Coptic Iconography

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 and symbolism. Iconography is, first and foremost, visual theology.

The golden age of Coptic civilization is known as the Coptic period, 4th-7th centuries, which 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 revival of Coptic art by 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 present the viewer with the essential information. The hieratic figures of the saints stare from the beyond at the onlooker, free from sentimentality and 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 techniques are used on wood prepared with gesso.

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

Flight into Egypt, Neo-Coptic icon

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

Coptic Civilization; Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Egypt is a publication dedicated to Coptic culture, art and spirituality.  The chapter on Contemporary Coptic Iconography was written by Monica René and represents the first informed discourse on the Neo-Coptic style and its founder, the late Prof. Isaac Fanous. 

Coptic Society, Literature and Religion from Late Antiquity to Modern Times:  Proceedings of the Tenth International  Congress of Coptic Studies, Rome 2012 (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta)  Peeters 2016.

P.Buzi (editor),  A. Complani (editor), F. Contardi (editor)

Chapter on Contemporary Coptic Iconography by Monica Rene

It is a consolidated tradition that the Proceedings of the International Congresses of Coptic Studies include both papers organized thematically - according to sections and panels - and a larger group of general reports, provided with a rich bibliography, about new research trends and acquisitions in a particular field of Coptology: art, archaeology, literature, linguistics, monasticism, Gnosticism, magic, etc. The Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, in particular, contain the reports delivered during the Cairo Congress of 2008 (covering the period 2002-2008) and those pronounced during the Rome Congress of 2012 (covering the period 2008-2014), the latter characterized by two new reports: "Shenutean studies" and "Ethiopic studies in relation to Egyptian culture." Moreover, it is worth mentioning that for the first time some papers are organized in panels dedicated to very specific topics, in which current research is particularly alive, such as "Bawit: a monastic community, its structure and texts," "Thebes in Late Antiquity," or "The reconstruction and edition of Coptic Biblical Manuscripts." The outcome is a series of tools for the study of Christian Egypt and essays about Coptic literature, art and archaeology seen on the backdrop of Late Antique and Medieval Egyptian society and religion.