Coptic art lives on

04-05-2016 11:31 AM

Reviewed by Sherine Nader


Moussa, Helene; Explore St Mark’s Coptic Museum, Ontario – Canada, An Illustrated Introduction; St. Mark’s Coptic Museum, 2015



Perhaps the last thing one would expect to find in Toronto, Canada, is a Coptic museum. A grand Coptic museum has existed in Cairo since 1910, and Coptic art is displayed in many museums over the world, but a museum in Toronto dedicated to Coptic art might come as a surprise discovery.

There is a story behind the St Mark’s Coptic Museum in Canada.

The idea came to life a few years ago at the hands of a group of visionary Diaspora Copts headed by Father Marcos the first Coptic priest commissioned to shepherd North America’s Coptic Orthodox congregation in 1964. Fr Marcos wished to establish a Coptic museum that would depict the “colourful ‘tile’ of Coptic art and culture in Canada’s multicultural mosaic”. For 25 years, he spearheaded work to collect Coptic artefacts from the four corners of the world, and the museum project was launched on 27 November 1996 by Pope Shenouda III and opened to the public on 9 July 2000. Pope Tawadros II visited the museum on 4 September 2014 and, according to the museum’s volunteer curator Helene Moussa, “he wrote a lovely message in our guest book.”

A recent publication by the museum, Explore St. Mark’s Coptic Museum, Ontario – Canada, cites the aim of the museum as to depict “the continuity of Coptic artistic expression throughout the centuries and to the present day … and to highlight the contributions that Coptic civilisation has brought to Egypt and her people throughout the centuries and continues to bring until this very day.”



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Gifts and loans

The book begins with an Illustrated Introduction by Ms Moussa giving a glimpse of the museum and some of the artefacts in its permanent collection, many of which were donated by individuals from personal and family collections, or which are on loan from other museums or private collections. “Every one of the items exhibited”, Ms Moussa told Watani, “is backed with legally signed documents from the donors or loaners.”

When the museum first opened, it had 110 objects on display but now the number has gone up to 1,200. The book only highlights the main objects of art in the museum and is definitely not to be used as the museum catalogue.

Ms Moussa gives a short history of the establishment of the museum and explains the meaning of the term Copt (Qibt, from the Greek Aegyptus) and how it was used in the past to refer to all Egyptians but later was narrowed down to denote only Egyptian Christians. Coptic art, as scholars define it, includes the Egyptian works of art from the third to the fifth centuries AD. The author, however, disagrees with this rigid definition and rather believes in the “continuity of Coptic art from ancient to modern times” and that it is a form of art which has “adapted, adopted and survived over time”.

The section following the introduction gives an abridged chronology of the dates and events pertinent to the history of the Copts. It includes political, religious, social and cultural events throughout the history of Egypt from the time Christianity was introduced to Egyptians by St Mark in the first century AD up to modern times.

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Biblical art

Each of the 14 chapters covers a specific genre of Coptic art, highlighting the main exhibits in St Mark’s Coptic Museum.

Chapter 1 is dedicated to the biblical paintings of Marguerite Nakhla (1908 – 1977), one of Egypt’s best-known painters. Ms Nakhla was born into a distinguished Coptic family, graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Cairo and pursued higher studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Ecole Spéciale de Dessin. She later taught at the Women’s Higher Institute of Art Education in Cairo. Her paintings are a skilful mix of modern art with Egyptian and Coptic folklore. In her own words, “I look for the anecdote, and I always try to give a touch of documentation to the painting I create… I try to provoke a thought… an idea.”

The book features three of the six paintings of biblical scenes by Ms Nakhla on display at the museum: La Pêche Miraculeuse (The Miracle of the Great Catch), 1960; Jésus au Milieu des Docteurs (Jesus among the Teachers in the Temple), 1971; and Les Vierges Sages et les Vierges Folles (The Wise and the Foolish Virgins, 1973. Nakhla’s depiction of biblical scenes is characterised by a deep sense of movement, a choice of vibrant colours and special attention to facial expressions.

Other than the paintings of biblical scenes, the museum has recently acquired three additional paintings by Ms Nakhla, one of a Paris scene of the Jardin du Luxembourg and two still lifes, a watermelon and a melon sliced in the typically Egyptian way.

Ms Moussa says the museum is now proud to have ten of Marguerite Nakhla’s paintings among its permanent collection.

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History in clay

An overview of clay and sculpture in Coptic art is given in a full chapter in the book. Pottery has existed in Egypt since 4500BC, with similar styles and techniques being used through the centuries until the Islamic era. The collection at St Mark’s includes clay objects dating back from the fourth to the 21st centuries.

