Today coincides with the arbaeen of the 45 Coptic martyrs killed for their faith in suicide bombings at two churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, 9 April 2017. The arbaeen, literally forty, marks 40 days on the death of a person, and is a tradition that goes back to ancient Egypt and relates to the process of mummification; the tradition is to this day kept by Egyptians.
The first Palm Sunday bombing took place during Mass at the church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in Tanta; the second outside the gate of St Mark’s cathedral in Alexandria after Palm Sunday Mass concluded. The Coptic Orthodox Church commemorated the martyrs’ arbaeen with Holy Mass.
Artist and iconographer Victor Fakhoury paid tribute to the martyrs in an icon inspired by the Bible verse: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’.” (Revelation 7: 9-10)
Red for blood
The Lord is depicted on the top centre of the icon sitting on His throne, with the four living creatures around it. The Lord is the Lamb who fulfilled the Salvation on the Cross. Two angels stand at His right and left, one holding a scroll on which is written “Martyrs of Tanta”, the other “Martyrs of Alexandria”. Two other angels robed as deacons with their red sashes stand behind the throne at the top; most of the Tanta martyrs were deacons, since the bombing occurred next to the deacon choir. On the right of the throne stand the martyrs of St Mark’s; St Mark is depicted beside them holding his Gospel, with Alexandria’s ancient Pharos in the background carrying a cross on top. Tanta Martyrs are on the left with their mediator St George on his horse.
The martyrs and the saints are all in white robes with red crosses on their chests, white being a symbol of purity and faithfulness, and holding palm fronds signifying their final triumph: they have earned eternal life and left behind them the pains and harshness on earth.
The red colour which begins at the feet of the Lamb and runs right and left under the feet of the martyrs denotes the blood shed as a price of Salvation, also of the faith of the martyrs. In the same sense, red is again used to depict the cross held by the Lamb, and part of the garments of St Mark and St George, the other part being white.
Red not only denotes the martyrs’ blood, but also the glory and power of martyrdom.
All the martyrs are aboard the ‘ark’ which one day saved Noah and his family from death; today the Church is the modern-day ark which offers believers Salvation by the blood of Jesus.
In the lower part of the painting, Fakhoury has the ark floating on waters resting on nine green crescents that bring to mind the date 9 April on which the Christians were martyred.
As he usually does, Fakhoury used typical Egyptian symbols in his icon. His ark is the sun boat believed by ancient Egyptians to carry them off to Eternal Life after death. Lotus motifs are depicted on the ends of the ark, whereas palm fronds form triumphal arches at the top of the icon. Their brownish shades blend magnificently with the gold in the icon background. The divine throne is topped with the key of life, the cross-like symbol ancient Egyptians used to denote Life, and the Lord rests his feet on an obelisk below the throne.
Altogether, the icon leaves the reader with the sentiment: “Then the righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13: 43)
20 May 2017