The Tapestry Weaving of the Coptics
Looking at fragments of tapestries online is frustrating at best. Anyone who loves fibers knows that there is nothing like seeing fiber art (whatever that entails) in person. Being able to touch it is even better. And being able to see the back, invaluable. Because I cannot see the many Coptic textile fragments in person (and there are many that have survived even from the very beginnings of the Coptic culture, way back in the first century A.D.) it took me quite some time to unravel the first mystery: why did it seem like so many of the tapestry fragments were attached to a linen even weave background? I would like to say I solved this mystery on my own, but in fact, I found the answer in a textile text book. I have discovered that sometimes the most comprehensive explanations for the origin and structure of textiles comes from textbooks. They talk about all the geeky details from whether the yarns are S or Z spun, how many plies, what kind of weave, etc. Answers that are not commonly found in history books.
Before I launch into a description of the Coptic period, I want to explain the nature of the above tapestry fragments, the likes of which are ubiquitous. The linen background is clothing, often in the form of a tunic. Linen was typically not dyed because it is really difficult to dye. Wool and silk, on the other hand, are easy to dye. Silk, which was initially both difficult to come by and too expensive became available during the 6th century when two monks who lived in China for a long time secretly brought silkworms to start the first sericulture in Europe. Fleece from sheep and goats and eventually silk was used to make the actual tapestries. To dye wool and silk requires some form of acid (an orange will do), something to provide the color (anything from madder root to moss) and some heat. This is how the whole thing worked. The linen for the garmet was woven in even weave (an equal number of warps and wefts). The tapestry insert was woven in wool using double strands of linen warp hence making a weft-faced weaving. Tapestries were also woven as stand alone pieces and most likely were woven on a linen warp using some linen weft where a natural color could be used. But any color would have come from the wool.
Tapestry served the highest religious purposes and were used in the most prestigious robes reflecting both piety and wealth.
Coptic art refers to the art produced once the Christians took control. The “Coptic period” is refers to late Antiquity in Egypt. This period saw a shift to Coptic Christianity from Roman religion and lasted until the Muslim conquest of Egypt. an era defined by the religious shifts in Egyptian culture to Coptic Christianity from Roman religion until the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Iit was greatly influenced by the cultures that came before such as the Greco-Romans, the Islamic nation and the Pharonic period . The influence of the past is very much apparent in the earlier Coptic tapestries. However, the Coptics introduced somack knotting to tapestry, breaking away from simple tabby weave. Coptic art blended and evolved over many centuries. It was not static. It was the art of change not dissimilar to the concepts of the resurrection.
This above tapestry fragment dates back to the Late Greco-Roman period. Designs were Hellenistic and pagan and geometric designs were also popular. The object is a (probably noble) woman with Roman female hair style and garments. The artistic technique is a rather similar to the mosaics found in the ruins of Pompeii. Use of graduating shadows add to the realism of the tapestry.
Textiles are the best known products of Coptic art. And since there was no distinction between art and crafts, textiles would have been considered their highest for of art.
There was a little blip in the Coptic history during the years 618 to 628 when the Sassanid Persia temporarily possessed Egypt. This influence of the Persian culture in the Coptic tapestries lead to the importation os such patterns as roundels in which animals were inscribed.
Egypt was conquered by the Arabs during the Islamic reign of the second Caliph Umar in 639 and almost continually ruled with the exception of 1799 when it was occupied by Napoleon’s French army. Egypt has been under the strong, consistent influence of Islam for more than eleven centuries and rang in the end of the Coptic period and Coptic art. The tapestry industry was hugely impacted by the Quran and Sharia Law. And although our discussion of the Coptic period in Egypt ends here you can still see the influence of the local Coptic traditions .