It has been some 25 weeks now that St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, has been closed to the public. The reason is that it is being refurbished for its golden jubilee in 2018; the refurbishment includes new icons to cover the walls of the church. The cathedral already held icons on its iconostasis, but now that the entire church will get new icons that should have a unified appearance, the old icons will be taken away and used for other purposes as will be decided by Pope Tawadros II. These old icons are in themselves gems of Coptic art, having been jointly written by the prominent iconographers Youssef Latif (1921 – 2013) and his wife Bodour Nassif (1921 – 2012).
Come Christmas Eve, however, and St Mark’s will be temporarily open to celebrate Midnight Mass. Coptic Christmas is on the 29th day of the Coptic month of Kiahk, which coincides with 7 January. Christmas Eve Midnight Mass will be held on the altar consecrated to St Mark, in the sanctuary adorned with the first of the new icons.
A competition had been announced earlier this year among iconographers for the writing of the new icons at St Mark’s. The main condition was that the artists should adhere to the Coptic style of art, and they were required to submit samples of previous works in iconography. Last July the winners were announced and, directly, the work began.
The winners constituted six groups, each individual group formed of several members who work as a team to prepare and execute the icons designed and planned by their leader, the main iconographer. Each group was assigned with writing the icons for a specific site in the cathedral.
Watani went behind the scenes to discover the details of how the winners were picked, and how the work process was coordinated.
The guidelines were strict. “The jury took almost four months to evaluate the artworks,” Tassoni (‘Sister’ in the Coptic language) Sawsan, who is herself an icon artist and a member of the jury, told Watani.
The jury was made up of six members of various branches of art, plus the general coordinator responsible for correlating the dates of meetings and informing the jury members.
There were 49 applicants for the competition; they were short listed to 20. Each successful applicant was given a password so the jury would not recognise the name of the competitor and would evaluate the work regardless of any considerations other than artistic excellence.
Since St Mark’s is the mother church of the Coptic Church, the main goal of the committee was to look for works that would uniquely express the Egyptian Church and its rich spiritualism and history.
Profundity and grace
Tassoni Sawsan said the judging was in three phases beginning with the individual evaluation, in which each member of the jury wrote his or her report separately according to the ten articles set by the Pope to evaluate the works. Among these articles were architectural balance, artistic harmony, and how far the icon conveyed an apostolic message, as well as the finesse of both line and colour, given that Coptic art stipulates a number of specific colours.
The second step was an evaluation of the previous works of each competitor, in addition to an interview.
The third and final phase ended with determining the first five winners.
Tassoni Sawsan told Watani that a committee has been assigned with coordinating the execution of the work among all the groups. “The committee comprises Fr Arsanius of Anba Pola Monastery, himself a seasoned iconologist; and the architects Mounir Abdu Fam and Samy Sabry, both experts in Coptic art and architecture; as well as Samuel Matthias as administrative coordinator; and me. Our role is to ensure the final artworks have the same spirit.”
At this point, the artist and critic Wagdy Habashy expresses a wish to see a number of artistic creations, not merely highly-crafted works.
He says the icons should not only be a self-expression of the artist, but should reflect the Church’s rich tradition and spirituality. “The icons should feature profundity, in order to match the richness of symbolism that lies at the core of Coptic art,” Mr Habashy says. “The artist who depicts an icon should first carefully read the Bible so that he or she will be capable of expressing the topic tackled in the icon.”
The execution phase
Tassoni Sawsan said that mosaics had not been not included in the competition, but the committee contacted several prominent artists in that field and reviewed their previous works. The winners were accordingly picked.
It was decided that stained glass windows should be made at a specialised workshop in the Delta site of Ebiar. The workshop belongs to the Coptic Church, under the sponsorship of Anba Pola, Bishop of Gharbiya.
“The preparation phase is almost done,” Tassoni Sawsan says, “and the follow up committee has approved the final designs. Now we are in the execution phase which comprises three steps. The first is ‘enlarging’ the design; the second is the colouring which should conform to standard colours. The artists would be committed to a unified palette, so that all the paintings would appear as though executed by a single artist.
