Coptic Votive lmage of Saint Peter

SKU LO.589

400 AD to 600 AD


13.25″ (33.7cm) high x 6.25″ (15.9cm) wide





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This piece may be one of the earliest recorded representations of St Peter, and as such is of global importance in both religious and art- historical terms. The figure is rendered in low relief on a wooden panel just over a foot high, and is framed by a raised border decorated with ivory trim and quadrangular motifs decorated with five dots each. The apex of the panel is decorated with a fretwork ivory arch, containing floral decoration, a pair of ornate Coptic crosses in circles, and a pair of fish facing one another. The figure is ‘standing’ on what is evidently intended to be a plinth, containing a small Coptic inscription written on an ivory panel, a pair of small Coptic crosses, and a pair of birds facing towards the centre. The iconography is unmistakably Christian, as the doves and the fish have strong biblical associations with Christ and Christianity. The figure itself is in wood, with head, hands and feet rendered in ivory. His accessories – a staff, a cross and a halo – are also made from ivory strips. As befits his status, he is dressed in a plain, long tunic that reaches to the feet, decorated frontally with 6 small crosses made from incised dots. The cuffs of each sleeve are also decorated with incised dots, and the texture of the fabric has been rendered in great detail with every fold and wrinkle in position. The head is made from a single block of ivory, showing a bearded face with hair cut to below the ears, a long, aquiline nose and a small mouth. The pose of the figure and the facial expression suggest stoic serenity.

The inscription has been independently translated, and rendered as follows: The reading seems to be “shay agape”. Since the word “shay” has at least 5 to 6 meanings, depending on the Coptic, it took some time to come to a conclusion and the translation I offer is to be taken with caution: “Festival of love”. Another version of the term “shay” is “gift”, so it might also be translated as “gift of love”.

Coptic icons and votive pieces are the result of fusion between Christian ideology and Hellenistic/Egyptian art styles of Late Antiquity. The most famous examples of this style are the Fayum mummy portraits, which are a combination of Greek and Roman techniques, bonded with aspects of Egyptian modeling as well as Egyptian funerary beliefs – as they are painted onto mummies. As Christianity took hold in the Eastern Mediterranean, Coptic style images were painted onto the walls of churches, as well as onto icons and devotional pieces. Comparatively little is known of early icon painters, as few signed their work and not much was written about them at the time.

The current piece is believed to represent St Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, who went on to become a leading figure of the Christian movement after Jesus’ death. Originally named Simon, he was born in Bethsaida and worked as a fisherman with his brother Andrew. He is credited with various miraculous achievements, including walking on water, and is intimately associated with Jesus’ latter days, denying him three times, and being the first to enter his tomb after the Resurrection. He was crucified upside- down in 64 or 67 AD (accounts vary) and was thus both a martyr and a saint. This is reflected in the fact that his eyes are rather large in proportion to the rest of his face (a characteristics of sainthood in Coptic icons) and that he also wears a serene expression (a marker of martyrs).

This is a remarkable survival, an important religious and historical item, and also a beautifully-executed and serene piece of ancient art.

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