Coptic Art and Architecture, the artworks generally associated with the Copts, or Egyptian Christians, dating from about the 3rd to the 12th century, but by no means entirely Christian in content or application. Coptic art drew inspiration from many sources: the forms and motifs of ancient Egyptclassical and Hellenisticand Near Eastern art; and contemporary life in the Nile Valley. Although Coptic art is generally associated with Christianity, many of its motifs are distinctly non-Christian, such as Dionysiac scenes, bucolic compositions inspired by classical poetry, and groups of nereids and maenads frequently represented on textiles. In sculpture and relief, the figure of Aphrodite appears often. Until recently archaeologists were not concerned with Coptic material; the date and provenance of much of Coptic art is therefore difficult to determine. Most of the art is usually dated to the 5th through the 7th centuries and, as far as can be established, the primary artistic centers were at Ihnsiyat al Madnah in the Al Fayym, Antino in Middle Egypt, or Akhmm in Upper Egypt. Among the few works that can be assigned to a specific time and place are the great frescoes from the monasteries of Apa Jeremias at aqqrah (in Lower Egypt) and Apa Apollo at Bawit (in Middle Egypt), both of which date to the latter half of the 5th century. Whether in two or three dimensions, Coptic art is characterized by less than elegant renditions of the human figure, in sharp contrast to the conventions of ancient Egyptian art: huge, staring eyes; long, attenuated torsos; and, most of all, a marked frontality. Textiles, sculpture and relief in both stone and wood, and frescoes are the most common forms of Coptic art, although metalwork, glass, ceramics, ivories, and manuscript illuminations are also important categories. After the Arab conquests (641-643), Coptic art became less common, although it still persisted for several centuries.
The chief remains of Coptic architecture are monasteries and churches, scattered throughout the country, built of unbaked brick on the basilica plan inherited from the Greco-Roman world. They usually have heavy walls and columns (of which the architraves are the most common of all Coptic architectural remains), often with vaulted roofs, and end in a tripartite apse. Such churches were left plain outside, to escape attention in a Muslim country and, after a destructive Persian invasion in the 7th century, were heavily fortified. Inside, however, the churches are richly decorated with murals and relief carving.
Coptic sculpture was usually reserved for tombstones or for church decoration. It consists chiefly of deeply carved, boldly painted reliefs in stucco or limestone on walls and capitals. Meanders, scrolls, acanthus leaves, vines, animals, and figures from classical mythology show classical, Hellenistic, Near Eastern, and Byzantine influences, but were rendered in a stiff, frontal, linear manner. Decorative carvings in wood and ivory were also sculpted, and crosses were fashioned of stone, wood, and especially metal.