This week the Coptic Church marks the Arbaeen, literally ‘Forty’ of the Boutrossiya martyrs. The Arbaeen is celebrated with Holy Mass on the 40th day of the death of the departed; the tradition goes back to ancient Egypt when it was connected to the mummification process, but has been ‘baptised’ by the Coptic Church. To mark the occasion, Watani takes a reading of an icon written by Coptic iconographer Victor Fakhoury for the Boutrossiya martyrs.
It is a well-known fact that Coptic art is rich in Christian and ecclesiastical symbolism. Victor Fakhoury’s most recent work, an icon on Boutrossiya martyrs, is among the most recent specimens of Coptic art, and is no exception to the rule. The 28 martyrs—27 women and children and one man, the church guard Nabil Habib—lost their lives when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Boutrossiya church in Abbassiya, Cairo, during Sunday Mass on 11 December.
Boutrossiya is the church of St Peter and St Paul; it was built by and remains under the care of the prominent Coptic family of Boutros-Ghali.
Victor Fakhoury was born in 1960 and is described as “iconographer, historian, and theologian” by Helene Moussa, curator of St Mark’s Coptic Museum in Toronto. He created six icons—the recent one for the Boutrossiya martyrs is the seventh—that depict the events of post-Arab Spring Egypt, a first in the history of Coptic iconography.
In his Boutrossiya icon, Fakhoury has Jesus Christ in the centre rising with majesty as His open, winged arms embrace the martyrs. They are depicted 14 on each of side of Him, flowing towards the Saviour with their eyes fixed upon Him. He towers above the church; on His right stands St Paul carrying his 14 epistles, and on His left stands St Peter carrying his two epistles. They also tower above the two famous steeples of Boutrossiya, the church of St Peter and St Paul.
In the middle, rising above the church and standing in front of Christ or rather in Him, rises Christ’s bride. According to St Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians: the “believers in Jesus Christ are the bride of Christ, and we wait with great anticipation for the day when we will be united with our Bridegroom—Christ Himself—who has sacrificially and lovingly chosen the church to be His bride” (Eph 5:25–27). Her hands, stretched by her sides, bleed 14 great drops on each side, as a symbol of the 28 Boutrossiya martyrs who will remain forever with Christ in the Triumphant Church in Heaven.
The figures of Jesus, His bride, St Peter and St Paul all stand high, above Boutrossiya church which appears in front of them. The church is built on the rock, St Peter, and carries the verse Matthew 16:18: “On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.”
On each side of the rock are two angels blowing their trumpets. The one on the right side of Jesus holds a scroll inscribed with the references: Matthew 16:18 and Revelation 8:12-13. The verses from the Revelation say: “And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.” The space before the angels is dark, with 11 crescents, seven on one side and four on the other. This brings to mind the fact that they were martyred on 11 December, in the Coptic month of Kiahk during which evening praises known as Sabaa Warbaa (Seven and Four) are sung to celebrate the Holy Virgin and the Upcoming Nativity Feast. Behind the angels is a starry sky from which the 28 martyrs have emerged into the bright light of Jesus Christ.
Fakhoury uses the white and red colours when depicting Christ, symbols of His holiness and His life-giving blood. The angels are robed in white, which brings to mind purity and peace; and the martyrs are cloaked in sky-blue as a sign of their loftiness and the glory they have been given.
In the lower part of the painting, Fakhoury depicts four peacocks, a pair on each side with the cross between them. The motif is common in Coptic churches; peacocks in Coptic art refer to rebirth in everlasting life. The peacock’s feather is known to have ‘eyes’ which the Egyptian saw as looking ahead to see the glory of paradise and rejoice in eternal life.
Fakhoury has been known to insert Egyptian art elements in his icons. These elements may be subtle, but they have the instant effect of carrying the viewer into an ‘Egyptian mood’. In the Boutrossiya icon, Jesus’s outstretched arms are winged, and He dons a pharaonic-style robe and collar. His bride has an Egyptian-style motif on her collar. The rock on which the church is built is topped with the ankh, the Key to Eternal Life in ancient Egypt, itself a cross with a looped head.
18 January 2017