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

  • Gospel of the Lots of Mary

    Gospel of the Lots of Mary

    A miniature codex that contains 37 oracles, entitled The Gospel of the Lots of Mary according to its incipit. These oracles would be chosen via lot divination so as to provide the petitioner with a response to a question. In the case of this particular text, it is unclear exactly how the oracular number was determined. Fragments of this text and others quite similar to it have also been found at the shrine of St. Colluthus at Antinoe, the shrine of St. Philoxenus at Oxyrhynchus, and the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit. Scholars (Luijendijk and Klingshirn 2019) suggest that the oraclemonger likely offered oracular responses to those seeking help during pilgrimages or festivals. The text reads: [Incipit] The Gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the archangel brought the good news. He who will go forward with his whole heart will obtain what he seeks. Only do not be of two minds. [1] O human, with their tongues they love you greatly, but their heart is far from you. And you know what happened to you before today, that you almost lost your life. In any case they certainly lie in wait for you. [2] Be happy, rejoice, be glad and glorify God for what has happened to you. Because it was only a little while ago that you were far from home, then you suffered loss and were in disgrace and danger. But God took pity on you. [3] Behold, you have been saved, do not turn to commit sin, so that even worse matters do not happen to you. Do you not remember what has happened to you before today? And God saved you from everything. Do not return to this matter. [4] It is you alone who brings upon yourself a great, difficult burden. This matter that you want to do, its time has not yet come. Endure a little longer and you will see the confidence in God that will reach you. [5] They will trust you in this matter. Be brave and endure, for the time is hastening for you. Do not be distressed nor despair nor grieve, because you have a strong hope through God. [6] The Lord God has heard your request and he will send his angel and he will walk before you. And you will see the confidence in God that will reach you. Only do not become careless, saying “this thing will not happen.” Yes, it will happen. [7] You know, O human, that you did your utmost again. You did not gain anything but loss, dispute, and war. But if you are a little patient, the matter will prosper through the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. [8] Fight for yourself in what has happened to you, because it is a human evil. Your enemies are not far from you. They have plotted against you again due to the evil that is in their hearts. But trust in God and walk in his commandments forever. [9] Get up and go immediately. Do not delay. For this is the moment that God appointed for you. They have simply accused you to the point of death, but be patient just a little. [10] The peace of God will be with you and you will be saved from the affliction that has come upon you. Fulfill what you promised, because God does not tempt anyone. It is you alone who are disobedient. [11] If you decide to do this thing, do it. Do not be careless, because God established this. It is you alone who turns back. No – there is no evil that will reach you. Trust in God and do not be of two minds. [12] Do not let go of the faith in your heart. You have God as a helper. He will guide you on the path on which you will go. At all events, do not doubt because nothing is impossible for God. [13] So, do not think about strength, O human. You will not be victorious now. You will endure great suffering because the difficult time has not yet passed you by. Do not trust the words of vain people. [14] They will trust you and you will be victorious in this matter. Strengthen your heart. This matter is from God. Fear not. As for you, in every thing that you do, God is with you. [15] O human, bear everything and give thanks with a thought to God, because it is God’s hand that was upon you. Do not doubt in your heart nor walk in the counsels of vain people. [16] Remember that you were close to death another time in the affliction that has come upon you, because you were in your former affairs, while your enemies counseled you and you thought they loved you. You will understand my words. Turn away from these people. [17] The peace of God will be with you in all your days. And you will rejoice and a large harvest will be yours this year. And you will rejoice in the worlds of your hands, because the angel of the Lord will walk before you. [18] It is the king of heaven and earth and the God of all flesh who fights for you all. He will make you conquer your enemies, for God has received your request about all difficulties that you endured. They are a concern for God. [19] This is a victory from God. But be patient and endure until the time comes and you receive the hope of your salvation. The crown is ready for you, but they oppose you. Do not be led astray by people. [20] A little longer and you will receive the fulfillment of your life. For the Lord is your mediator. Endure, and you will receive the hope of your salvation, because the power of God is greater than that of humans. And they will marvel at you. [21] Behold, the difficult time passed for you. Behold, the hour of rest has come upon you. Simply be brave. You will see the confidence in God that will reach you. And he will send the angel of peace and will guide you and give you rest. [22] Just as another time, they beguile you. Do not let them finish robbing you, so that you die violently on account of your disobedience, because you were careless. [23] I marvel at you, O human, since it is not in your power. You will be afflicted. Your hope left you another time. Without the fear of God, you would not be saved from the wrath that has come upon you. [24] Stop being of two minds, O human, whether this thing will happen or not. Yes – it will happen! Be brave and do not be of two minds, because it will remain with you a long time and you will receive joy and happiness. [25] Go – make your vows. And what you promised, fulfill it immediately. Do not be of two minds, because God is merciful. It is he who will bring about your request for you and do away with the affliction in your heart. [26] Get up and help yourself, because the hour of necessity has come. Why are you sitting down? They will summon you without your knowledge. Do not think that you will avoid the danger that is upon you. But go and pray to God immediately. [27] Trust in the help of the Most High, and call upon his name with your whole heart. And he will send his good angel and will lead you. Do not fear those who will kill your bodies without having more than this to do to you all. [28] Be brave in every thing, because your concern is over nothing. The Lord will help you with his right hand. He will send Michael, his angel, and will help you. And you will conquer those who fight with you, and he will humble your enemies before you. [29] Go away quickly! Do not stop to reflect “What have I done? These things have caught up to me.” But be patient for a little while until God solves the matter. Only believe in God with all your heart, and you will see what will happen in the end. [30] No evil will reach you in this affair, nor sorrow nor harm, because the Lord Jesus fights on your behalf. You will find joy and be happy even in your short lifespan. Trust in God and do not be of two minds. [31] Walk and go immediately! Do not delay. Because it is God who fights for you. He will cause your enemies to be subject to you. If you are patient for a little while, you will receive the hope of your salvation and will be at rest. [32] Look! Hurry because the time has come, your heart will be happy. Go forward because the matter is appointed for you by God. He will prepare for you a good path, and you will be saved from the affliction that has come upon you. [33] Do not follow your heart’s desire nor pursue fulfillment. Do not trust the words of people, because you did everything in your power another time without being able to secure the matter. But it is you alone who turns back. [34] Go forward immediately! This is a thing from God. Look! You know that for many days you are suffering greatly. But it is of no concern to you, because you have come to the haven of victory. [35] You will not be able to believe them, nor will you be able to have confidence in their speech. These people are deceivers and traitors. Turn away from them, because they beguiled you another time with other people. [36] O human, look! What did you do? Examine yourself alone. For truly, a great transgression is in you. It isn’t in your power to oppose the hand of God, is it? But go and glorify God. [37] This is the day that God has prepared that peace and joy be in it. Because Christ Jesus will give you a good harvest and a prosperous life.

