On this heavily damaged stone, Christ sits enthroned under an arch, extending his right hand toward twelve baskets. Saint Mark the Evangelist (6:33–44) wrote that from a meager five loaves and two fish, Christ was able to feed a crowd of five thousand people—with twelve baskets of food left over, as here. In this depiction, angels stand to Christ’s left and right; beyond them, apostles or saints carry books in their left hand and gesture with their right as if speaking or preaching.
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Title:Fragment of a Frieze with the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes
Geography:Said to be from Egypt, Bawit
Dimensions:H. 9 5/8 in. (24.5 cm) W. 39 38 in. (100 cm) D. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm) W. 112 lb. (50.8 kg)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1910
Three Architectural Elements probably from Bawit: MMA 14.7.5, 10.175.77, and 10.176.21
All three sculptures are representative of the highly developed art of the monastery at Bawit and of its environs during the period of Byzantine dominance in Egypt.
Of the ten column capitals unearthed in 1902–3, during the official excavations, nine came from churches. One group derives from the classical Corinthian type, another is made up of Byzantine basket capitals, while the third comprises atypical examples. This diversity of styles supports the possibility of a provenance from Bawait of the Metropolitan Museum’s capital, no. 14.7.5, which belongs to the first group. Its double crown of acanthus leaves is carved in low relief, in a dry, decorative manner like that on fifth- and sixth-century Coptic columns. Unusually, the contour of the upper crown is doubled by a festoon of foliate loops. The caulicoles above it exhibit concave profiles, and a small motif is repeated between the spirals. This treatment is very close to an example at the Coptic Museum, Cairo (JE 35818), as is the decorated abacus with sculpted buds. The carved marks on top of the capital were probably made when it was set in place. Some forty of these marks were observed during the first excavations at Bawit. Others were found on wooden elements from there that are preserved today in the Musée du Louvre.
The fragment of a shaft, no. 10.175.77, was part of a door jamb. Similar pieces stood at the entrances to the naves of two churches in Bawit and the church of the Monastery of Saint Jeremiah in Saqqara. The half-cylinder faced front, the undecorated side was against the wall, and the flat carved side faced the passage. Based on this articulation, it is easy to imaginatively reconstitute symmetrical jambs topped by two capitals bearing a lintel. Comparable monolithic jambs incorporate bases, which this shaft does not – it would have sat either directly on a threshold or on a separate base. The decorated areas are bordered by framing bands and reflect their architectural orientation. The shaft, like the sculptures found in the churches at Bawit, was painted. The geometric and plant motifs were carved very precisely in sunk relief.
Adorning the side is a vertical palm frond with very regular leaves, while the engaged column is divided into three parts, each with a different carved decoration. Here again, comparisons with the jambs at Bawait and Saqqara show that there were once two registers of the same height, separated by a band.
This decorative arrangement appears also on the column represented on the relief (no. 10.176.21). It belongs to an archway, beneath which the enthroned Christ stretches his arm over twelve baskets filled with round objects. The pile almost completely conceals an angel, whose companion, on his right, is shown full length. At either end of the panel are two figures clad in the antique style, each holding a book; they are probably the Evangelists. All four Gospels relate that, after the miracle of the multiplication of the bread loaves and fishes, twelve baskets were filled with the leftovers ( Matthew 14:20, Mark 6:43, Luke 9:17, and John 6:13). The subject appears in Alexandria’s Karmouz catacombs, the site of some of the oldest Christian paintings in Egypt, where the twelve baskets are arranged on either side of Christ. At Bawit, a column in the North Church alludes to the episode in its depiction of twelve baskets filled to overflowing below jugs of wine. Although this beverage is not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the miracle, its appearance within the church and its association with bread clearly relate it to the Eucharist.
The relief’s original placement, however, remains unknown. Belonging to a rare type in the repertory of sculptures in Bawit, which are seldom historiated, it resembles two reliefs that were purchased in the vicinity and that are generally attributed to Bawit. The latter display the same elongated horizontal format framed by a band and relate lively biblical episodes from the books of David and Daniel. On the relief of the multiplication of the loaves, the miracle and its result are condensed into a single masterful composition. The action – the performance of the miracle – is counterbalanced by the figures’ static poses, while the symmetry focuses the gaze on Christ’s majesty. The mutilation of the faces, parts of the bodies, and the baskets is all the more deplorable, given the quality of the work. This phenomenon, often encountered at Bawit, is probably to be ascribed to the Muslim iconoclasm. In the nineteenth century, however, the descendants of these iconoclasts would incorporate sculpted fragments from the monastery into their mosques without erasing the cross.
