked within the church were often portrayed well-dressed, with mantles like those of deacons, an acknowledgement of the sacerdotal quality of their work. Despite this typology based on social category, Thomas finds no references to sexual union or to marriage in any of the Christian subjects (p. 77).

Christian niche decorations without portraits usually show the deceased’s desired place in heavenly paradise and identify the person with inscriptions on stelae. According to Thomas, it is possible that the absence of a portrait may have been a means to distinguish Christian from polytheist. Favored decorative devices included the Cross held by Christ or angels, or carried by eagles, flanked by birds or other animals, framed by vegetation, or symbolized by the Tree of Life. Many of these motifs were also used by polytheists, but when used by Christians, a specifically Christian sense can always be found.

Thomas concludes that while there is no distinctively Christian style in Late Antique Egyptian funerary sculpture, there is an assertively Christian iconography beginning in the fourth century. This certainly brings Egypt into line with what is now known about Early Christian art in general.3 Thomas has laid the groundwork for future studies in this area, and has done so with great authority.

That being said, I would like to ask questions that came to mind while reading the book, perhaps topics worthy of further study or for which there is no answer. Why were stone sarcophagi seemingly absent at just this time in Egypt and neighboring regions? Are there any monuments that are identifiably Jewish? And were early Christians unlikely to use Hellenistic mythological motifs in the funerary setting? Thomas is cautious and conservative on this point, suggesting that they might have in one place (p. 38), and that they probably did not in another (p. 69). Her hesitation seems motivated by what she perceives to be the absence of references to sexual union or marriage in identifiably Christian funerary decoration. Yet it seems more likely they did than not, given the material presented. Thomas indicates the possibility that adherents of various religions might have identified themselves on their monuments by their secular roles within the Hellenistic familial or civic institutions by which they lived (p. 38). In a note, she comments on the possibility of using several ethnically diverse names for different aspects of daily life (n. 22, p. 107).

Perhaps early Christians were less ambivalent, or less rejecting, of the body and sexuality than patristic authors and some modern scholars would lead us to believe; the Church Fathers were, after all, promoting a particular point of view.4 The Church had to recognize the necessity for marriage and procreation, even if only to preserve itself. Some evidence suggests that, at least for a time, Christians felt free to draw upon their Hellenistic heritage to express sexuality in the literary and visual arts. Thomas cites a sixth-century wedding hymn, composed in honor of a Christian: “Bridegroom, bend your mind to love; Zeus himself in heaven, because of Europa’s beauty, is known to have become a bull; for love of Leda, he was esteemed a swan….go to bed with your Leda….You will not have to wait long until you see your dear children on your lap….”5 In the same vein, the marriage casket now in the British Museum of the fourth-century Roman Christian couple, Projecta and Secundus, sets a composition of Venus on a shell, Tritons, Nereids, and putti on the lid above the image of the bride preparing for her marriage. Only the inscribed exhortation to lead a Christian life tells us that this object was for Christian use. How many objects without such inscriptions were used by Christians? If Christians felt free to celebrate a passage in life this way, might they not also have been able to do so when confronting death?


1. See the entry “Copts” by Thomas in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar, eds. (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 395-396.

2. The persistence of this concept, that the deceased appears resurrected from a niche, in western European culture, is exemplified by the image of Lazarus raised in the wall painting at Sant’ Angelo in Formis (see Otto Demus, Romanesque Mural Painting, New York, Abrams, 1970, p. 23). Here Lazarus, wrapped in funeral linens and with a face reminiscent of painted Coptic funerary portraits, emerges from his standing sarcophagus in response to Jesus’ call.

3. In the words of Ernst Kitzinger, “The new creed was not a primary cause of the [stylistic] change,” Early Medieval Art [1940] (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 16.

4. See Peter Brown, “Enjoying the Saints in Late Antiquity” originally presented at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in 1999, published in Early Medieval Europe (2001) and soon to be reprinted in Decorations for the Holy Dead: Visual Embellishments on Tombs and Shrines of Saints, Stephen Lamia and Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo, eds. International Medieval Research, Art History, vol. 8 (Turnhout, Brepols, in press), pp. 3-17.

5. Dioscurus’ Epithalamium for Matthew, cited on p. 69 and note 47, p. 127.