Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB: "This blog reflects on what many people ask about God and His image. In a way, it focuses on questions like: How should art depict the relationship between man and God? How can art best express eternal values? Can you, and should you, portray the face of Christ? For many centuries these were some of the questions which taxed the minds of the greatest artists of Western Christianity. For Eastern Christianity, the sacred icons make that connection between God and man in Christ, the perfect and ideal Image of God: Imago Dei."

Israel's Motley Mosaics: A discovery of a fantastic ancient floor in the Negev

Israel's Motley Mosaics

By Miriam Feinberg Vamosh    | May.21, 2013 | 12:36 PM

The discovery earlier this month of yet another spectacular mosaic floor in the Negev near Kibbutz Beit Kama is the opportunity to consider a “flying [mosaic] carpet”- themed itinerary. You can include stops at dozens of these marvellous, meticulous creations, some almost 16 centuries old.

The mosaics, most of which were installed in ancient churches and synagogues, told Bible stories, extolled donors, beautified the experience of faith and even educated people.

Most of these mosaics are brimming with human and animal figures, some fanciful, some realistic; some from Jewish tradition and some, like the pagan sun god Helios galloping across the sky, borrowed from other cultures. When the first synagogue mosaic in the country was discovered (now on display at Beit Alpha National Park) in the 1920's, scholars were amazed to discover that it was full of human and animal images – ostensibly prohibited by the Second Commandment. But scholars now tell us that Jewish thought of the day allowed such depictions – as long as they were not going to be worshipped, and that they are part of a tradition stretching across the region in the Byzantine period, which spanned the fourth–seventh centuries.

To catch several mosaics at once, visit the Inn of the Good Samaritan’s mosaic museum, where the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has also set up a shelter for pilgrims to hold mass at the site of a sixth-century church, including, of course, a mosaic floor. For individual mosaics, below are some of the most beautiful of the many colorful and intricate mosaics floors open to the public at sites you can weave into your itinerary:

More Negev Mosaics

The church mosaic uncovered at Kibbutz Beit Kama is one of several all over the Negev, dating back to the time when Christian pilgrims crisscrossed that region. In the northern Negev, near Kibbutz Nirim (off of road 241 or 242) is another beautiful “stone carpet.” Restored by the Jewish National Fund, this sixth-century mosaic on the ancient site of Maon, like many ancient synagogue and church mosaics, features an inscription mentioning the names of the donors (some things never change) as well as intricate depictions of agricultural motifs such as grape-harvesting and brimming baskets of fruit, animal and birds.

One of many stunning mosaics found in Tzippori

(To visit the first of these ever discovered, the sixth-century Shellal mosaic, will require a little more fuel than a trip to the Negev – after its discovery during World War I it was eventually taken to Canberra, Australia, where it is on display at the war museum there.)

Go North

Birds are a common motif in mosaic floors, and in fact, have given their name to the Bird Mosaic of Caesarea. Some of them, like storks and pelicans, still cross Israel’s skies. Others are fanciful or humorous, road-runner style. Around them are wild animals and repeating geometric patterns that would put an Amish quilting bee to shame. The Bird Mosaic is clearly signposted, on the way to the aqueduct in Caesarea. It is special in that it is not from a church or a synagogue, but rather from a room in the villa of a wealthy Byzantine-era Caesarean.

Most mosaics are famed for the detail of their depictions of animals, plants and human figures. But the beauty of the mosaics at Mamshit National Park, which contains two churches, is in their simplicity. A rare depiction in Byzantine Christian art of a cross on the floor of the eastern churches reveals its antiquity, since after the 427 CE crosses were prohibited as floor decorations.

Other Christian artistic and religious symbols include fish, and peacocks which can be found on the mosaic floor of the Byzantine church at Horvat Midras, southwest of Jerusalem, not far from Beit Guvrin National Park. Ancient pilgrims apparently marked the tomb of the prophet Zechariah at the site. This magnificent mosaic was discovered in 2011 – “thanks” to an illegal dig by antiquities robbers.

