With reporting by Angele Reda, Nevine Gadallah, Islam Abul-Wafa
On 19 March, Egypt was deeply saddened to lose to COVID-19 Adel Nassief (1962 – 2021), a contemporary Coptic iconographer and artist whose works placed him in a class all of his own. Mr Nassief passed away at age of 58 in an Alexandria hospital.
“With love and appreciation”
Pope Tawadros II mourned Nassief on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church in a statement that offered condolences to his family, friends, and students. “With love and appreciation,” the statement said, “we remember Mr Nassief’s sincere service and many contributions throughout the years to the Coptic Church through his unforgettable artworks of Coptic icons. May his soul rest in peace.”
Many bishops also mourned Nassief on social media, among them Anba Arseny, Coptic Bishop of The Netherlands, who wrote on his Diocese’s website: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come,” (Hebrews 14:13). The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of The Netherlands mourns the dear artist. We remember his work with us over more than 30 years as we built 11 churches in the Netherlands, which boast his icons and outstanding mosaic murals.”
The funeral service for Nassief was held the following day at the Church of Holy Virgin in the village of Abu-Hanna in Damanhour, Beheira, some 130km northwest Cairo, the birthplace of the late artist.
Nassief leaves behind two daughters, Sara and Sandra, both students in Alexandria University; Sara studies dentistry, and Sandra Fine Arts. He also has three brothers: Fr Rweiss is a monk at al-Baramous Monastery in the Western Desert; Reda, a previous MP, and Rushdy, Mayor of Abu-Hanna.
Lotus cheers in welcome
As to Nassief’s artworks in Egypt, the most famous are icons, mosaics, and frescoes in St Athanasius Cathedral, Damanhour; St Mina Cathedral, Mariout, Alexandria; wall paintings at the entrance of the monastery of Archangel Mikhail in Akhmim some 500km south of Cairo; mosaics at the church of St Marina, 107km west of Alexandria; also many others.
In Zagazig, some 100km northeast Cairo, a 40sq.m. glass mosaic mural by Nassief adorns the façade of the church of the Holy Virgin and Mar-Yuhanna (St John). The huge mosaic depicts the Holy Family in Egypt, Zagazig being the capital of the province of Sharqiya and lying a short distance from Tall Basta, a spot which hosted the Holy Family for a few days on its Biblical flight into Egypt. There, Jesus caused a water spring to well up from the ground.
The Zagazig mural depicts St Joseph pulling a donkey; his face and eyes turned west towards the pyramids. St Mary rides on the donkey, holding the Child Jesus who opens His hands and blesses the land of Egypt. Behind them are the landmarks of Tel Basta and the water spring from which they once drank and which is there to this day. The lotus blossoms cheerfully welcome the visitors; the pigeons fly around as a symbol of peace, and the fishes in the River Nile are the symbol of abundance. The mosaic is rich in colour typical of the Egyptian scene. A border of vine leaf motifs frame the entire mosaic.
The most recent icons Nassief created are at the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin and St Macarius the Alexandrite in the monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrite. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Tawadros in January 2021, who especially praised Nassief’s icons and murals.
During his lifetime, Nassief held private exhibitions and took part in collective exhibitions inside and outside Egypt. In 2012, he participated in a Cairo exhibition titled “Holy Family Flight into Egypt’” and, in 2014, in another under the theme the “Way of Salvation” also in Cairo.
In 2003, Nassief was the first Egyptian artist to organise a solo exhibition featuring Egyptian landscapes in mosaics. Even though he primarily did Coptic icons, he always depicted the vibrant landscape of Egypt as a common factor in all his icons portraying the Holy Family: the Nile, the palms, the pyramids, and suchlike. His landscapes also included scenes of the River Nile in Aswan; Siwa oasis; palms al-Arish; beaches in Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria; as well as monasteries and churches.
In executing his icons, Nassief preferred the old style of using tempera, a medium that consists of pigments mixed with a water soluble binder medium such as egg yolk. Tempera paintings, even though arduous to prove, endure the ravages of time.
In 2013, Nassief participated in the French Autumn Salon in Paris with his mosaic “Blessed be Egypt, My People”. He was honoured by the Salon, and his mosaic at the Archangel Mikhail’s was listed by the French Cultural Ministry as a notable cultural heritage worthy of a visit.
In 2016, the Nassief represented Egypt in the first international exhibition of Orthodox icon contemporary art in Athens, sponsored by the Coptic Church in Greece together with UNESCO and the Egyptian Cultural Centre. Nassief participated with a 120 x 65cm icon of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It depicts in tempera the Child Jesus, His mother Mary and St Joseph in a boat sailing on the Nile.
Nassief was chosen as a member of the International Association of Contemporary Mosaicists, in Ravenna, Italy.
Nassief was awarded multiple times with certificates of appreciation. He was granted the shield of the Creativity Centre in Alexandria in 2003. In 2012 the French Ministry of Culture listed his works of mosaics, Coptic icons and frescoes as distinctive cultural heritage worthy of visits. At the exhibition “Generation of 1980s” in 2014, he was honoured with the shield of Alexandria University for his achievements. He also was awarded in 2018 the shield of excellence and creativity from the al-Muwatna (citizenship) News website, in recognition of his distinguished role in preserving the Coptic identity inside and outside Egypt.
Despite the numerous honours, Nassief was known for his modesty and quiet. He reached out to the younger generations of Egyptians, especially those living outside Egypt, attempting to bond them to Coptic art. Since his artwork emanated from his heart and soul, it perfectly succeeded and fulfilled his life mission of glorifying the Lord.
22 March 2021