Early Christian Africa: Arts of Transformation

, University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums
  • Band with human figure in medallion, Egypt, 3rd–6th century. Wool and linen. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Denman W. Ross, 1924.110.

  • Lamp or Censer with Scenes from the Life of Christ

    Lamp or Censer with Scenes from the Life of Christ

  • Polycandelon

    Polycandelon

  • Twenty-six folios from a Coptic Manuscript with Arabic Titles

    Twenty-six folios from a Coptic Manuscript with Arabic Titles

  • Miniature Codex Containing

    Miniature Codex Containing "Oracles" in Sahidic

  • Lamp with Spies carrying Grapes

    Lamp with Spies carrying Grapes

  • Engaged Colonnette

    Engaged Colonnette

    Engaged colonnette with diagonal fluting punctuated at its center by a vine scroll and ivy scroll, each serving as a flute. Simple capital. Colonnette protrudes from a square pier, decorated on its left face by a vine scroll with florettes and foliage. Mate (?) to 1975.41.55, with direction of fluting reversed. Traces of plaster coating with paint remain.

  • Section of an Arch (one of two pieces)

    Section of an Arch (one of two pieces)

    Fragments 1975.41.58.A and B represent two adjoining parts of an arch. Elaborate acanthus scroll frieze, in high relief, with tendril-bordered medallions containing central fruit, flower, or vine leaf. Chevronesque vegetal pattern on lower border.

  • COPTO-ARABIC PANEL

    COPTO-ARABIC PANEL

  • Coptic Church Interior, Old Cairo

    Coptic Church Interior, Old Cairo

  • Prayer Roll in Amharic

    Prayer Roll in Amharic

  • Square with Two Human Figures

    Square with Two Human Figures

    Tapestry-woven square in brownish purple, yellowish (undyed?), and cream-colored wool wefts. At its center, is a purple square containing two stout yellow dancers each holding unidentified objects in both hands, perhaps the long scarves typical of dancers. A field of busy, abstract, unreadable motifs surrounds this inner square; details of this field’s design were created with supplementary wefts of cream wool. The borders at top and bottom of the square differ slightly from those at the right and left. Details of the borders are done in ‘flying shuttle’ technique of supplementary weft wrapping in a light colored thread. Supplementary weft wrapping, though in a thicker or plied thread, also creates the cream colored lines that run parallel to the warp direction. The warp runs perpendicular to the design of the dancers.

  • Band with Curling Vine

    Band with Curling Vine

    Band consists of a single scrolling purple vine of large five-lobed leaves on curling stems. There are areas of false hatching (in which a light and dark thread are carried together in the weft) inside the spaces created by the vine's curling tendrils. Narrow areas of plain woven linen survive on outer edges of the tapestry woven band.

  • Seated Musician

    Seated Musician

  • Pilaster Capital

    Pilaster Capital

    Engaged pilaster capital decorated in blocky relief. Central stylized chalice with monogram ΙΩΑΝΟΥ flanked by peacocks. The peacocks perch on acanthus leaves that also decorate the space behind their tails. Above the birds is a vine with several attached grape clusters and leaves.

  • Engaged Colonnette

    Engaged Colonnette

    Engaged colonnette with diagonal fluting punctuated at its center by a vine scroll and ivy scroll, each serving as a flute. Simple capital. Colonnette protrudes from a square pier, decorated on its left face by a vine scroll with florettes, grape clusters, and foliage. Mate (?) to 1975.41.55, with direction of fluting reversed. Traces of plaster coating with paint remain.

  • Small Head of a Horse with Bridle

    Small Head of a Horse with Bridle

    Head and upper neck of horse with mane pinched, trace of bridle or harness on both sides of mane just above break. Detailed bridle with straps extending along sides and top of muzzle marked by indented depressions. The deeply hollowed out eyes are outlined by raised circular ridge. The tip of the muzzle is flattened with ears projecting diagonally backward with tips broken off. Possibly part of a horse and rider statuette.

  • Figurine

    Figurine

  • Doll

    Doll

  • Knife Handle in Form of a Mouse

    Knife Handle in Form of a Mouse

  • BOWL

    BOWL

  • Architectural Frieze

    Architectural Frieze

    This freize is decorated with a scroll issuing from the mouth of a fish (dolphin?). Loops of the scroll are filled with cones encircled by acanthus leaves.