The Israel Antiquities Authority subsequently mounted an excavation, unearthing the floor featuring depictions of animals. Complex geometric patterns create beautiful frames on this floor.

Birds also appear in the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea, whose dominant colors seem to mimic the surrounding desert scenery – shades of beige and brown, with green highlights, recalling the oasis home of the community that built it. Like other synagogues the mosaic reveals that the community was wealthy enough to pay the designer, the mosaic master and his extensive team – no small outlay, as you’ll learn at the charming audiovisual presentation at Beit Alfa National Park’s mosaic.

In the case of Ein Gedi, the wealth came from the cultivation of balsam, used in cosmetics and medicines. Because producing these products was so lucrative, it was apparently kept under close wraps. The long inscription in its synagogue mosaic brings down a curse on anyone who reveals the “secret” – presumably the coveted, eyes-only balsam recipe.

Some mosaic artisans outdid themselves in human depictions. Not everyone approved of such depictions, because some of them, like the sun god Helios or the signs of the Zodiac, were pagan or had been adapted by Christians. In fact, at one point in the history of the synagogue in Tiberias (Hamat Tverya National Park), the building was renovated, including a wall right across the beautiful floor, obviously to hide what some new building committee considered offensive.

At Beit Alfa National Park, discovered back in the 1920s, you’ll find an entire Bible story depicted in stone– the Binding of Isaac, right down to the altar, Abraham holding the knife, and a hand emerging from a cloud, with the first words of the fateful verse: “Lay not thy hand upon the lad” (Gen. 22:12).

Here and elsewhere people are amazed to find they can recognize some of the ancient Jewish symbols. Flanking the mosaic depiction of the doors of the Holy Ark is the seven-branched candelabrum, one of Judaism’s most enduring symbols, as well as a shofar, lulav and etrog. The only symbol most people can’t quite make out is the incense pan, which, like the candelabrum and the shofar, commemorated worship at the Jerusalem Temple, long destroyed by the time these mosaics were created.

At Tzippori National Park, you’ll find the mosaic-as-story reaching new heights. The Binding of Isaac is there, too, but alongside the sacrificial scene a remnant of the mother of the “offering” – Sarah – appears. The story continues up the mosaic to the Zodiac, where, as in many other synagogue mosaics, the names appear in Hebrew.

The four seasons are also shown, named and bearing their appropriate symbols, such as a bowl of grapes for summer or water for the rainy winter season. These were educational devices, scholars tell us, dating from a time when what some consider “merely” astrology today was a scientific pursuit. In the Tzippori mosaic, the design includes the symbol of the sun, often associated in Psalms with redemption, as well as the Temple symbols. The entire story reminded worshippers that redemption, first promised to Abraham, would shine like the sun, and the Temple would be rebuilt.

At Susya, in the southern Hebron Hills (reached from road 31 in the northern Negev) lies another synagogue floor replete with Jewish symbols. Here, too apparently the synagogue board decided to replace their Zodiac with a more “conservative” geometric pattern. The Bible story here depicts Daniel in the lion’s den.

Finally, the relatively simple mosaic at the Herodian Mansions in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter may be among the most poignant in Israel. It once decorated a Jewish home during the Second Temple period, when even King Herod observed the Jewish law proscribing human or animal images. What this mosaic with its simple geometric pattern lacks in color and designs compared to others, it makes up in the history it brings alive: on it are the charred remains of a wooden beam that fell from the mansion’s ceiling and burned itself to cinder on the floor, together with the rest of the magnificent Jewish homes of Jerusalem’s Upper City one month after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

An Application in Turkey to turn the Church of Hagia Sophia from Museum to Mosque


        A parliamentary commission in Turkey is considering an application by the citizens to turn the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque. It may affect the Istanbul's mega-tourist attraction, as well as other Turkish historical sites. As we know, the Church of Hagia Sophia in the small town of Trabzon  has served for the past 50 years as a museum for 13-century art and artefacts under the direction of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. 