There are terracotta oil lamps from different regions in Egypt, but there is insufficient information to determine the date of each one. Small flasks carried away as souvenirs by pilgrims to the shrine of St Menas (Mina) from the fifth to seventh centuries are on display. It is interesting to note that such flasks have been found in archaeological digs around the Mediterranean, indicating that the cult of St Menas was widespread and that many pilgrims came from all over the old world to visit his shrine in Mariut, west of Alexandria.

Modern works include pottery and figurines from Garagos, a village in Upper Egypt renowned since ancient Egypt for its pottery creations and which continues in production until this day. On display is also a round plate made in 1968 by the peasant spontaneous artists of the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre in Harraniya, Giza, to commemorate the manifestation of the Holy Virgin on the domes of her church in Zeitoun, Cairo; and sculptures by Isaac Guirguis, Barsoum including a fish sculpture and a clay vase.

The book shows part of the museum’s coin collection, helping visitors to trace much of the history of Egypt and the various dynasties and rulers that reigned over it and their ideologies and cultures. The coin collection ranges from the Silver Tetradrachm of Alexander the Great (336 – 323 BC), to a silver Gunayh (Egyptian Pound) from 1970 depicting the bust of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

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Meaning of the cross

Crosses are a unique characteristic of Coptic art and Church architecture. In a Coptic church, crosses can be seen everywhere as the core of the Christian faith; the cross is life-giving. Chapter 4 in the book is dedicated to explaining the design and symbolism of the Coptic cross, the main feature of which is that is does not include a crucifix, because the Crucifixion led to the Resurrection. Coptic crosses fit into a circle, and are formed of two lines of equal length with three points at each end representing the Trinity. Crosses are used for liturgical purposes and can be worn by clergymen or individuals. They are made of various materials such as wood, metal, ivory or leather. The crosses in the museum are mainly from the 20th century and include Ethiopian crosses, which are different from Coptic crosses and include many styles unlike the Coptic.

The ecclesiastical vestments included in the museum give a glimpse of the history of the first Coptic Orthodox churches in North America, at the time when Fr Marcos would constantly travel from one place to another across the continent to minister for the Coptic congregation, thus earning the nickname “the Flying Priest”. The book explains in detail the layers of ecclesiastical vestments and the symbols they represent. At first these vestments were very similar to those used in the Byzantine Church, but gradually acquired a character of their own. Special attention is also granted to describing the monk’s hood and the symbols related to it.

The highlight of this section is the ecclesiastical vestments of Pope Shenouda III donated by Pope Tawadros II during his pastoral trip to the US and Canada in 2014.

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 Icons through the ages

“Icons are an integral part of the Coptic Orthodox Divine Liturgy,” Ms Moussa writes in chapter 6. They depict scenes from the Bible or from the lives of the saints represented on them, and are considered intermediaries between the saints and the faithful. The first icons in Christianity are said to have been drawn by St Luke, and depicted the Holy Virgin. Coptic Iconography reached its peak between the fourth and seventh centuries and for the most part the artists were monks. However, the icons from this period were unsigned and therefore little is known about their creators. Later, and up to the 16th century, iconography declined and was replaced by manuscript writing and wall painting. Iconography was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries upon the establishment of modern Egypt by Viceroy Muhammad Ali who allowed the building of churches and monasteries. From this time on, iconography was no longer restricted to members of the clergy; lay persons too became the modern day iconographers.

St Mark’s Museum has two icons from the 18th century. The first, St Mary of the Seven sorrows by Beshar Ibn Saqr, is written in a style similar to that used in the Roman Catholic Church. The second, depicting St Menas, is unique because it depicts the saint in a manner totally different from his traditional depiction between two kneeling camels and with a sick sheep. The icon at St Mark’s Museum shows him in the unusual scene of slaying a dragon, and is written in the Akhmim style characterised by large eyes, flat face of size disproportionate to the rest of the body, and arabised elements.

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Modern examples

The 20th century saw an unprecedented activity in Coptic iconography, especially after the establishment of the Institute of Coptic Studies (ICS) in Cairo. The St Mark’s Museum icon collection includes four icons by Isaac Fanous (1919 – 2007), the first chairman of the department of Coptic art at ICS, and pioneer of modern iconography. The icons were drawn especially for the museum in 1964 and represent the four evangelists. Dr Fanous used a neo-Coptic cubic style in which he blended contemporary iconography with tradition.

The artists Youssef Nassif (1920 – 2013) and Bedour Latif (1921 – 2012) were a married couple who worked together on icons and signed them jointly. Their creations are typically Coptic and reveal obvious characteristics of Egyptian folk art. The museum displays several of the icons they created such as The Burial of Christ (1988) and St Thudros (St Theodore) (1987).

