Christ & Abbot Mina, Le Louvre
6thC  Bawit, Egypt

Flight into Egypt, Neo-Coptic icon

Funerary portrait 2nd c. AD, egg tempera
J.P. Getty Museum

Iconography is the sacred art of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, Orthodox Christianity holds the human figure as the focus of its visual expression of the faith. The theological basis for this is found in the incarnation of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, according to St. John’s Gospel: “...and the Word was made flesh…” (John 1:14). Icons are an integral part of the Orthodox liturgy and stand at the threshold between the spiritual and material realms, heaven and earth. Icons also have an important didactic function, teaching the faithful about the mysteries of the Orthodox faith through the medium of art. Iconography is, first and foremost, visual theology.

The golden age of Coptic civilisation, also known as the Coptic period, 4th-7th centuries,  roughly coincides with the era between Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity in AD 311-313, and Egypt’s invasion by Islamic forces in AD 642. Coptic spirituality, art and culture flourished during this period, which saw the advent of Coptic monasticism and the  legendary Desert Fathers. Later, Coptic artists and craftsmen were highly prolific during Fatimid rule (9th-12th c.), a notable period of church building and restoration, flowering in a renewal of Coptic art. By the turn of the 19th century however, Coptic iconography fell into decadence and eventually disappeared for 150 years, until the 1950’s and the coming of Isaac Fanous.

Prof. Isaac Fanous is the founder of the Contemporary or Neo-Coptic School of Iconography. This new school came about as part of a general renaissance of Coptic culture that gained momentum during the patriarchate of Abba Kyrillos VI (1959-71). The canon of proportion, artistic vocabulary and symbol system of the contemporary style inherited much from Ancient Egypt. Designs are uncluttered, free of unnecessary elements and decorations and must present the viewer with the essential information necessary to experience and read the icon. The hieratic figures of the saints stare from the beyond at the onlooker, free from sentimentality and the human passions, radiating uncreated, heavenly light.

The techniques employed in the making of icons on wooden panels have not changed over the centuries. There are two main techniques, namely encaustic and egg tempera. The former seems to have gone out of use around the 8th-9th c., but was developed to a very high standard during the Greco-Roman period, as best exemplified by the famous funerary portraits from the necropoles of Fayoum and Saqqara, considered as the immediate precursors of the Christian icon. The latter technique of egg tempera is still in use today in the making of icons.  Both are used on wood prepared with gesso.

Coptic Iconography

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