The claim in the court is that at the moment Hagia Sophia is an "illegal occupation", and that the building was "originally covenanted" as a mosque. The request to change the status of Hagia Sophia is supported by application given to 401 people, in which more than 97 percent of interviewees requested the transformation of the ancient building into a mosque and afterwards for it to be reopened for Muslim worship. The application has been taken under consideration by the Parliament’s Petition Commission.

This is not the first time that a museum comes back to be a place of prayer. In 2010, Christians secured the right to hold religious services for pilgrims in St. Paul's Church in Tarsus, nearly 70 years after the church was re-purposed as a museum.This case can be used for those who support the change in order to proceed with their proposal.

There is no word yet whether the plan to convert the museum into a mosque will involve preserving or masking the Christian art that adorns the walls. From the date of its dedication in 360 until 1453, Hagia Sophia Museum served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. Following the city’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire, the building turned into a mosque in 1453 and remained so until 1931, when it was closed to the public. For four years later, it was reopened by the republican authorities in 1935 as a museum.

The whole situation could be bad news for Istanbul's famous Hagia Sophia. The Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate supports the continued use of the historical Hagia Sophia in Trabzon as a museum. The argument is that there is not an urgent need of a mosque, also because there is no a proper community of faithful there. They suggest that the best way is to keep the church as a museum.

However, if Hagia Sophia opens up as a place for prayers, it also may be possible for Christians to hold ceremonies there. DailyNews comments on it in an interview with Dositheos Anagnostopulos, the Patriarchate’s press officer. He told them when he was asked  if the Patriarchate would demand to hold ceremonies in Hagia Sophia as well. To it, Anagnostopulos said that if the ministry permitted it and the Orthodox community desired it, this would be their duty, not only a desire.


Hagia Sophia is also known throughout the world as   Ἁγία Σοφία, Holy Wisdom, Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia. It used to be the Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. 

The Church was dedicated to the Logos, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Its dedication feast taking place on December 25, the anniversary of the Incarnation of the Logos in Christ, the Nativity. Although it is sometimes referred to as Sancta Sophia (as though it were named after Saint Sophia), sophia is the phonetic spelling in Latin of the Greek word for wisdom - the full name in Greek being Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, "Church of the Holy Wisdom of God".

The basilica is famous in particular for its massive dome and it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It is said to have "changed the history of architecture." It was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. The current building was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and was the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site. It was designed by Isidore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician.


Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Iconoclasm, Chludov Psalter, 9th centuryKhludov Psalter (detail). The image represents the Iconoclast theologian, John the Grammarian, and an iconoclast bishop destroying an image of Christ. (State Historical Museum, Moscow)

Iconoclasm is a phenomenon which has appeared several times through recorded history. It is characterized as being the intentional demolition of the religious icons, effigies, symbols or monuments of a society’s culture. This phenomenon appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries CE and caused great harm and civil strife to this once great empire. Since Constantine the Great’s Edict of Mediolanum, icons have been used in the Roman Empire to represent Jesus Christ or other important figures of Christianity. These icons were often presented on mosaics, which the Romans were particularly fond of. 

Depiction of an iconoclast

The causes of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire are numerous and complex. The first Iconoclastic period of the Byzantine Empire, which took place between the years 730 and 787 CE was preceded by a notable increase in the use of icons to represent religious figures. One particular event that may have contributed to the emergence of the phenomenon was the fabrication of coins by the emperor Justinian II in 695 which were marked by an image of Jesus Christ. This was apparently not well received by many communities living in the Roman Empire and may have contributed to the rising animosity against icons. Some historians like Arnold J. Toynbee have put forward the theory that the extensive Muslim conquests of lands bordering the Byzantine Empire influenced the Byzantine authorities to embrace the Muslim’s destructive policy on idolatry. 

