The icons which adorn so many Coptic churches in Egypt and around the world, and which boast features that distinguish them as “Coptic icons”, have behind them a long history that goes hand in hand with the history of Egypt. A recent seminar tackled just that.
“Features of the Coptic icon throughout ages” was the theme title of a seminar recently hosted by Pi-Lampas Centre at the church of Holy Virgin in Mahmasha, Cairo, under the auspices of Anba Martyros, Bishop of Sharq al-Sekka al-Hadeed.
Nader Alfy Zikry, assistant professor at Sadat University’s Faculty of Tourism and Hotels, was guest speaker.
The event started with an opening prayer by Anba Martyros who welcomed the attendants, followed by a word of introduction by Asharf Maurice, coordinator of the Pi-Lampas seminars.
Dr Zikry began by defining the word icon, an originally Greek noun, he said, that denotes “an image or resemblance of appearance”. The word was later used to indicate pictures depicting Christian figures or scenes, which were consecrated and hung in churches.
“The Coptic icon has always played a significant role in the worship and rituals of the Church,” Dr Zikry said.
“Some archaeologists and scholars of history of Coptic Art”, Dr Zikry said, “believe that icons were first hung in homes, and that it was not till the third or fourth centuries that they were used in churches. When Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance in 313, allowing Christians to freely practice their faith, icons gained widespread presence in churches.”
Icons in the church or at home signify the spiritual presence of Christ and the saints, and events relating to them. Iconographers project icons that are considered religious beauties and aim at inspiring and teaching the faithful the mysteries of the Christian faith. As ‘visual theology’, icons stand between the material and spiritual realms. With numerous new converts entering the Christian realm, icons played the role of conveying the Bible to the illiterate in an appealing, easily understood visual message. Despite early opposition to the use of icons in the sense that they were being venerated in their own right, Church leaders later endorsed the use of icons to help the congregation assimilate Christianity and its doctrine.
Diptychs and triptychs
Coptic Iconography reached its peak during the 4th and 7th centuries. Dr Zikry gave examples of icons during that era, such as the 8th century icon of Jesus Christ resting His right hand on the shoulder of Saint Mina, Abbot of the monastery of Anba Apollo in Baweet, Egypt. The icon is now at the Louvre in Paris.
The Middle Ages, according to Dr Zikry, saw the spread of Coptic icon art in diverse forms: icons, murals, woodwork, metalwork and pottery. Many that once graced old churches and monasteries were moved to the Coptic museum in Cairo and to other local and world museums.
Dr Zikry talked of the diptych and triptych icons which spread in use during the Islamic era that began in the 7th century. Diptychs carried two icons hinged together so they would fold easily, whereas triptychs carried three also foldable icons. They were frequently used by travellers and pilgrims who carried them for worship and as blessings on their way. An example of a diptych, cited by Dr Zikry, is now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and carries depictions of St Tadros (Theodore) and the Archangel Gabriel. They were painted in encaustic (wax), a Coptic-style art form that was used in the famous Roman-era Fayoum portraits, portraits of deceased persons painted on cartonnage and placed on their sarcophaguses.
Western and Byzantine influence
Coptic icons drew from the western influence that came through exchange of experience with various Churches such as those of Cyprus, Venice, and Rome, also Crusader art which prevailed in Egypt during the Mamluk era (1250 – 1517). They were also clearly influenced by the Byzantine style; this was explicitly manifested in the expressive gestures on faces such as when the angels and the Holy Virgin grieve at the foot of Cross, as well as the scenes of torture and blood of the martyrs.
Dr Zikry moved on to the 18th and 19th centuries, citing the prominent, prolific iconographers of the time. These included Ibrahim al-Nassekh most of whose works date between 1742 and 1783, the Armenian-born Yuhanna al-Armani (1720 – 1786) who has a splendid collection of icons at the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, and the Greek Anastasi al-Rumi who was active in 1832 – 1871. The icons of these centuries are signed by their writers, and carry inscriptions in Coptic, Arabic, and sometimes in Armenian. The Arabic included errors, meaning the language was more or less alien to them.
The 20th century saw an unprecedented activity in Coptic iconography, especially following the establishment of the Institute of Coptic Studies (ICS) in Cairo in 1954. The ICS includes a venerable department of Coptic Art in which some of the best iconographers teach and which graduates an excellent new generation of artists. It also includes workshops in which a variety of the best icons are produced.
Dr Zikry cited the great iconographer Isaac Fanous (1919 – 2007), the first chairman of the department of Coptic art at ICS, and pioneer of modern iconography. 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. Works by Fanous and Nassif/Latif adorn numerous Coptic churches inside and outside Egypt.
The seminar closed with discussions led by Anba Martyros who is himself a seasoned researcher and Coptic studies scholar. In 2018 he earned a PhD degree from the ICS; the topic was on “Illustrations and ornamentation styles in Coptic manuscripts from 10th to 15th Century”.
Anba Martyros thanked Dr Zikry for the wealth of information his lecture had imparted.
Pi-Lampas is a centre the activities of which focus on Coptic heritage and studies. It holds seminars and workshops, and arranges field trips. It trains junior researchers in Coptology, and offers language courses including Greek.
8 May 2019