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Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum OasisEssays from the 2004 International Symposium of the Saint Mark Foundation and the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society in Honor of Martin Krause$

Gawdat Gabra

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9789774248924

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774248924.001.0001

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Christian Funerary Stelae from the Fayoum

Christian Funerary Stelae from the Fayoum

Chapter:
(p.257) 22 Christian Funerary Stelae from the Fayoum
Source:
Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum Oasis
Author(s):

Gawdat Gabra

Publisher:
American University in Cairo Press
DOI:10.5743/cairo/9789774248924.003.0022

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the Christian funerary stelae or tombstones excavated at the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt. Various regional conditions influenced the development of Christian funerary stelae in Egypt and they fall within the larger category of so-called Coptic art influenced at first by Greco-Roman funerary decorations. The decorative programs of the stelae from burial grounds in the Fayoum were varied, but generally fall into three types. These are the mother-with-child stelae, the aedicula type or orans type, and the stelae with elaborate crosses.

Keywords:   funerary stelae, Christian tombstones, Fayoum Oasis, Egypt, Coptic art, funerary decorations, aedicula

“ … die Mehrzahl aller Oranten sind dagegen Symbole der in der Seligkeit gedachten Seele, also Idealfiguren des Gott dankenden und für die Zurückgelassenen bittenden Verstorbenen.” (Kaufmann 1922: 272)

IN EGYPT THERE ARE many Christian tombstones extant, including some unique pieces from the Fayoum.1 A few of these are from excavations such as the ones at the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel at Naqlun or Haraga near the Lahun pyramid (Łajtar1994; Engelbach and Gunn 1923; Godlewski 2001: 152). Others were not found in situ but rather were bought from dealers in various places like Cairo and Luxor (and also in the Fayoum in the first decades of the twentieth century) with doubtful information about their real provenance. They then made their way to museums and private collections all over the world.2

Nevertheless, in the Fayoum as in the rest of Egypt, many decorated and inscribed Christian stelae have been lost. Whether damaged by natural circumstances or reused in construction outside the cemeteries, we can assume that stelae are few in number nowadays.

Various regional conditions influenced the development of Christian funerary stelae in Egypt. They fall within the larger category of so called Coptic art influenced at first by Greco-Roman funerary decorations, and in areas like the Fayoum, workshops with mixed populations produced elaborate stelae of a Hellenistic type. Economic factors permitted a prosperous (p.258) community to have cemeteries with more elaborate stelae. As a rule, monastic communities preferred unpretentious tombstones, while the poor were not able to identify their graves at all—they may perhaps have used small stone slabs or small wooden tablets like the earlier mummy labels. Funerary stelae with decorative motifs like orants (praying figures) and crosses and formulaic inscriptions reminded relatives and visitors to commemorate the deceased named therein.

The decorative programs of the stelae from burial grounds in the Fayoum were varied, but generally fall into three types: first, the so-called “mother-with-child” stelae, which were usually without any inscription.3 Reliefs representing the Virgin Mary upon a throne with the infant Christ upon her knees are different in style and not usually used for funerary purposes.4 More common were the second type of funerary stelae, the aedicula type, or orans type, usually showing a female person standing in front of an imitation of the richly decorated façade of a building, framed with designs of birds and vegetation.5 We know of only a few examples with a male person or a child.6 In a few cases two persons portrayed as orants could be a male and/or a female person, but here the names of the deceased were given by the added commemorative inscriptions.7 The third type of stelae, the most characteristic, have elaborate crosses of various types. The cross in the center was the main motive, within an aedicula and with a triangular pediment at the top; but rounded tops also occur.8

Cross-shaped tombstones also occur, although we know only a few pieces of this type.9 They are in different museums and were all bought from antiquities dealers. Nevertheless, it seems that these similar tombstones are probably all from the same area.

Simple rectangular stone slabs, undecorated or with only a cross, are few. These pieces can bear inscriptions in Greek or in Coptic. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, possesses such a stela reputedly from Hawara (SS 43). The stela is similar in form and inscription to another one in the Coptic Museum (CM 9652). The Coptic texts are cut at the top of a very simple cross in both cases. It therefore seems possible that both stelae are from Hawara.10 A similar stone slab without any decoration but with a fine carved Greek inscription comes from the cemetery area in Haraga (Abousir) and was excavated in the 1920s.11

Fayoum funerary stelae are made from limestone from different quarries that differs in quality. The work of the craftsmen likewise ranged from poor to high quality, but the stelae with the richly ornamented crosses (p.259) came from workshops with excellent artists. These pieces show the creative labor of craftsmen who were able to copy single elements and rearrange them into a new composition, so that the shells, the crosses, or the floral patterns often show a different style. The aedicula-type Fayoumic stelae are distinguished according to the representation in the main part.