  • Band with Human Figure in Medallion

    Band with Human Figure in Medallion

    Tapestry woven band with design in dark blue wool on undyed linen. The design is vertically oriented and may have come from a clavi. A simple bust of a human figure, perhaps a beneficent personification, is presented in a thick medallion. The figure appears to wear a tunic with two clavi. Acanthus or grape leaves connected to a vine are visible above and below the medallion, suggesting that the pattern within the band is an inhabited vine scroll. The borders of the band are created out of thick zigzagging vines. The outer empty spaces along this vine sprout acanthus or grape leaves. The inner sides of the vine border are filled with triangles that resemble simplified serrated leaves. The designs running along these two thick vines are created in a slightly darker thread than the other areas of undyed yarn. Details of the human figure and the outer vine borders are executed in flying shuttle using undyed thread. These borders are very similar to those on 1924.117 and 1924.124, also gifts from Denman W. Ross.

  • Band with Stylized Animals

    Band with Stylized Animals

    This is a tapestry woven band, with the design executed in dark blue wool. The visible warps are yellow in color. The band contains seven circles of a regularized, twisting vine inhabited by a sequence of alternating animals. Perhaps they are lions or hares. Every other animal wears a ribbon round its neck. The borders of the band are created out of thick zigzagging vines. The outer empty spaces along this vine sprout acanthus or grape leaves. The inner sides of the vine border are filled diamond shapes. The designs running along these two thick vines are created in a slightly darker and yellower thread than the other areas of undyed yarn. Details of the animals and the outer vine borders are executed in flying shuttle using undyed thread.

  • Four Folios from a Coptic Manuscript

    Four Folios from a Coptic Manuscript

  • Section of an Architectural Frieze

    Section of an Architectural Frieze

    Section of an architectural frieze, decorated in relief with a diagonally rendered swastika maeander pattern alternatingly punctuated by either a vine leaf, or an elaborate knot. The slab is bordered along one edge by beaded lozenge, and on the other by a plain fillet.

  • Dome From a Censer

    Dome From a Censer

  • HALF- PYXIS

    HALF- PYXIS

  • Lamp with Cross-shaped Handle

    Lamp with Cross-shaped Handle

  • Statuette

    Statuette

  • Plaque with maenad or personification

    Plaque with maenad or personification

  • Band with Interlace

    Band with Interlace

    Interlace pattern created in flying shuttle technique on top of purple tapestry woven ground.

  • Square with Bird

    Square with Bird

    Red tapestry woven square. Red oval medallion at center contains a bird standing in profile, possibly a duck. An eight pointed star in contrasting buff wefts extends around the central medallion. Four of the star’s points extend to the edges of the square, the other four terminate in bursts of vine tendrils. Red circles likely representing jewels sit within the points of the star. A red scrolling wave border runs around all sides of the square. Supplementary weft wrapping in buff yarn creates the vertical lines in the wave border, the sides of the star, and inner border of the square. Areas of plain weave surround the tapestry square. Darning closes the slits on either side of the tapestry woven area.

  • Manuscript of Discourses on the Festivals of Saint Michael, with ninety-three paintings

    Manuscript of Discourses on the Festivals of Saint Michael, with ninety-three paintings

  • Three Folios from a Coptic Manuscript

    Three Folios from a Coptic Manuscript

  • Three Textile Bands (Clavi): Lotus Flowers and Leaves

    Three Textile Bands (Clavi): Lotus Flowers and Leaves

    Three bands with the same design, all likely from the same textile. Each band features a central buff strip with red eight petalled flowers alternating with a pair of round green leaves with bits of yellow. The red flowers with green circular leaves suggest the plants should be identified as lotuses. On either side of the central buff band are black bands with scrolling brown vines with buff leaves.

  • Pilgrim Flask with Scenes of St. Menas

    Pilgrim Flask with Scenes of St. Menas

    Both sides of this terracotta ampulla (pilgrim flask) are decorated with the same scene in relief: Saint Menas in prayer, flanked by two kneeling camels within a circular border of dots or studs. The saint stands frontally, arms held open; the long folds of his cloak are visible as vertical lines on either side of his body; there may be crosses depicted in the space on either side of his head. The body of the flask was created with a two-piece mold; the handles were made separately and attached before firing. The relief is worn and difficult to read; there is some discoloration on the vessel, particularly on the raised details.