During a period of marked iconoclasm, there are usually two positions on the subject. On one hand, there are the iconoclasts who are in favour of the iconoclasm and the iconodules, who are opposing it. The iconoclasts often viewed the icons as pagan idolatries and therefore wanted to remove that contradictory (to them) aspect of the Christian religion. They also believed that the icons might have been of a Nestorian nature because according to their view, these works of art could only depict one of the two natures of Jesus, either the human one or the divine one. If the icons portrayed the human side of Jesus, they were objects of the propagation of Nestorian Christianity as opposed to Nicene Christianity. Also, one of their main arguments was that the commandment “You shall not make for yourself an idol” forbade religious icons. 

During the two outbreaks of iconoclasm that affected the Byzantine Empire (730-787 & 814-842) the iconoclasts, who were leaded at first by the emperor Leo III the Isaurian, wanted the abolition and the destruction of icons for various reasons. The reason that has been often attributed to the emperor’s will of abolishing religious icons was that he believed that the very popular use of them caused military defeats at the hand of the Muslim forces and the terrible volcanic eruption of the island of Thera, which he attributed to God’s displease. Leo III’s successor, his son Constantine V, continued his father’s work and mobilized the Council of Hieria in 754, which discussed iconoclasm and advocated it. Constantine V’s successor was Leo IV who is most notoriously known because of his wife Irene’s secretive support of the iconodules during his reign. He took some measures against the icons but after his death, they were undone by his wife. The second period of iconoclasm was instigated by the emperor Leo V the Armenian who might have chosen this path to justify that the military disaster that took place before and under his reign were caused by the divine condemnation of icons. Leo’s successor was Michael II who validated the decisions that were made at the major council of 754. 

On the other hand, the iconodules claimed that Christian religious icons were not idols for the reason that religious depictions of a different religion to Christianity were idols and Christian images were legitimate icons. The reasoning behind this argument was that icons, which were Christian images, illustrated genuine persons while idols depicted unreal identities since they were representing other gods, which were automatically unreal. Furthermore, for iconodules, icons were legitimate because they were portraying Jesus’ flesh. They confirmed that by affirming that the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, which proved that he was the incarnation of God, confirmed that the icons represented Jesus Christ, the second figure of Trinity and not God, the first figure of Trinity. Iconodules also claimed that the Emperor Leo III the Isaurian had no right to decide these canonical matters because that was the church’s role. Finally, one of their most considerable assertions was that Acheiropoieta, icons which had come into existence by the hand of God, made icons legitimate. 

The iconodules were blessed by people of primary importance during both periods of iconoclasm. Leo III’s decisions were opposed by the Patriarch of Constantinople Germanus I and also by Pope Gregory III who proscribed them. Later on, the Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople would try to reverse the balance but with little effect. The most decisive iconodule of this first crisis was Irene, the wife of Leo IV and regent after his death. She had to hide her affinities toward icons during her husband’s reign and when she held the regency, she managed to end the First period of iconoclasm. The Second period of Iconoclasm was ended in a similar fashion by Theodora, the widow of emperor Theophilus and regent of the Roman Empire. She restored the icons in 843.

The two periods of iconoclasm greatly affected the Byzantine or Roman Empire’s relations with Rome. The tensions erupted at first during Leo III’s reign where his measures were directly defied by Pope Gegrory III. Leo III responded by occupying lands that were under the Pope’s authority (Calabria and parts of Sicily). The tensions that followed between Constantinople and Rome fuelled the popes to valorise the Frankish kingdom which was renamed “Empire of the Romans” under Charlemagne. The hostility and rivalry between Rome and Constantinople culminated in the Great Schism in 1054, when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael I Cerularius of Constantinople excommunicated each other. The East-West Schism of 1054 had disastrous consequences on the Eastern Roman Empire as it permanently divided the Christian world between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It also led partially to the Sack of Constantinople of 1204 (under a unified Christian world, this would probably not have happened) and to the ultimate fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, in 1453.