Seham Guirguis was a disciple of Fanous, who moved to Canada in 2001. Her works at St Mark’s Museum include icons of saints not widely represented in Coptic iconography such as St Helena, and St Joseph and the Christ Child.

Another renowned Coptic artist shown at the museum is Victor Fakhoury (born 1960), who mixes the traditional elements of Coptic iconography with touches from ancient Egypt such as lotus flowers and papyrus boats to emphasise “the roots of Egyptian Christianity”. Fakhoury created six icons that depict the events of post-Arab Spring Egypt, a first in the history of Coptic iconography. Among the collection of St Mark’s is his Martyrs of Maspero, 2011, which represents the 28 peaceful Coptic protestors who lost their lives in October 2011. His latest icon, the Martyrs of Libya, 2015, depicts the 20 Coptic and one Ghanaian Christians beheaded by Daesh Libya in February 2015, and is the museum’s most recent acquisition.

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Amulets and symbols

The book gives an overview of Coptic jewellery and includes a collection of Egyptian faïence from Amarna region where the Pharaoh Akhenaten established his monotheistic cult in the 14th century BC. The St Mark’s Museum 20th century collection replicates ancient Egyptian designs and themes using a material frequently used in ancient Egypt. The museum also displays a collection of amulets with symbols from ancient Egypt; among them a scarab amulet inscribed with hieroglyphics and believed to possess protective power. There are also brooches from the Hellenistic period, Islamic-style necklaces and items that run into the 18th century.

Chapter 9 describes the modern paintings displayed in the museum. Among the most interesting is a 19th-century work executed by Pope Makarius III when he was still a monk (1898 – 1895). It consists of three crosses, one large and two smaller ones, each consisting of a multiplicity of very small crosses drawn using the letter I, or iota, hence the name of the painting, the Iota Cross.

Among other paintings are The Irq Sus Vendor by Isaac Guirguis Barsoum (1912 – 1983) and The Nubian Girl by Kawkab Youssef (1909 – 2008), a contemporary and close friend of Marguerite Nakhla. On display are five camel-skin banners made especially for the museum and depicting scenes from the frescoes of the Old Cathedral of Faras in Nubia, now immersed under the waters of Lake Nasser upstream the Aswan High Dam.

Mina al-Gebaly is a Coptic-Canadian artist who, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, began to search for ways to achieve peace and discovered that this could only be through faith. Among his works is a series of three paintings: Peace Planter, Peace Dancer and The Way of Hatred. St Mark’s Museum displays the Peace Planter.

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Writing it down

Papyrus, books and manuscripts feature in the St Mark’s Museum collection. Papyrus was the material used in Egypt since antiquity for writing and illustrations. Although the Romans also used parchment, vellum and wooden sheets bound into codices, papyrus remained in wide use until it was replaced in the ninth and tenth centuries by paper made of linen rags. The languages used in written texts evolved from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Greek to Coptic, and finally Arabic. Texts would sometimes be written in two languages on the same page.

Coptic literature flourished between the fourth and ninth centuries; illustrations were added to texts in the eighth century. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a revival in book and manuscript writing. Most of the books and manuscripts in the St Mark’s Museum collection are from the first quarter of the 20th century, while some are earlier and are written mainly in Coptic and Greek, Coptic and Arabic or in Arabic only. The book shows a small fragment of a papyrus written in Greek which is probably an official document from the fifth or sixth century.

The museum collection includes a copy of the first book published in Arabic about the history of the Copts: The History of the Coptic Nation by Jacob Nakhla Roffeila (1899); an Arabic translation of St John Chrysostom’s interpretation of the Gospel of St Matthew by Bishop Severus Hermopolis Magna in the tenth century, transcribed in the 18th century; a book of Agpeya in Arabic and Coptic from the 19th century, transcribed by Hanania el-Baramoussy; and a 19th century Ethiopian manuscript of the Dawit book of praises written in Ge’ez, the Ethiopian liturgical language. On a more modern note, the museum boasts the first translation of the Coptic offices into English published in 1930.

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Stamp collection

Items of metalwork displayed at the museum consist mainly of articles used for liturgical purposes such as crosses, candelabras, and censers from modern times.

The museum also boasts an impressive collection of stamps. Chapter 11 of Explore St Mark’s Coptic Museum explains that the Egyptian modern postal service was established during the reign of Muhammad Ali. In 1843, the first post offices were established by Europeans living in Egypt under the name ‘Poste Européenne’. The service was bought by Khedive Ismail in 1864 and became a government service in 1965. The first Egyptian stamps were issued in 1866, and depicted images of the pyramids and the sphinx; they soon evolved to display images of rulers and commemorate political and social events.