  • Water Spout in the Form of the Head of an Ethiopian

    Water Spout in the Form of the Head of an Ethiopian

  • Carved Comb

    Carved Comb

  • Section of an Architectural Frieze

    Section of an Architectural Frieze

    Section of an architectural frieze decorated in relief. Highly stylized continuous acanthus scroll with beaded, vine-like stem sends forth shoots terminating in grape clusters or vine leaves and forming loops. Within the loops are baskets filled with fruit or birds picking at fruit or foliage. A narrow, undecorated fillet borders both top and bottom edge of the block.

  • Carved Comb

    Carved Comb

  • COPTO-ARABIC PANEL

    COPTO-ARABIC PANEL

  • Column

    Column

  • Lamp or Censer with Scenes from the Life of Christ
  • Polycandelon
  • Twenty-six folios from a Coptic Manuscript with Arabic Titles
  • Miniature Codex Containing
  • Lamp with Spies carrying Grapes
  • Engaged Colonnette
  • Section of an Arch (one of two pieces)
  • COPTO-ARABIC PANEL
  • Coptic Church Interior, Old Cairo
  • Prayer Roll in Amharic
  • Square with Two Human Figures
  • Band with Curling Vine
  • Seated Musician
  • Pilaster Capital
  • Engaged Colonnette
  • Small Head of a Horse with Bridle
  • Figurine
  • Doll
  • Knife Handle in Form of a Mouse
  • BOWL
  • Architectural Frieze
  • Band with Human Figure in Medallion
  • Band with Stylized Animals
  • Four Folios from a Coptic Manuscript
  • Section of an Architectural Frieze
  • Dome From a Censer
  • HALF- PYXIS
  • Lamp with Cross-shaped Handle
  • Statuette
  • Plaque with maenad or personification
  • Band with Interlace
  • Square with Bird
  • Manuscript of Discourses on the Festivals of Saint Michael, with ninety-three paintings
  • Three Folios from a Coptic Manuscript
  • Three Textile Bands (Clavi): Lotus Flowers and Leaves
  • Pilgrim Flask with Scenes of St. Menas
  • Water Spout in the Form of the Head of an Ethiopian
  • Carved Comb
  • Section of an Architectural Frieze
  • Carved Comb
  • COPTO-ARABIC PANEL
  • Column
University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

Christianity has important early roots in the Nile Valley and Ethiopia. Related arts often embody core local African values—an aesthetics that privileges moral value and simplicity over opulence, wealth, or power. This is an art of the people: limestone not marble, wool and linen rather than silk, bone instead of ivory, terracotta, wood, and copper in place of gold.

Transformation, a unifying theme in early Christian art, connects with the life of Jesus and the life-changing impact of religious conversion. Grapes become wine for communion and feast days. Flowers become perfumes for long-distance trade, personal use, and religious sanctification. Birds, with their lyrical songs and an ability to transcend space, call to mind angels and the Holy Spirit. Lamps offer light in darkened church interiors but also suggest the transformation-rich life story of Christ. In these arts, iconography such as the pharaonic lotus and the Greco-Roman acanthus leaf symbolize, respectively, rebirth and longevity, while the columns of early temples evoke the support, solidarity, and strength provided by religion.

The world’s earliest and most complete illustrated Christian book was written sometime between about 330 and 650 CE by an Ethiopian healer. Later Ethiopian scrolls often served a healing function. A small sixth-century book written in Egypt’s leading Coptic dialect, Sahidic, features “oracles” (prophecy). Several Egyptian folio sheets from the 13th through the 17th century include later notes in Arabic, reflecting a religious transformation underway. An image-rich Ethiopian book from the 16th to the 17th century discusses the festival of St. Michael, recalling this saint’s transformation and his role as human-celestial interceptor: a healer and miracle worker who both comforted martyrs and replenished empty stores of flour, fish, and wine. These manuscripts, like the diverse figural arts, also address the transformational nature of African religious practice; they take up themes of healing, festivals, prayer, learning, and pilgrimage, as in a pilgrim’s flask depicting the third- to fourth-century Egyptian miracle-working saint, Menas.

This installation’s related course is taught by Suzanne Preston Blier, Allen Whitehill Clowes Chair of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University.

The University Teaching Gallery serves faculty and students affiliated with Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. Semester-long installations are mounted here in conjunction with undergraduate and graduate courses, supporting instruction in the critical analysis of art and making unique selections from the museums’ collections available to all visitors.

This installation is made possible in part by funding from the Gurel Student Exhibition Fund and the José Soriano Fund.