Biblical Archaeology Review 43:6, November/December 2017

Strata: Egyptian Sea Nymph Riding Sea Horse Now at Queens College

Seven dozen pieces of ancient Egyptian textiles have been given to the art collection of Queens College’s Godwin-Ternbach Museum in New York City. Dating mostly from the third to seventh centuries C.E., the textiles come from the private collection of artist, psychologist and writer Rose Choron (1917–2014), née Josefowitz, who had emigrated from her native Ukraine in the 1930s to settle eventually in the United States. Choron’s textiles have been showcased several times (including in Jerusalem in 1980), but their problematic provenance may have discouraged museums from acquiring them. While a handful of pieces were auctioned during the past year, the textiles obtained by Queens College were a gift.

Textiles like the one pictured here are often referred to as “Coptic,” meaning “Egyptian” or specifically “Egyptian Christian.” Although it is true that the population of Egypt at that time was overwhelmingly Christian, the suggestion that these textiles somehow express religious identity is misleading, nor is it correct to claim that the craft or iconography is characteristically Egyptian. The scene of a sea nymph riding a marine horse accompanied by a dolphin demonstrates that not all iconography was explicitly Christian or specifically Egyptian; it borrowed also from the Greek and Roman mythological repertoire. The combination of various traditions in textile designs points to a creative syncretism and exchange in the eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity.—M.D.

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