The stamp collection at St Mark’s includes stamps from 1866 up to the present day and marking important events in Egypt’s history. The collection includes five of the stamps issued by the Egyptian government which have Christian themes: the 1,400th anniversary of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai (1966); the Matariya Tree (1967); The return of St Mark’s relics and the establishment of the Cathedral at Abbasiya (1968); the bicentennial commemoration of the Advent of the Holy Family into Egypt (2000); and the 2013 commemorative stamps of H.H. Pope Shenouda III.

The collection includes the first stamp by a Coptic artist, Fadi Mikhail, issued by the UK Royal Mail for their 2013 Christmas stamps and depicting an icon of the Theotokos. The highlight of the collection is the collectors’ stamp album of the Treasures of Tutankhamun (38 gold foil engraved stamps) issued by the British Museum in 1979.

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Weaving for children

The book takes a good look at Coptic tapestry. Textile art flourished in the Coptic era. ‘Coptic textiles’ usually refer to fabrics from the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic eras. They were made either at home or in workshops using linen and wool. The textiles were monochromatic at first and became more colourful in the sixth century with the use of dyes extracted from natural sources. The regions of Nagada, Esna and Akhmim used to, and continue to be, most renowned for their hand-made textiles.

In modern times, the art of tapestry was revived by Ramses Wissa Wassef (1911 – 1974) who studied architecture in France before returning to Cairo to become professor of art and architecture and later director of the College of Fine Arts in Cairo. Convinced that children are creative by nature, he established the Wissa Wassef Art Centre in 1954 where children were taught weaving techniques and then left to create their own tapestries by working the loom without any prior sketching. The centre gained international renown and four generations of artists have now graduated from it.

The St Mark’s Museum collection includes textiles from the second to the eighth centuries. A tunic insert from the fourth or fifth century features a grape and duck motif. A monochrome purple textile fragment from the fifth or sixth century shows adult and child figures during a celebration. A woven, purple octagonal fragment dating from between the sixth and eighth centuries depicts a central cross surrounded by twelve octagons, and is believed to have been part of a liturgical tunic. A colourful fragment from the eighth century shows a Sassanian winged horse, twin doves and a pomegranate tree; the pomegranate was a symbol of the Church.

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Local and imported wood

The last chapter of the book is dedicated to Coptic woodwork. Most of the ancient Egyptian artefacts that remain were fashioned in stone, and Egypt is described as “a country of stones”. Small items of woodwork were made of the wood of local trees, while timber for larger objects such as doors and ships was imported from Lebanon, Syria, Ethiopia and Nubia.

The style of woodwork known as mashrabiya (lattice-like) is mistakenly called ‘arabesque’ while in fact it had its origins in the work of Coptic wood artisans which flourished during the fifth and seventh centuries. Woodwork appeared in Coptic homes in about the 13th century, but the most impressive pieces of Coptic woodwork are found in churches and monasteries, and include pieces such as iconostases, church doors, pulpits and other liturgical items. The best-known piece of wooden Coptic art is the door of St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Rashid, which is on display at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The St Mark’s Museum collection includes wooden crosses and liturgical objects in addition to five beautiful 18th-century wooden frames, both in the mashrabiya style with mother of pearl inlays.

The book concludes with a list of suggested readings into the different genres of Coptic art.

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Easy to read

The book is written in simple English far removed from sophisticated academic jargon and includes many illustrations of the artefacts it describes. Each chapter opens with a brief history of the artistic genre and an explanation of its main characteristics in Coptic art, and then proceeds with information about the artists followed by a display of a piece of art and the explanation of its meaning and symbolism. The book is therefore not a mere description of works in St Mark’s Museum wealth of collections, but is rather a concise yet comprehensive illustrated history of Coptic art. It carries the reader into a journey to discover one of the many facets of Egyptian cultural heritage, a facet often overlooked despite its richness and strong connection with many aspects of today’s Egyptian modern life.

The author and museum curator Ms Helene Moussa has spared no effort to highlight the main idea and theme of the museum, “the continuity of Coptic art from ancient to modern times”. She puts into focus the “integral contributions that Copts and Coptic civilisation have made to the history of Egypt”.

Ms Moussa believes that museums are not just places to display exhibits; they have an educational role to inform future generations about the ideas, people, and cultures of the past. “Objects in a museum are tangible evidence of the spirit and soul of a society or civilisation,” she writes.

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Watani International

4 May 2016





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