Coptic Bindings at the Morgan (the Coptic Tracery Binding)

A new exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum features one of the key items from its collection of Coptic bindings (a nice overview at the ABER:

"Another work in the show, the Coptic cover of the Gospels, is one of sixty Coptic bindings that Pierpont Morgan purchased in 1911, the year after they were found near the Monastery of St. Michael in Egypt. Almost all works were found with their original bindings and constitute an essential collection for the study of Coptic bookbinding. The Coptic Tracery Binding is regarded as the finest surviving Coptic binding. At its center is a cross surrounded by interlaced designs composed of two intertwined squares within a circle. All of these elements were cut from a single piece of red leather and sewn over gilt parchment."

This is the catalog item in question, which is an exemplary cover (though the link to the catalog description is incorrect). There is a nice large high-res image halfway down here. I wonder if it is a misnomer to refer to this as a "binding," as it is actually just the extant cover of an original book. In fact, some Coptic bindings are so elaborate and integral to a book's structure that they cease to exist as they are unbound. But the use of "bindings" to refer to the covers in the Pierpont collection goes all the way back to their original purchase, and is sustained in the literature. The exceptional nature of the Coptic Tracery binding is highlighted in Deborah Evetts lively account of how she crafted the Pierpont collection's current display cases.

On their origin:

"The manuscripts were found in 1910 at the site of the Coptic Monestary of St. Michael whose ruins are near the village of al-Hamuli in the Faiyum district of Egypt, southwest of Cairo. The Faiyum despression, an ancient jungle swamp covering 700 square miles, once stretched from Lake Birkat almost to the Nile and is renowned for the fossils found there. It was here that local farmers, digging for natural fertilizer for their fields, found the long buried manuscripts. This was the first of three big finds of ancient mss of the last hundred years, and is the only one composed solely of ancient Christian documents. The Nag Hammadi codices were found in 1945, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947."

On their condition:

"To understand the problems involved in designing houses for these covers, one has to appreciate the wide variety of sizes, thicknesses, and conditions to be accommodated. They range from complete bindings, complete covers, an partial covers to small fragments; from solid healthy boards to those whose papyrus is so riddled with insect tunneling that they "drape" like a Dali watch; from leather crazed by the kiln heating and blackened with leather dressing to leather that is remarkable for its color and quality after more than a thousand years internment; from papyrus boards with no leather covering to leather with no papyrus board."

So to have a cover in such fine condition as the one featured in this exhibition is remarkable. It not only withstood the ravages of time, but a series of failed attempts at preservation. Evett's point concerning the importance of this find is interesting, as it is seldom referenced within the context of codicology as practiced in the service of NT textual criticism. These manuscripts are so late in origin, and varied in subject matter, that they have limited value in providing witness to variants and text-types in the first few centuries. But their importance as witnesses to the technological development of the codex may outweigh both the Nag Hammadi and Qumran finds. Having had little interaction with the Morgan collection other than through its various published catalogs (one of the earliest of which can be read here - if you can't already tell, I love Google Books), I say this hesitantly. The amount of data that can be gleaned from the Nag Hammadi find from an artefactual perspective is still undetermined for the most part, and the more I probe, the more I find. But suffice it to say, these bindings and covers are a unique witness to a particular stage of early Christian publishing.

Here is an article on Pierpont's M579 by Leo Depuydt. The colophon of this particular Sahidic codex contains the oldest known date in any extant coptic manuscript (539 of the Era of the Martyrs, or 822 CE). There are some interesting descriptions of the codex in relation to the rest of the collection on pg. 269.


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