In some examples the mother-and-child or the orant are placed under a gable. These stelae usually have no architrave but there are also a few that do. In these cases the name of the deceased is often written on the architrave.12 Otherwise, a tabula ansata—often centered in the middle of the stela—bears the name of the deceased person.13 There are many examples showing the consistency of this type, perhaps they were all manufactured in one workshop. In stelae with an open triangular gable, a shell fills the triangle. Rectangular stelae with triangular upper parts are decorated with volutes in different styles. The volutes often turn toward the center and in some cases fill the acroteria of the stelae, together with birds like doves.14

The representation of the female orant standing in front of the aedicula is always the same. Her hands are raised in a praying position, she wears a foot-length belted tunic, a long shawl, and a veil, which covers her hair. The hair is visible but the neck is covered.15 Male orants wear tunics of a different style.16 In one case a stela may depict a boy wearing a child's tunic.17

The stelae with special crosses as their main motive are usually rectangular stone slabs, but a rounded top is also possible. There are stelae with a decorated zone in the lower part, which bears the representation of an aedicula. The rectangular bases, often on pedestals, are simply cut, and the columns bear schematic leaf capitals. The leaf capitals bear architraves in different styles. The perfect work of craftsmen in the Fayoum area gives the cross-type stelae a character which we can say is distinctively Fayoumic. The crosses were carved with wide crossbars filled with circles and other geometrical patterns. Overlapping the middle of the cross is a smaller cross. The gores are filled with floral motives like plants or leaves.18

A cross-centered-aedicula stela from Naqlun is well known from the publication by the Duke of Saxony, Johann Georg 1930: 18–20, fig. 43 ). During his visit to the Fayoum in the 1920s he photographed this piece, but now it is missing (Lajtar 1994). During its excavations at Naqlun in the late 1990s the Polish team unearthed the cross-centered funerary stela of a person called Damianos (Godlewski 2001: 152) that is stylistically (p.260) very similar to the missing Naqlun stela. Its Greek inscription, which likewise surrounds the cross, has the same formulaic structure.

The overlapping crosses presented in the Fayoum stelae are unique and contrast with stelae from other regions in Egypt.19 The cross as a symbol of Christ is the most important part of the design. The Greek cross with four equal arms can be seen in the examples with the orants. The cross-centered-aedicula stelae are embellished with different patterns. The wide crossbars with equal, straight, or hooked transverse ends (as in the Maltese cross) increase the effect of the ornaments. Dots or pearl-shaped elements, representing gems and precious stones, decorate the crossbars.20 The backgrounds are filled with ornate designs. The crosses stand on a small platform, but sometimes there are steps.

A cross-shaped stela now in the British Museum produces a particular impression. The central motive of a small cross within a circle keeps the wide arms of the stelae. The small symbols between the bars are fish.21

The Fayoum stelae show a variety of bows, architraves, and vegetal elements. Those with laurel leaves are unique, allowing a stela to be classified as from the Fayoum, whether on orant stelae or cross stelae. Animal representations are also found, with doves and fish used as symbols of Christianity. The shell as main motive in the gable stands for the rebirth of the soul, and is typical for Christian stelae in Egypt.22

On rectangular slabs as well as on those with broken pediments a garland decorated with ribbons (corona civica) surrounds a cross, which can be different in style. The inscriptions on these slabs are usually in Greek.23 A hole was necessary to fit a stela in front of the niche of a vaulted grave, but these holes were often cut in a quite unprofessional way. This can be seen in stelae where the cross in the aedicula is damaged.24 One stela in the Allard Pierson Museum is an exception: its mounting-hole is square, without any scratches. This might mean that the stela had not yet been used in a cemetery, or the hole was cut but not used. The cross in this stela is without any decoration but the mason's guide marks are still visible (van der Vliet forthcoming).