Edited by Labienus: here

An interesting series of videos on the Byzantine Empire, including stories on images before and after the Iconoclasm.

Here below you will find an interesting talk on icons given by  Bishop Callixtos Ware

The Coptic Icon Between Past and Present: Conversing With Stéphane René

It presents an interview given by the iconographer Stéphane RenéHe studied under the school’s founder, Prof. Isaac Fanous, at the Institute of Coptic Studies, Cairo. Now, he has become a leading exponent of the Neo-Coptic School. 

The French iconographer gives us some important keys to penetrate into the coptic iconographic art with its techniques, its history but also its profound spirituality. 

Finally, you will find a video on Egyptian art, a main source of Christian iconography. Its contribution lies on measurements, proportions and a deep spiritual symbolism.

How did you become an iconographer?

My interest in iconography started with my conversion to Orthodoxy some 30 years ago, but I had always been interested in art as far as I can remember.  I first saw the icons of Isaac Fanous in St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, London, in 1982.  They resonated deeply with me; their timeless beauty and exquisite simplicity made them very powerful, even beyond words.  One Sunday in June of the same year, at the suggestion of my dear departed priest Abouna Antonios Farag, I was ordained a deacon by H.G. Bishop Misael.  In the space of a few weeks we found ourselves quite literally ‘catapulted’ to Egypt, on our first trip of many.  We stayed at Fr Antonios’ apartment on the ever busy Shara Ramses, just a short walk away from Cairo’s St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral complex and the Institute of Coptic Studies, and, unbeknown to us at the time, merely 3 doors away from Prof. Isaac Fanous.  While focusing my attention on the icons during the liturgy in the London church, I remember thinking that if I ever had the opportunity to visit Egypt I would make it a special point to meet the man who created these beautiful works of faith and art.

Stéphane René and Isaac Fanous

I have read on your website that you have been a disciple of Isaac Fanous. Can you tell us more about that?

I am a disciple of Isaac Fanous and will always be one.  I first met Dr Isaac when I visited the art studio at the Institute of Coptic Studies (ICS), Cairo, where he had worked since the mid 50′s.  The studio was in effect ground zero, where the revival of Coptic iconography happened; there was a certain sense of historicity about the place.  There was a row of icons on display that he had just completed for an iconostasis; the warm glow of the golden flesh tones and the brilliant, yet soft light suffusing the compositions were at once comforting and awe inspiring.  I can say that the day of my first meeting with Dr Isaac is fixed in my mind as the moment I heard the proverbial ‘call’.  He invited us both, my wife Monica and I, to study with him for one year at the Institute. While I would study the practical side of icon painting with him in studio, Monica, a journalist/photographer, would record and catalogue Coptic heritage. I explained that living in London, it would be difficult… and we would try to return soon etc… In fact we spent 8 years going back and forth for up to 6 months at a time.  I was in studio most of the time but also travelling around the Coptic sites and monasteries with Monica. In 1986, under the supervision of Dr Isaac, she started a project cataloguing the art of Abu Sifain’s Church in Old Cairo, a huge undertaking but well worthwhile.

In 1987 I started a PhD project at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.  This was the first time any practical Christian art, let alone Coptic, had been the subject of a PhD at this world renown British institution.  I was part of the newly formed Visual Islamic Art Department, which was dedicated to the arts of the Islamic world, of which Coptic Art also happens to be a part.  A few months after my arrival, the Dept was renamed Visual Islamic and Traditional Art or VITA, taking into account my presence there.  I was the only student looking at Christian art, as all the others were studying Islamic art.  Although I spent most of my research time in Egypt, it was a wonderful experience that I will never forget.  The RCA flew Dr Isaac over to London to attend my viva voce, as the only person in the world qualified to examine my work.  This was a time of great rejoicing for us both. (see pic) This recognition of his work by such a prestigious institution meant a lot to him as he believed that iconography should be taught in an academic setting and approached with faith and reverence but also with a scientific mind.  The study of sacred iconography is a multi faceted discipline that brings together many threads of study; painting, hagiography, architecture and geometry, chemistry, theology, symbolism, history etc…

It was during this most important and precious time in the studio with the master that I became acquainted with the techniques and principles involved in the contemporary style of Coptic iconography.

