The beautiful and sacred art of iconography in the Coptic Orthodox Church is dying before our eyes.
Without realizing it, we have been witnessing its death on social media, especially on Facebook. Its death is manifested when our News Feed becomes filled with images like this:
To be honest, I don’t know what this image is supposed to mean, but it must mean something to many Copts, because these types of images are flooding the social media accounts and even homes of Orthodox faithful.
Another way in which we have been witnessing the death of Coptic iconography is when our News Feed is filled with images like this:
Isn’t this a beautiful icon? Yes. Isn’t this a Coptic Orthodox icon? No. Modern Coptic Orthodox youth who wish to identify with their Orthodox heritage oftentimes use Byzantine and other Eastern Orthodox iconography (as I do on this very website), because Coptic iconography is becoming more and more scarce.
And herein lies the problem: we are presiding over a bitter paradox. On the one hand, scholars from all over the world are engaging in costly restoration projects to preserve beautiful Coptic iconography in places like the Monastery of Abba Antony in the Red Sea and the Syrian Monastery in Wädi al-Natrûn, but on the other hand, at a grass roots level, Coptic iconography is fading away.
Where are the great and various schools of Coptic iconography that are preparing my generation in the theology, technique, and preservation of this sacred art? As far I know, the Coptic Clerical College in Egypt trains a handful of artists, like the modern master, Dr. Isaac Fanous, and recent graduates, but where can the training be found outside of Egypt? We say that our Church is now a global one, but shouldn’t that mean that Coptic iconography must now be taught off the soil of Egypt in order to meet the needs of a global Orthodox Church?
Moreover, where can the average Coptic Orthodox faithful obtain an authentic, theologically correct icon at a reasonable price? We have a few monasteries/convents in Egypt that mass produce Coptic icons, but it’s all but impossible to purchase them outside of Egypt. In our local parish bookstores, for example, we tend to welcome imported Western religious art, like statues and realistic paintings, from Mexico and China, which Orthodox faithful sadly purchase and allow into their homes. I have oftentimes visited homes and expressed surprise at seeing an authentic icon (or even a reproduction), because it has become so rare.
Without realizing it, we are losing iconography in our beautiful Coptic Orthodox Church. For me, it is not a matter of heritage, because it seems that the various universities and societies are doing a good job of preserving our heritage for us. Rather, it is a theological issue, a spiritual issue. Looking at that Western image of Christ under the bridge (see above) doesn’t teach me anything. From the earliest days of Christianity, eikons were material representations of the Divine, “windows to heaven,” as is oftentimes said. When the early Christians depicted a dove, it was a reference to Christ just as the fish was.
Holy icons are theological in the sense that they teach us something Divine when we prayerfully gaze upon them. For example, during the time of the Roman persecution of Christianity, icons depicted the life, faith, and victory of the holy martyrs who died for the faith. Thus, St. Basil the Great preached,
Arise now before me, you iconographers of the deeds of the saints.. Let me be overwhelmed by your icons depicting the brave acts of the martyr! Let me look at the fighter most vividly depicted in your icon… Let also Christ, Who instituted the contest, be depicted in your icon. (Homily on Barlaam, PG, Vol. 94, col. 1277c.)
Look at the words St. Basil uses to describe the feelings that arise in beholding an icon: we are to be overwhelmed at this vivid depiction of Christ in the bravery of the holy martyr.
Look again at the Western image above. Do St. Basil’s words describe what you are feeling? Did you learn anything from Christ under the bridge?
I don’t mean to ask that question in a condescending way, because that artist, and perhaps some people, are moved by such Western art. Perhaps such art even has a limited place among Christians. But we should not rely on this type of art to the exclusion of sacred art, which has been handed down and refined for 2,000 years as part of our Orthodox Tradition.
There are a number of things that we can do to reverse this tragedy, if we have the desire and will.
First, we can ask our fathers, the hierarchs, to establish schools of iconography throughout the world. Of course, this will take time and much preparation, and I am sure our hierarchs, filled with the Holy Spirit, are already working on this. It would be wonderful to see more holy monks and nuns trained in Coptic iconography so that this art may thrive and bear fruit in the hands of those who are leading a pure and holy life. As with anything in the Church, the work of our hands is directly tied to the purity of our souls, and I think the holy ascetics are the best ones to carry out this important responsibility (assuming they have the God-given talent).
Second, on a parish level, we can ensure that imported Western art is not the only option for people who want to buy sacred art for their homes from the parish bookstore. We don’t necessarily have to eliminate the imported art, but at the very least, it certainly shouldn’t be the only option.
Third, and also at the parish level, we need to speak to people about the origin, meaning, and benefit of sacred iconography more. If God wills, I certainly plan to post more about the meaning of iconography as part of this site’s service. If people understand the meaning of icons, they will love and embrace them.
Fourth, in our homes, we can strive to make icon corners with authentic icons so that our children may interact with them every day and understand that this is the norm for an Orthodox household.
We read, in the Life of St. John Chrysostomos, that, as he studied the Epistles of the Holy Apostle Paul, he continuously looked at an icon of the Holy Apostle, which seemed to come to life and speak to him.
Are we ready to do the same?