Unfortunately, none of the limestone stelae—neither those with orants nor those with crosses—can be dated accurately. A stela found in Damanhur in the northern Delta, with a decoration of overlapping crosses, is dated year 409 of the Diocletian era. This corresponds to the year a.d. 693 and bears such a strong stylistic relationship to the Fayoum stelae that we may date the cross-centered-aedicula-type stelae with overlapping-cross (p.261) motives to the second half of the seventh century.25 Stelae with a short Coptic inscription in the Fayoumic dialect below the decorated zone, like the example from the Allard Pierson Museum, may be dated between the end of the sixth to the beginning of the seventh century.26 Stylistic criteria also suggest that the pieces with crosses surrounded by a formulaic inscription in Greek or Coptic, but different in style, like the Naqlun stelae or the unique piece in Berlin, may be dated from the middle of the seventh to the eighth century. The undecorated rectangular slab with a Greek inscription excavated in Haraga probably dated from the seventh century.27

The formulaic inscriptions in the Fayoumic Christian tombstones were usually in Greek—and we can assume that those with inscriptions in Coptic became common not before the end of the sixth to the beginning of the seventh century. Even after this time, however, both languages were still in use for tombstones. Also from this time, the formulae were more commonly liturgically inspired.

This inspiration can be found in funerary inscriptions on wooden crosses. Anne Boud‘hors and Florence Calament have done important research on these distinctively Fayoumic cross-shaped wooden stelae with Coptic inscriptions bearing the formula “God of the spirits and Lord of all flesh.” Perhaps from the area of Tuton or al-Hamuli, they were erected in the second quarter of the tenth century—thus they belong to the late funerary inscriptions in Coptic in Egypt. These wooden Fayoumic pieces are unique, because wood was an unusual material for cemeteries. There are a few similar crosses from the Luxor area, but these pieces are made from stone (Riad 1968: 294, no. 24; Schaten b 2004).

The inscription on a cross in the Louvre (E 25091) includes the name of a deacon Pantoleos, as well as his father's name, his occupation as a mason, his origin in the town of Tuton is given, the day, month, and year of his death (13 Mechir = 7 February 925) (Boud‘hors and Calament 2004: 455–459). Two cross-shaped stelae in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MMA 10.176.39 and MMA 10.176.38) have similar, but more fragmentary, inscriptions. The first one was erected for three deceased persons, N, Ta (?), and John, who died in the years 934, 940, and 954 respectively. The second bears the end of a commemoration for the deceased Philahmou (Boud‘hors and Calament 2004: 459–461).

The formulaic funerary inscriptions included one or more of the following parts: an invocation (on some stelae there is more than one); the (p.262) name of the deceased (and sometimes the father's name), and the deceased's occupation and origin. Use of the word “to die” is avoided and replaced with phrases like “to go to one's rest,” or “to lay down the body.” The date of death was named with the day and month—indicated by an indiction year, the fifteen-year cycles for administrative purposes, and sometimes also the Diocletian year (counted from the year A.D. 284). The indiction year was the main method of fiscal reckoning from the reign of Licinius (A.D. 312) on, and its presence, which is the most common, makes assignation of a fixed date impossible. Prayers were common in the commemorative texts at the end.

It is not possible here to mention all stelae and funerary inscriptions from the Fayoum region. Recently published research (Boud‘hors and Calament 2004; van der Vliet 2002/2003) suggest that these funerary elements need more interest than before.28

Notes

(1.) I would like to thank A. Boud‘hors, S.J. Clackson , and J. van der Vliet for the information they have shared with me about the Fayoum stelae.

In the following notes, inventory numbers have been abbreviated thus: Greek-Roman Museum, Alexandria—GRM; Allard Pierson-Museum, Amsterdam—APM; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin—SMB-PK; British Museum, London—BM; Coptic Museum, Cairo—CM; Ermitage, St. Petersburg—Ermitage; Louvre, Paris—Louvre; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York—MMA; Pushkin Museum, Moscow—Pushkin.

For the classification of Christian stelae, see Zuntz 1932; see also the Greek Christian inscriptions from the Fayoum in Lefebvre 1907; Mallon 1914; Munier 1923 and 1930; Krause a 1991; Wietheger 1992; Hasitzka 1993; Thomas 2000; Boud‘hors and Calament 2004.

(2.) Christian stelae both with and without Greek and Coptic inscriptions are gathered together in Crum 1902, reprinted 1975; Hall 1905; Wulff 1909; Koefoed-Petersen 1948; Cramer 1949; Kamel 1987; Brunsch 1994; Ägypten 1996 (= cat. Hamm); Ľart Copte 2000 (= cat. Paris); Boud‘hors and Calament 2004 (the list on pp. 462–467 includes stelae with inscriptions in Coptic); van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146.