Why is Isaac Fanous important in the history of Coptic iconography in your opinion?

Isaac Fanous is undoubtedly the greatest Coptic artist of the 20thc. His achievement,in terms of his artistic legacy, is beyond comparison. Only the heyday of Byzantium or the treasures of ancient Egyptian art could come close.  His establishment of a new canon is unique in the Orthodox Church (Eastern or Oriental).  To call him a mystic of the highest order would not be too far fetched, even though he would certainly joke it off, saying he is only a simple man living a simple life: ‘ana maskeen awi’ he would say with great humility.  But if the description of a mystic is one whose spiritual eyes have been opened, then he was indeed one, or at least a true visionary. Even the masterpieces of Coptic art from Bawit and Saqqara or the beautiful frescos of St Anthony’s monastery do not quite compare with the impeccable order and superb harmony of form and colour in Fanous’ work, mixed with a mature and potent symbolic system.  So to answer your question: yes, Fanous is central to the history and development of Coptic iconography and is a crucial bridge between the past and the present.  He, so to speak, gave Coptic iconography a second birth.

The icon of the Theotokos "Stella Maris", written by Stéphane René and blessed by H.H. Benedetto XVI, May 2006

Until Fanous, icon making had been mainly artisanal in nature and very often intuitive rather than formally studied under a master or school.  There are consequently many styles of iconography in Egypt, according to the different regions and periods.  The style of iconography found in the Delta region for instance, is very different from that found at Akhmim or further south.  The Neo-Coptic style fathered by I. Fanous is probably the first attempt at a ‘unified’ Coptic style, valid from Alexandria to Aswan as well as the worldwide Coptic Diaspora.

When I started to study with Dr Isaac in 1982-83, there was scant interest in Coptic iconography among the Copts themselves. One of the few serious regulars at the ICS studio was an English lady living in Cairo with her journalist husband. She eventually did a PhD under Fanous at the ICS during the 80’s.  For whatever reasons, cultural or otherwise, art is not encouraged in the Coptic Church; it is mostly seen as a hobby, or something one does in one’s own spare time, outside a ‘proper job’.  This kind of attitude does not foster artistic creativity.  It is no wonder that iconographers in Egypt often come from other countries or other Christian traditions.  On the whole, the transition between religious painting and sacred iconography has been (and still is) quite difficult and painful for the Coptic people.  The Roman Catholic pious images introduced into Egypt by the foreign missionaries in the mid 1800’s, have been the dominant imagery for generations of Copts and are still very much part of the collective psyche. It has been a slow and uphill struggle to promote a change towards the more authentic sacred art form of iconography   championed by Fanous: “We fight against ignorance” he’d say.

Russian and Byzantine iconographers see iconography as a “whole” which comprehends not only the “technical” part but also the spiritual one. So they pray and fast while painting. Is it the same for you?

The whole process of writing an icon is a prayer, not a prayer of words but a prayer in action.  Of course one is free to say prayers of words while working or even sing psalms, but there are no strict dictates or rules in the Coptic tradition that I know of.  It is left to individuals to do what works best for them.  The same with fasting: it is up to the individual to decide on these things.  Sometimes an iconographer will spend 15-20 hours per day up scaffoldings, in often very awkward positions; it represents a great output of energy and if in addition one was obliged to deny his/her body necessary nutriment it would make things very difficult indeed. However, if an iconographer is part of a monastic community, the monastic rules governing fasting and prayer will also apply to his/her work as an iconographer.