  • 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.

  • Plaque with vine and dot motif

    Plaque with vine and dot motif

    Convex decorative bone plaque with vegetal and dot motifs in low relief. Tendrils of grapevines (with grapes) curl up the sides, while stems intertwine in the center, culiminating in buds. Above is a line of dots in a chevron. The back of the plaque is slightly concave according to the natural hollowing of the bone. Two holes are pierced in the center, that would have affixed this plaque to the furnishings (box, furniture, or architecture) that it decorated.

  • Coptic Church Interior, Old Cairo

    Coptic Church Interior, Old Cairo

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Figurine

    Figurine

  • Doll

    Doll

  • Knife Handle in Form of a Mouse

    Knife Handle in Form of a Mouse

  • BOWL

    BOWL

  • Seated Musician

    Seated Musician

  • 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

  • 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 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

  • Lamp with Cross-shaped Handle

    Lamp with Cross-shaped Handle

  • Statuette

    Statuette

  • Plaque with maenad or personification

    Plaque with maenad or personification

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Plaque with vine motif

    Plaque with vine motif

    Decorative bone plaque, with curling grape vine motif (including leaves and grapes) carved in low relief. This plaque would have decorated a furnishing (boxes, furniture, or architecture).

  • Column

    Column

    A decorative plaque in the form of a column with spiral fluting. It likely decorated furnishings, like a box or furniture.

  • Water Spout in the form of the head of a Black African

    Water Spout in the form of the head of a Black African

  • Lamp or Censer with Scenes from the Life of Christ
  • Polycandelon
  • Twenty-six folios from a Coptic Manuscript with Arabic Titles
  • Gospel of the Lots of Mary
  • Lamp with Spies carrying Grapes
  • Engaged Colonnette
  • Section of an Arch (one of two pieces)
  • Plaque with vine and dot motif
  • Coptic Church Interior, Old Cairo
  • Small Head of a Horse with Bridle
  • Prayer Roll in Amharic
  • Square with Two Human Figures
  • Band with Curling Vine
  • Pilaster Capital
  • Engaged Colonnette
  • Figurine
  • Doll
  • Knife Handle in Form of a Mouse
  • BOWL
  • Seated Musician
  • 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
  • Architectural Frieze
  • 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
  • Lamp with Cross-shaped Handle
  • Statuette
  • Plaque with maenad or personification
  • Pilgrim Flask with Scenes of St. Menas
  • Three Textile Bands (Clavi): Lotus Flowers and Leaves
  • Carved Comb
  • Section of an Architectural Frieze
  • Carved Comb
  • Plaque with vine motif
  • Column
  • Water Spout in the form of the head of a Black African
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.