(3.) For example CM 8003: cat. Paris, 128, fig. 106. Similar but with a faded inscription SMB-PK 4726: cat. Hamm, no. 61.

(4.) Effenberger 1975, pl. 44, 45; see also pl. 32 and cat. Hamm, no. 61. This is a ‘mother-with-child’ stela and not a relief representing the Virgin and Child (Maria lactans), as supposed in the past.

(5.) For example CM 8004, Pushkin 5835: cat. Paris, no. 101, 102: SMB-PK 4723: cat. Hamm, no. 64.

(6.) Ermitage 11110: unpublished. SMB-PK 4477: cat. Hamm, no. 67.

(7.) For example Louvre E 21147: cat. Paris, no. 23.

(p.263) (8.) For example, a stela from Dayr Sinnuris in the Fayoum with an inscription in the rounded top and cross below (cf. van der Vliet 2002/2003, 137–146), and the similar SMB-PK 1/66 with a shell above and a Coptic inscription on the crossbars (cf. cat. Hamm, no. 70).

(9.) CM 7845, CM 7789, CM 9638, CM 9646 and BM 1757 (cf. Schaten b 1999: 131, n. 23, 24; Boud‘hors and Calament2004: 462, no. 1, fig. 7).

(10.) Crum (1939, reprinted 1979: 349a) mentions that Coptic stela SS. 43 is to be published in a corpus of stelae from the Fitzwilliam Museum (personal communication with Clackson, September 2000). See also Clackson's contribution to Martin 2005. CM 9652 seems unpublished.

(11.) BM 1649; cf. Engelbach and Gunn 1923: 33, nos. 102, 103.

(12.) Cf. the well-known stela of Rhodia: SMB-PK 9666: cat. Hamm, no. 66.

(13.) SMB-PK 4479: cf. cat. Hamm, no. 65. Here the Greek inscription begins in the architrave and gable, and ends in the tabula ansata.

(14.) The stela of Theodora (SMB-PK 4723 = cat. Hamm, no. 64) shows these elements and also an untypical tabula ansata above the gable near the border.

(15.) See the different styles in: CM 8004: cat. Paris, no. 101; Pushkin 5835: cat. Paris, no. 102 and SMB-PK 9666: cat. Hamm, no. 66.

(16.) Louvre E 21147: cat. Paris, no. 23; Ermitage 11110 unpublished.

(17.) SMB-PK 4477: cat. Hamm, no. 67.

(18.) Stela in Dayr Sinnuris, Fayoum (van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146).

(19.) CGC, 126, no. 8599 = CM 8729; CGC, 126, no. 8598 = CM 8628; GRM A 11954, cf. Brunsch 1994: 29; SMB-PK 4728: cat. Hamm, no. 81; Stela in Dayr Sinnuris, Fayoum (van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146).

(20.) Cf. cat. Hamm, nos. 69 and 71.

(21.) BM 1757: Badawy 1978: 215, 220–221, no. 3.217. Cf. Boud‘hors and Calament 2004: 462, no. 1, fig. 7.

(22.) Cf. cat. Hamm, no. 64.

(23.) With Greek inscription see CGCopt, 50, no. 55, cat. Hamm, no. 71; Schaten 2004a.

(24.) APM 7804; Kopten 1998: 11, fig. 22; van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146; Johann Georg 1930: 18–20, fig. 43.

(25.) CGC, 126, no. 8599 = CM 8729 with Greek inscription.

(26.) For further details about the Fayoumic dialect and its chief variants see Kasser 1991.

(27.) BM 1649: cf. Engelbach and Gunn 1923: 33, nos. 102, 103.

(28.) I am grateful to Jacques van der Vliet, who has informed me about more unpublished stelae in a private collection. (p.264)

Notes:

(1.) I would like to thank A. Boud‘hors, S.J. Clackson , and J. van der Vliet for the information they have shared with me about the Fayoum stelae.

In the following notes, inventory numbers have been abbreviated thus: Greek-Roman Museum, Alexandria—GRM; Allard Pierson-Museum, Amsterdam—APM; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin—SMB-PK; British Museum, London—BM; Coptic Museum, Cairo—CM; Ermitage, St. Petersburg—Ermitage; Louvre, Paris—Louvre; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York—MMA; Pushkin Museum, Moscow—Pushkin.