Where do discipline and tradition end and where does the artist’s inspiration begin? In other words: how do you find a balance between personal inspiration and the respect of the tradition?

A good icon, in my opinion, should have none of myself and all of myself in it.  I know this sounds like a contradictory statement, but it is not. My focus is on following the master, not on gratifying my own ego. Personally I don’t care about having my own recognizable style.  This work is not about me, or my style.  It’s about something much bigger than that.  These ideas belong to modern secular art that is ruled by egotistic notions.  Conversely, I must put all myself, my attention and intention, in my work and there is no room for approximation or slackness.  Many ‘would be’ iconographers are too concerned with developing their own style and signing their work with a large and incongruous signature, rather than try to follow the master and the canons he teaches.  They have made themselves masters and create so called icons that are full of themselves, the very antithesis of what an icon should be. With the advent of the Internet there has been a flurry of such ‘iconographers’ aligning themselves to the Neo-Coptic school. The majority of these sites are nothing more than a virtual bazaar, equipped with shopping carts and the all important credit card logos – a Khan-El-Khalili online as it were.

What do you think about the statement that Coptic Christianity lacks – mainly, for historical reasons, for it separated from the Orthodox ecumene – a “theology of icon” differently from the russo-bizantine orthodoxy which has a complex theological system of icon?

Firstly, it is not quite right to say that the Coptic Church separated from the Orthodox family: it was thrown out of it for political reasons.  Also, it ‘lacks’ nothing: it could be argued that the genesis of Christian iconography first happened in Egypt and then spread and developed throughout the Roman Empire.  In my opinion, there may have been a case of more or less simultaneous polygenesis, with Christian ideas fertilizing local cultures resulting in the creation of a new art that reflected the new faith.  The development of Coptic art is intimately linked to the history of Egypt.  Coptic art has as much theological basis as Russo-Byzantine art but has been the subject of much less research and also to some extent, the victim of a European bias that considers it less relevant because it is primarily African and therefore non-European.  It also has a very elaborate symbol system but mostly unknown for the same reason that there is no research published on the subject.

What makes an icon Coptic? What are the main similarities and the main differences between the Coptic icon and icons of other Christian traditions?

This is an interesting but difficult question to answer.  In general, the main difference between Christian artistic traditions is one of stylistics, i.e. form.  The content is broadly identical since it is always based on biblical text.  Hence the iconography of the main feasts, the life of Christ, etc… are identical.  Some of the hagiography will differ slightly according to the local culture and saints’ names may differ, but that is as far as it goes.  So as already mentioned, we are left with difference in form or style mainly.  The Greco-Byzantine style for instance, was first and foremost an imperial art, reflecting the glory of the emperor and his court. Balkan iconography came straight out of Byzantium and so did Russian iconography much later and these traditions all have Byzantium as a common denominator.   Coptic art on the other hand came from the grass-roots so to speak, often the result of local effort and artistic expression interacting with and stimulated by faith.  There was also a noted hatred of all things Byzantine by the native Egyptians, Christian or not, who considered themselves oppressed by their Byzantine overlord.  Early Coptic iconography developed in rural areas, especially monasteries, such as Bawit or the Kellias, and many others up and down the Nile valley.  To the question ‘what makes an icon Coptic?’ there is no straightforward answer when discussing ancient icons.  It is a different matter when discussing Neo-Coptic iconography: what makes an icon Neo-Coptic is the canon of proportion used in its creation.  If no canon is used, the icon is nothing but the expression of the individual’s whims and subjective personal ideas.

If you could choose two Coptic icons (one of the pre-neo-period and one of the neo-period) is your favourite icon and why?

I have no favourite icon.  All icons are my favourite icons. If you mean which iconographic subject is my favourite, I would say Christ Pantocrator and the Transfiguration, because the essence of the Christian message is fully contained within these two themes, what ultimately form one and the same theme.

