11 Comments

  1. Anne Ryan

    These are so magnificent. I have always been drawn to Coptic Icons but theseare to the most beautiful I have ever seen.

  2. Bernadette Reilly

    These icons are of such beauty. Their celestial quality and perfection raises the mind and heart to God – the onlooker is filled with praise for God and the gift he has bestowed on the artist.

  3. Joshua Allen Donini

    As a newly illumined Orthodox Christian (Antiochian) I know that there are theological differences between Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians, but know not the extent. How, if at all, do those differences play out in the iconography? Can one be EO and use Coptic icons in his prayer corner? Perhaps the latter is an “ask your priest” question…

  4. It is very interesting to read this history of the appearance and subsequent struggle of this ‘Neo-Coptic’ school of iconography. Considering the reluctance of the Coptic faithful to embrace this style, it seems we should ask the following question: Is this reluctance due merely to an affection for Italianate painting, or is it perhaps due to something intrinsically problematic with the Neo-Coptic style?

    To my eyes, Neo-Coptic iconography looks distinctively 20th-century. It does not look very much like the medieval frescoes in Egyptian monasteries. In particular, the tendency to stylize everything, even facial features, as dark angular lines, is something I do not recall seeing in any historical Coptic or Orthodox art. (If there a precedent, please let me know what it is). However, this style of drawing is highly typical of 1960s-70s Christian art – the sort of graphic illustrations and stained glass windows that were ubiquitous in Catholic and Protestant churches.

    I do not mean this observation derisively. I am only observing a stylistic trait, and style in and of itself does not make a good or bad icon. In fact, we can observe the same sort of modern eccentricity in the work of the early-20th-century French-Russian iconographer Gregory Kroug. His work is full of modernistic affectations that are distinctive of 20th-century avant-garde French painting. His icons are masterpieces, but few would seriously suggest that his style is the ideal model for widespread use.

    So I wonder if Neo-Coptic iconography should be considered similarly – it’s a somewhat inventive style of painting, which, in the hands of a master, can be very good iconography, but which might be ill-suited as a style for lesser artists to imitate-hence the plethora of very bad imitation Neo-Coptic painting.

    I tend to think that if there were a school of Coptic painters whose work was stylistically more at the center of the tradition (meaning work that more closely resembles the frescoes at the ancient monasteries), then Coptic churches would more widely accept it, and student iconographers would more successfully imitate it.

    1. stephane rene

      Dear Andrew,
      thank you for taking the time to post a comment. That this style has certain distinctive features pertaining to the art of the late 20th century is undeniable, which is precisely why it is sometimes termed the “neo” or contemporary style. From your remarks (notably about the work of Gregory Kroug, and your use of the word “eccentricity” in describing the work of Fanous) should I assume that you are a Byzantine purist? As I mention in the text however, it would not be appropriate to judge this style of iconography according to Byzantine standards. The plethora of bad imitation Neo-Coptic icons you rightly refer to is to a large extent due to the lax attitude of both, clergy and would-be iconographers regarding iconography and iconology, as a serious subject of study. As long as this endures, there will be no positive development in Coptic iconography. Your comment “but which might be ill-suited as a style for lesser artists to imitate” is IMHO as valid for the Byzantine style as the Coptic, as demonstrated by a similar (but fortunately not so profuse) plethora of bad Byzantine iconography by untrained or poorly trained individuals or those of lesser artistic talent. The main difference is that if one really wishes to study Byzantine iconography seriously, there are proper schools to do so. There is none in the Coptic church.