For the classification of Christian stelae, see Zuntz 1932; see also the Greek Christian inscriptions from the Fayoum in Lefebvre 1907; Mallon 1914; Munier 1923 and 1930; Krause a 1991; Wietheger 1992; Hasitzka 1993; Thomas 2000; Boud‘hors and Calament 2004.

(2.) Christian stelae both with and without Greek and Coptic inscriptions are gathered together in Crum 1902, reprinted 1975; Hall 1905; Wulff 1909; Koefoed-Petersen 1948; Cramer 1949; Kamel 1987; Brunsch 1994; Ägypten 1996 (= cat. Hamm); Ľart Copte 2000 (= cat. Paris); Boud‘hors and Calament 2004 (the list on pp. 462–467 includes stelae with inscriptions in Coptic); van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146.

(3.) For example CM 8003: cat. Paris, 128, fig. 106. Similar but with a faded inscription SMB-PK 4726: cat. Hamm, no. 61.

(4.) Effenberger 1975, pl. 44, 45; see also pl. 32 and cat. Hamm, no. 61. This is a ‘mother-with-child’ stela and not a relief representing the Virgin and Child (Maria lactans), as supposed in the past.

(5.) For example CM 8004, Pushkin 5835: cat. Paris, no. 101, 102: SMB-PK 4723: cat. Hamm, no. 64.

(6.) Ermitage 11110: unpublished. SMB-PK 4477: cat. Hamm, no. 67.

(7.) For example Louvre E 21147: cat. Paris, no. 23.

(p.263) (8.) For example, a stela from Dayr Sinnuris in the Fayoum with an inscription in the rounded top and cross below (cf. van der Vliet 2002/2003, 137–146), and the similar SMB-PK 1/66 with a shell above and a Coptic inscription on the crossbars (cf. cat. Hamm, no. 70).

(9.) CM 7845, CM 7789, CM 9638, CM 9646 and BM 1757 (cf. Schaten b 1999: 131, n. 23, 24; Boud‘hors and Calament2004: 462, no. 1, fig. 7).

(10.) Crum (1939, reprinted 1979: 349a) mentions that Coptic stela SS. 43 is to be published in a corpus of stelae from the Fitzwilliam Museum (personal communication with Clackson, September 2000). See also Clackson's contribution to Martin 2005. CM 9652 seems unpublished.

(11.) BM 1649; cf. Engelbach and Gunn 1923: 33, nos. 102, 103.

(12.) Cf. the well-known stela of Rhodia: SMB-PK 9666: cat. Hamm, no. 66.

(13.) SMB-PK 4479: cf. cat. Hamm, no. 65. Here the Greek inscription begins in the architrave and gable, and ends in the tabula ansata.

(14.) The stela of Theodora (SMB-PK 4723 = cat. Hamm, no. 64) shows these elements and also an untypical tabula ansata above the gable near the border.

(15.) See the different styles in: CM 8004: cat. Paris, no. 101; Pushkin 5835: cat. Paris, no. 102 and SMB-PK 9666: cat. Hamm, no. 66.

(16.) Louvre E 21147: cat. Paris, no. 23; Ermitage 11110 unpublished.

(17.) SMB-PK 4477: cat. Hamm, no. 67.

(18.) Stela in Dayr Sinnuris, Fayoum (van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146).

(19.) CGC, 126, no. 8599 = CM 8729; CGC, 126, no. 8598 = CM 8628; GRM A 11954, cf. Brunsch 1994: 29; SMB-PK 4728: cat. Hamm, no. 81; Stela in Dayr Sinnuris, Fayoum (van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146).

(20.) Cf. cat. Hamm, nos. 69 and 71.

(21.) BM 1757: Badawy 1978: 215, 220–221, no. 3.217. Cf. Boud‘hors and Calament 2004: 462, no. 1, fig. 7.

(22.) Cf. cat. Hamm, no. 64.

(23.) With Greek inscription see CGCopt, 50, no. 55, cat. Hamm, no. 71; Schaten 2004a.

(24.) APM 7804; Kopten 1998: 11, fig. 22; van der Vliet 2002/2003: 137–146; Johann Georg 1930: 18–20, fig. 43.

(25.) CGC, 126, no. 8599 = CM 8729 with Greek inscription.

(26.) For further details about the Fayoumic dialect and its chief variants see Kasser 1991.

(27.) BM 1649: cf. Engelbach and Gunn 1923: 33, nos. 102, 103.

(28.) I am grateful to Jacques van der Vliet, who has informed me about more unpublished stelae in a private collection. (p.264)