“The third phase will constitute hanging the designs on the walls.”
The plan was to divide the iconography work according to the various spots in the cathedral. Coptic churches are designed so that the sanctuary lies to the east—interestingly, the tradition is authentically Egyptian and goes back to ancient Egyptian temples—and the church entrance thus lies to the west.
The cathedral as a complete icon
The cathedral’s main entrance should feature the concept: “My Coptic Church is an Egyptian Church”, which will be expressed through a number of crosses and three Bible verses to be written in Coptic, Arabic and English.
The cathedral’s interior western wall should depict the theme: “My Coptic Church is great and historic”, which will be illustrated with a number of icons that tell the history of the Church from Saint Mark up to the Apparition of the Holy Virgin at Her Church in Zaytoun in 1968.
The side walls, which include the north and south passageways, will be under the theme “The Coptic Church is a Clerical Church led by Christ”, with the icons depicting the life of Jesus Christ together with icons of saints who represent all the sectors of the Coptic congregation. St Abanoub represents children, St Rifqa represents mothers, St Demiana represents young women, St Mina the soldier martyrs, St Anthony the monks, St Athanasius the Church fathers, as well as many others .
The icons on the walls behind the north and south choir stalls will carry the theme ‘Divine Blessing for the Land of Egyptian’, and will focus on Egypt in the Holy Bible. The last part, the iconostasis, will be executed according to Coptic tradition. The top part, which crowns the entrance to the sanctuary, should carry an icon of the Last Supper as the centrepiece, topped with the Crucifix at the feet of which stand the Holy Virgin and St John. Both sides of the centrepiece carry icons that show the Disciples. On the northern and southern sides of the sanctuary entrance are icons of the Pantocrator, the Holy Virgin, the Archangels, St John the Baptist, the saint in whose name the church is consecrated—in this case St Mark—and so on.
The cathedral’s interior dome will be drawn by artist Ayman William who ran individually for the competition rather than with a group, because, as he says, “there were incompatibilities with others.” The theme will run along the heavenly host. William was one of the artists who worked on the Cathedral of the Heavenly Host in Sharm al-Sheikh, and has also painted icons in cathedrals in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and San Francisco.
Iconographer Evelyn Adel who is also an instructor at the Institute of Coptic Studies and member of the Ayman Adeeb group, says that the group includes herself as well as three others: Ayman Adeeb, Emad Bibawy and Attiyaat Tawfiq. She says the group had offered a complete design of the icons and mosaics for the entire cathedral, but won the assignment to make the mosaics on the cathedral’s western wall. This part will depict the role of the Coptic Church in defending the faith, and will be completed with a panoramic icon of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. She says they are keen on making a special depiction of St Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt.
The Usama Maurice group of four members was assigned to decorating the balcony, but so far the topic has not been determined. It is expected, however, that it will be a panorama of the Holy Bible.
“We are lucky that Pope Tawadros has given us such great opportunity,” Maurice says, “especially that our teachers of previous generations dreamt of painting icons for the St Mark’s Cathedral but could not.”
In full glory
The artist Raouf Rizqallah, leader of the second group, says his group comprised his wife Hanaa’ Awad and Fr Arsanius of Anba Bola monastery. Now that Fr Arsanius has been appointed the general supervisor he is out of the group, and Mr and Mrs Rizqallah will be together leading the work in their group.
The group that will be writing the icons of the cathedral’s three altars, the central, north and south altars, is the group headed by iconographer Ermiya al-Qattsha. The group comprises five members who act as leaders to some 13 artists but, according to Mr Qattsha, more members may be included in order to finish the work on time.
The first of their designs will be revealed on the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve. Tassoni Sawsan says the committee has made an agreement with Mr Qashtta to finish the bigger portion of the Bosom of the Father—the niche in front of the altar—in time for Christmas Eve. Part of the stained glass will also be finished by then.
So when Pope Tawadros presides over Midnight Mass at St Mark’s on the evening 6/7 January 2016, a good look at the Bosom of the Father in front of the altar will give a taste of what the cathedral will look like when it is finally opened in full glory on its golden jubilee in 2018.
30 December 2015