Dominique Bénazeth in [Evans and Ratliff 2012]
1. Coptic Museum, Cairo (7180 [JE 35818]); Musée du Louvre, Paris (E 16962, E 16909, E 16910).
2. Musée du Louvre, Paris (E 16963, E 16964, E 16965).
3. Coptic Museum, Cairo (7179 [JE 35819]); Musée du Louvre, Paris (E 27656); an example in situ (on the pavement of the North Church).
4. I would like to thank Jean-François de Lapérouse, Conservator, Department of Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for calling my attention to these marks.
5. The jambs of the south door of the South Church are preserved at the Coptic Museum, Cairo (7105 [JE 35821]). Those of the north door are in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (E 17055). Another set has been recently found in the north wall of Church D in Bawit.; see Midant-Reynes, Béatrix and Sylvie Denoix. "Travaux de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 2009–2010". Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 110 (2010), p. 372, fig. 43. An example photographed in situ at the Monastery of Saint Jeremiah is reproduced in Friedman, Florence D. Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to the 7th Centuries A.D. Exh. cat. Providence, R.I., 1989, p. 62, fig. 10.
6. McKenzie, Judith . The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, c. 300 B.C. to A.D. 700. New Haven, 2007, p. 239, fig. 404 a,b; Rutschowscaya, Marie-Hélène. Le Christ et l’abbé Ména. Paris, 1998, pp. 40–47, fig. 40. Known only from a watercolor rendering, the work is generally dated to the third century, but the figure of Christ, which is in the Byzantine style, may have been repainted at a later date.
7. The painting is damaged and located in an inaccessible area. The baskets have the same shape as those on the relief and are painted brown to imitate basketwork.
8. Purchased by the Service des Antiquités in Dashlout (?) in 1905. Coptic Museum, Cairo (7125 [JE 37797]), (7139 [JE 37803]); Torp, Hjalmar. "Two Sixth-Century Coptic Stone Reliefs with Old Testament Scenes". Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia 2 (1965), pp. 105–19; Bénazeth, Dominique. "Un monastère disperse: Les antiquités de Baouit conserves dans les musées d’Égypte." Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 97 (1997), p. 45, n. 19, p. 56, n. 76. According to Jean Clédat. Le monastère et la nècropole de Baouît. Edited by Dominique Bénazeth and Marie-Hélène Rutschowscaya. MIFAO, vol. 144. Cairo, 1999, (p. 362, n. 149), they came not from Bawit but from the nearby, unexplored monastery in Dalga.
9. Bénazeth, Dominique . "Les sculptures de Baouit réemployées au XIXe siècle." In Études coptes VI: Huitième journée d’études, Colmar, 29 -31 mai 1997, edited by Anne Boud’hors, p. 61. Paris and Louvain, 2000.
[ Michael Casira, Cairo, until 1910; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition," March 14–July 8, 2012, no. 51C.
Paderborn. Diözesanmuseum Paderborn. "CARITAS. The Virtue of Charity from the Early Christians to the Present," July 23, 2015–December 13, 2015.
Goetz, Walter. Ravenna. Leipzig, Germany: E. A. Seemann, 1901. p. 37, fig 26; p. 46, figs. 35–36; p. 63, figs. 52–53; p. 70, fig. 62; p. 80, fig. 77 (procession of martyrs); p. 49, fig. 39 (angels each side of enthroned Christ).
Venturi, Adolfo. Storia dell' Arte Italiana. Vol. 1. Milan, 1901. pp. 335, 210, ill. figs. 309, 197.
Strzygowski, Josef. "Mschatta II." Jahrbuch der Preuszichen Kunstsammlungen 25 (1904). pp. 267–68, ill. figs. 44–45 (b/w).
Lowrie, Walter. Monuments of the Early Church. New York: MacMillan, 1906. pp. 214, 223, 324, ill. 71, 75, 95, 138.
Torp, Hjalmar. "La date de la fondation du monastere d'Apa Apollo de Baouit et de son abandon." Melanges d'Archeologie et d'Historie vol. 77 (1965). pp. 153–77.
Torp, Hjalmar. "Two sixth-century stone reliefs with Old Testament Scenes." Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia vol. II (1965). pp. 105–19, ill. pls. I–VIII.
Torp, Hjalmar. "Byzance et la sculpture copte du Vie siecle a Bawit et Sakkara." Synthraon et Archeologie de la fin de l'Antiquite et du Moyen Age, Bibliotheques des Cahiers Archeologiques II, (1968). pp. 11–27.
Evans, Helen C., and Brandie Ratliff, ed. Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. no. 51C, p. 83, ill. (color).
Stiegemann, Christoph, ed. CARITAS: Nächstenliebe von den frühen Christen bis zur Gegenwart. Paderborn: Diözesanmuseum Paderborn, 2015.
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