Two early icons from Egypt in the Benaki Museum

Anastasia Drandaki


The two icons discussed in the article provide interesting evidence about the painting of icons in the provinces or borderlands of the Byzantine world in a period of momentous change for both the empire and the Eastern Mediterranean.  They belong to the Benaki Museum collection and come from Egypt. The fragmentary seventh-century icon of Christ with the Coptic votive inscription must have been intended as a votive offering and the emphasis on Christ Emmanuel probably proclaims the Miaphysite tendencies of the patron. Its encaustic technique and confirmed Egyptian provenance link it with a group of works of the seventh century preserved at St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai and once again raises the question of the provenance of those icons. The artistically modest yet iconographically surprising two-sided icon adds one more example to the small number of painted panels to have survived from the eighth and ninth centuries. The Greek inscriptions, the iconographic link with the Fieschi Morgan stavrotheke as well as its similarities with the reliquary-crosses that flooded Byzantium from the ninth century onwards bear witness to both the common origins of the Coptic art of Egypt under Arab rule and the art of Byzantium and some instances of parallel development. Nevertheless Coptic painting acquired a life of its own after the region broke away from the political sphere of Byzantium and this new independence gave Coptic painting greater flexibility in handling and adapting the iconography of the saints.


early icons; encaustic; Egypt; Byzantium; Coptic painting; miaphysite; Christ Emmanuel

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ISSN: 2623-3428 (digital), 2623-3436 (print)

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