A few weeks before 2013 drew to a close Egypt lost the great contemporary iconographer Youssef Nassif (1921 – 2013) who with his wife of 66 years Bedour Latif (1922 – 2012), a great iconographer in her own right, had formed a singular artist couple.
The passing away of my dear friend, the veteran artist and iconographer Youssef Nassif, has left me and all Copts and Egyptians as well with a sense of deep loss. Nassif was professor of Coptic Studies and deputy director of the art department at the Institute of Coptic Studies until his retirement, and to mark the occasion, the Institute of Coptic Studies has published a book The Most Beautiful Egyptian Icon, to celebrate his life.
The title is taken from a phrase once used by the late Pope Shenouda III during a photoshoot His Holiness had with Nassif’s wife Bedour Latif (1921 – 2012), herself a pioneer in this field.
The Most Beautiful Egyptian Icon, begins with biographies of Nassif and Latif, and cites the certificates and prizes they were awarded. Warm tributes by Church leaders, public figures, friends, and several artists who learned at their hands follow. The book includes a lovely collection of photos of Nassif and Latif together and with friends; and lists the churches inside and outside Egypt where their creations hang. It is no exaggeration to say that their icons, which were noted for their simple lines and unmistakable Egyptian folk character, and which they wrote together found their way straight to the heart and soul of whoever looked at them.
The Coptic difference
Nassif was born in Minya in 1920 and Latif in Cairo in 1921 into well-to-do families who loved and appreciated art. They both studied fine arts; Nassif studied Coptic art and archaeology and ancient Egyptian languages, and Latif studied architecture as well; and ended up in 1963 professors at the Institute for Coptic Studies until their retirement.
Nassif and Latif met as students at the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo, and later married. They created icons and art works side by side for more than 50 years, sharing superior artistic skills in fields as diverse as murals and artwork in copper, wood, enamel and ceramics, as well as watercolour landscapes. They challenged themselves to create the “Coptic difference” or the uniqueness of what is Coptic in form, essence and imagery.
Their partnership resulted in a wonderful collection of Coptic creations that hang in 25 churches in Egypt, and 12 churches outside Egypt, and form acquisitions in Egypt and abroad. In addition to the icons created on wood, their works included frescoes and stained glass windows.
Nassif and Latif were influenced by ancient Egyptian art and the Fayoum portraits, which are recognised in iconography as the precursors of icons. The wide, wise eyes; the full lips, the braided hair are all Egyptian features that mark the faces they painted. The pioneers of contemporary Coptic art including Aziz Sourial, Ragheb Ayyad, Habib Georgi and his son in law the great artist and architect Ramses Wissa Wassef who pioneered the movement for spontaneous carpet art in Harraniya, Giza, were among their strongest influencers.
Four eyes see better than two
With creativity and innovation, Nassif and Latif produced icons that underlined belief and conscience. Their icons were signed jointly. When asked how they actually worked this out, Latif said: “We met in art and live and work in that harmony,” while Nassif responded with his subtle humour and a twinkle in his eyes: “Four eyes can see better than two!”
The tribute by St Mark’s Coptic Church and Museum in Scarborough in Toronto, Canada, describes the joint work of Nassif and Latif in the words: “They touched one another’s brushes to the extent that neither of them knew what the other had done, even though they may have shared some pointers in the process. In effect their final work is a true unity of their brush and their spirituality. It is a harmony that captures the meditative and beseeching expression of the saintly images they depict. The expression of Christ the Pantocrator at St Mark’s Church welcomes believers to the Kingdom of God. The almond shaped eyes and gentle shape of the lips is a dominant feature in the expressions of their icons.”
As deeply spiritual people, Nassif and Latif would pray and read about a saint’s life to capture the spiritual message. “It is not just art that is created, but a spiritual message that is communicated,” Latif once said.
The Revelation icon
The Coptic scholar and artist Mary Mansour offers a reading of the Nassif and Latif icon of the Revelation. “Through their unique, iconic panorama, they take us to the world of heaven and spirituality; they show the glamour and greatness of the Divine Throne, using the symbolism to outline the theological, dogmatic and liturgical features. This icon was executed through expressive chromatic formations, in which blue, symbolising Heaven, is the base of the icon, and red is a symbol of the King of Kings.
“Nassif and Latif perfectly depict the “sea of glass like crystal” of the Revelation through the language of dynamic and stillness, reminding us of the commotion that exists in the underwater world. The look in the eyes of Jesus Christ takes us to the Divine tenderness and rejoicing.
Nassif and Latif were multi-talented artists. St. Mark’s Coptic Museum in Scarborough has in its collection hand carved copper crosses, enamel on copper icons, fresco models and an intricate reproduction of a fifth-century, hand-carved brass church chandelier with hand-blown glass containers for the oil and wick. There are also amulets they created using secret ancient Egyptian techniques and materials.
Abouna Marcos Marcos of St Mark’s in Toronto and the Coptic Museum there expressed for himself and the Coptic congregation their deep sorrow at the loss of Nassif. “It is only 18 months since the passing of Bedour Latif, and we have observed during this period how hard this separation was for Nassif. We know that he now rejoices to be with her again.”
Pope Tawadros II wrote of Nassif:
“He was a veteran artist who lived faithful to his art and Church. At his hands many learned and were handed the artistic principles of Coptic icons.
“Until she departed before him, his wife Bedour was his partner in a long journey of dedication and art. Before he died and even though he was very sick, he was keen to attend the discussion of a Master’s degree on his Coptic artwork; his style and uniqueness. A few days later, he passed away in peace.
“May Jesus Christ console his family and the lovers of his art. May he, and his great wife, rest in peace, and may the good Lord compensate the Church for their loss.”
It is with warm pride and emotion that we testify to the strong ties Nassif and Latif maintained with Watani. They donated a rich collection of photos of their icons to the paper, with open permission to print any of them any time.
5 January 2014