      Your comment “the tendency to stylise everything, even facial features, as dark angular lines, is something I do not recall seeing in any historical Coptic or Orthodox art.” These “dark lines” are contours, a ubiquitous feature of Coptic art throughout the ages. From 6th c. Bawit, to the frescoes of the 9th c. Red Monastery church, or those of St Anthony’s Monastery from the 13th c., contours have been used by Coptic artists. I think “abstraction” is a more appropriate word in this context, than “stylisation”. Whether Greek, Russian, Coptic or Ethiopian, abstraction of the human figure and earthly reality has always been used in iconography, specifically to emphasise the other worldly nature of what is being depicted, which is precisely what Italian/Renaissance art reversed. On one level, it could be said that the more abstract the style is, the more spiritual it is, and conversely, the more realistic, the more worldly, reflecting an earthly and therefore imperfect/fallen nature. Such a movement is presently happening in the Ukraine, where iconographers are engaged in extreme abstraction, reducing the human form and objects to mere geometrical shapes, yet keeping the essence of the message. The same can be said of certain Russian schools, like Novgorod, or even the work of Theophanes the Greek, in which figures are often over elongated etc…

      I see nothing intrinsically problematic with the Neo- Coptic style. You would have to elucidate a little about what you mean by “problematic”. The only problem I see, as you rightly point out, is the majority of the Coptic faithful’s quasi addiction to Italianate realism and sentimentality. Should this be left to continue simply because the faithful like it and are used to it? It does not seem to be the opinion of H.H. Pope Tawadros and was definitely not that of Isaac Fanous.

      The issues surrounding Coptic iconography are many and highly complex, but I am glad some are being discussed for the first time on a serious and specialised platform such as OAJ. Thank you again for your interesting and challenging comments.

      1. Hello Stephane,
        Thank you for your interesting response. Indeed, it is important to finally discuss the question of specifically Coptic iconography, and I appreciate that you are willing to address the issue of style. Given that there is, for the most part, broad conformity between Coptic and Byzantine iconography with regards to subject and composition, I really see style as the main place in which to identify any meaningful differences that might exist.

        You ask if I am a Byzantine purist. I most definitely am not. On the contrary, I personally tend to be most attracted to iconography that is near the fringes of the Tradition. I love the Novgorod school; I have great affection for folkish icons from Romania with Baroque influence; I have a particular interest in carved wood and cast metal icons from the Old Believers. However, despite my appreciation of these manneristic works, I would not recommend them as styles that should be promoted for widespread use in modern parishes. When I am asked to recommend iconography for a church commission, I recommend iconography that reflects the center of the Tradition – meaning the most classic middle-Byzantine or 15th-16th-century Russian styles. This is the sort of iconography that is recognized as Orthodox by all, and which historically existed as a sort of international Orthodox style in the middle ages.

        On the question of imitation by less-skilled artists, I think there are indeed some styles that are more suited to this than others. Early-Romanesque iconography, of the sort sometimes painted by Father Zenon and Aidan Hart, for instance, is notoriously difficult, as it depends on excellent drawing skills, bold expression, and virtuosic brushstrokes. It is quite possible that this difficulty is the reason that this style of painting vanished long ago. On the other hand, the classic Russian style can be competently painted in a rather formulaic way, and students with modest artistic talent can be taught to paint acceptable icons in this manner, if they have humility and diligence. In 19th-century Russia, there were whole villages that mass-produced such icons by the millions. These icons are not great, but they’re not bad either. They just serve to show that this Russian style of painting was so standardized that almost anyone could do it. I don’t believe that the more virtuosic and mannered styles of icon painting would lend themselves to widespread production like this.

        I think the matter of style in Coptic icons is only going to be settled over the long haul. There need to be many iconographers experimenting with many styles, and only over time will it become clear which styles seem suited both to the eyes of the people and to the skill of the painters.

        1. Dear Andrew,

          Thank you for your response, with which I largely agree. However, I do differ with the gist of your last paragraph about allowing experimentation with many styles. This approach may be an option when the iconographer is already grounded in a given tradition and fluent in its visual vocabulary and canon, which IMO represent the ABC of iconography. This is definitely not the case with the current situation with Coptic iconography. The very “plethora” of bad Coptic icons you describe in your previous comment, is itself the result of “experimentations” done without any care for theory. Going back to Fanous’ teaching about form and essence, the form (style) is empty if it does not contain the essence (meaning, spirit, message). Take for example the Akhmimic Coptic style (practiced in Akhmim, upper Egypt, c.1600 to c.1850 AD, a famous Archangel Mikhail from there is now in the Benaki Museum, Athens). It is a highly abstracted and simple style, sometimes dismissively called “primitive” by scholars, very reminiscent of Ethiopian iconography of the same period. However, the correct symbolic and theological content is all there, making these icons fully canonical and also extremely powerful.