How many hours do you work per day? Do you work alone or with a team? Did you paint any church? Did you do any exhibition of your icons?

I spend an average 6-8 hours a day in studio.  Constant practice is one of the requisites for becoming an iconographer, with emphasis on the word ‘becoming’. One is perpetually in a state of ‘becoming’, which does not allow for complacency.  Each new icon I write is like the first one and I consider myself a student even after so many years of practice.  Dr Isaac always said: ”if you are not solving problems you are not really working, you are just doodling”.
I work alone, not by choice, but because it is very difficult to find people interested enough in England, and because this is not the kind of work you just pay somebody to do.  Of late, I sometimes ask a student or two to come and help with panel preparation and laying the proplasmos (dark tones).  I have done some monumental work, especially in California, Germany and Austria. Each time I have worked alone on scaffolding from beginning to end.

I was the first of Dr Isaac’s students to mount exhibitions of contemporary icons.  When the idea was first put to me back in the 80’s, I was very sceptical about it, thinking that icons should be in churches and not commercial galleries like some kind of commodity.  I also did not want people to perceive icons as just another artistic individual style on the same level as modern art, art as decoration or just art for art sake.  Eventually I changed my mind and held my first exhibition in May 1989 at a famous gallery in Kingston Jamaica.  I thought that if I could not take the people to the church, the least I could do was take the church to the people.  It worked and the exhibition was actually sold out two days before the opening.  Since then I have had a few in Los Angeles and London mainly, but I can’t say I enjoy them.  I much prefer to work on commission, as this way I know that a church or an individual is actually waiting for the work and where the icon is going.

Who are you favourite painters (not only icon painters) and why?

I don’t really have a favourite painter as such.  I like some modern painters like Picasso, Chagal, Braque, Malovitch, Monet, etc… But I also like Indian and Islamic miniature painting for instance as well as the mummy portraits.  My personal taste in art is very eclectic and spans many traditions and styles.  I am on the other hand unmoved by the art of the Renaissance, which I find over ‘fleshy’ and rather spiritless.

Once a lady told me: I don’t like Coptic icons because they show pagan symbols like the “ankh”. As an iconographer, do you have anything to say to this lady?

I would say to this lady that she needs to open her mind a little and understand that Christianity did not suddenly spring out of a vacuum.  It is a question of embracing the past rather than rejecting it.  All the so called pagan symbolism in the Coptic icon was baptised into Christianity, like the ankh, certainly, but also like the enthroned Virgin suckling the Holy Child or the Mounted Horseman transfixing the dragon of darkness.  All these themes can be called ‘pagan’ but they also happened to be central Christian themes.  It is no wonder that Christianity was accepted so readily by the Egyptians as they found in it all the major themes of their ancestral religion renewed and re-interpreted in the light of the new faith.  Much ‘pagan’ symbolism is likewise thinly camouflaged in Western Christian art, like Christ who is often depicted enthroned in the middle of a Vesica Pisces, or the Virgin standing on a crescent moon.  These symbols are part of our collective unconscious and part of a cosmology that predates Christianity by thousands of years.

Why do you think there are still few people who fully dedicate themselves to iconography in the Coptic Church?

I think there are many reasons.  I mentioned one earlier, which is that art is generally considered a hobby or a pass time, or something to keep  children amused.  Art is not seen as a viable career like the medical profession or accountancy for instance, or even just business.  These are deeply seated cultural attitudes, perhaps tainted with the backlash of colonialism,  that will take time to shift.  As also mentioned above, the new breed of internet  iconographers are mainly interested in promoting themselves as the latest Coptic icon master.  More importantly, since Fanous has gone, there is no more school or central place where one can go to study.  The question remains, what is to become of Coptic Iconography in a post-Fanous Coptic church?  This is the question we should really ask.

Posted by natodallospirito
SPIRITUALITA — 18 febbraio 2010 18:41
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