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."

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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