          What really needs to be done in my opinion, is to create a place where people can study the Coptic iconographic tradition, in the same way it is done in Greece or Russia. Then and only then, can educated “experimentation” take place, but not now. What is happening now is a rapid decadence because the blind is leading the blind as it were, trying to “create” a new style, while not even knowing one well. Please note I am not advocating that everyone should make copies of Fanous, only that his work should be seriously studied, as an ideal template. Let us remember that it is only after he had studied with Ouspensky, Lossky and Evdokimov, that Fanous was able to bring about a new Coptic iconography. Of what use is a pen if one is illiterate?

          1. reinkat

            I would love to study Dr. Fanous’ work–is there a book or collection where it is gathered into a body for study?

  5. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly Andrew.
    But I would like to return to Joshua Allen Donini’s question.
    It is a very good question and hard one to answer, but we’ll give it a tentative try.
    In answering I mainly have in mind the best historical examples of the Coptic style as you have described.

    I think there are two aspects to the icon that we need to bear in mind.
    The first is the pictorial form, or style. The second is the specific subject, theme, or narrative content, being communicated.
    However, we shouldn’t forget that style also has a semantic or communicative aspect to be “read” by the viewer.

    When it comes to pictorial form, traditional icons generally keep a tension between abstract and naturalistic qualities. Hence, they consist of a symbolic realism. Now, this is because reality itself consists of intelligible (noetos) and sensible (aisthetos) realms. These spheres of being are symbolically conveyed by abstraction and naturalism respectively. We can then perhaps say that pure- abstraction can imply a disregard, if not utter disdain, for things of sense or matter. While an overemphasis on naturalism is an obsession with corporeality, sensuality, or empiricism. As long as an icon finds itself between these two poles it will not go awry in what I call its incarnational metaphysics- the “union without confusion or division” of the intelligible and sensible.

    Coptic icons, although predominantly leaning towards abstraction, retain a balance between the two poles just described. In this sense they conform to the tradition of Eastern Orthodox iconography. They employ a legitimate form of symbolic realism which gives expression to a very unique cultural temperament. In this sense there would be no problem in having one in the icon corner.

    However, things get more complicated when it comes to the question of the subject or person being depicted and the theological message arising from these factors. It goes without saying that it would not be appropriate for the Eastern Orthodox to put in his icon corner the depiction of Coptic saints that are not commemorated in our calendar, especially those who refused to acknowledge the Council of Chalcedon. Neither would it be appropriate to have an icon of a historical event, such as a council, which marks a landmark in the Coptic opposition to Chalcedon. So discernment should be taken and the subject carefully “read” as to its conformity to Chalcedonian doctrine. Other than specific saints I am not aware of specific compositions that can be called “questionable” as to doctrinal matters. In most cases, at least when it comes to the major feasts, they will roughly follow the standard features as they have come down to us, in which case I wouldn’t hesitate to include them in my icon corner.

    In terms of form we should not confuse the traditional icon with mere “Byzantinism.” There is room for other cultural temperaments.

  6. Even though Orthodox iconagraphy can be considered as a form of art, it certainly is much more than that. One cannot invent his own style of iconagraphy. St. Luke, the first iconographer, was guided by the Holy Spirit to write his icons. Seems like maybe we should be following his style.
    Dahlia Weddings and Baptisms

    1. I agree that one should not “invent” one’s own style of iconography, but Coptic iconographers are trying to renew and adapt the ancient style of Coptic icons. Some may decide that this renewal is not successful or inadequate, but I don’t think anyone is trying to invent anything. It is possible to modify icons and change their style, for example St-Andre Rublev painted in a style that was new and modified the icon of the hospitality of Abraham by removing Abraham and Sarah, yet Moscow urged other artists to then imitate Rublev’s style and types. Also, it is very difficult to know what style St-Luke painted in, especially since the icons purported to be painted by him have no resemblance to 1st-10th century icons.

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