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THE OLDEST KNOWN COPTIC ICON: CHRIST AND ABBOT MENA

December 13, 2013

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The oldest known Coptic icon was found in Bawit in Middle Egypt in 1900 by the French archaeologist Jean Clédat (1871 – 1943) who discovered the large Coptic Monastery of St. Apollo that once stood there.[1] It was gifted by the Egyptian government to France as part of the policy of dividing archaeological finds in 1901-1902, and is kept at the Louvre Museum[2] in Paris.

This most beautiful icon is painting on sycamore fig wood and measures 57 cm in height and 57 cm in width (it is 2 cm in thickness). It is the oldest Coptic icon known to us: although the Louvre dates to the 8th century, that is after the Arab occupation, both Klaus Wessel and Pierre Du Bourguet give an earlier date: the second half of the 6th century[3] and 6th-7th centuries,[4] respectively. It depicts Christ and Abbot Mena, superior of the monastery at the time. The Louvre describes it as “exceptionally … extremely elegant and serene … one of the masterpieces of the Coptic section in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities”. Du Bourguet says the intence ‘presence’ generated in the icon “transcends that generally evoked by the Graeco-Roman portraits, or by their later icons, and renders this painting at the very least a key work in world art, and certainly the masterpiece of Coptic art.”[5] Wessel, who often downplayed the significance and beauty of Coptic art, on the other hand, says: “Though this tablet cannot be claimed to be an artistic masterpiece, nevertheless it is impressive and has a numinous feeling.”[6]

Meurice Cédric, from the Louvre Museum, writes about the icon:

The two figures are depicted in a frontal pose against a landscape. A few traces of vegetation can still be seen at their feet. The background consists of hills with a sunset sky, from which the halos of the figures seem to be rising.

Christ, to the right, is slightly taller than the figure on the left. His halo has a crucifer, and the inscription “Saviour” is written near him. Christ has a short beard and wide, lined eyes. He wears a tunic and a scarf, and in his left hand holds a Book of the Gospels, richly adorned with pearls and gems and fitted with metal clasps on the side. In a sign of introduction and as a protective gesture, his right hand is placed on the left shoulder of the father superior, a very important man in the monastery.

He [Abbot Mena] can be identified by the inscription placed to the left of his halo, “Apa Mena superior,” repeated directly below, and by the scroll in his left hand. This scroll may contain the rule of the monastic institution. Mena has a gray beard and is wearing a tunic and a scarf. He makes a sign of the blessing with his right hand.
A cross, framed by a coronis, or a punctuation sign used in Greek and Coptic manuscripts from the era, is placed between and slightly above the two halos.


[1] The Coptic Monastery of St. Apollo at Bawit is next to Kawm Bāwīţ and is located in the desert, in Al Wādī al Jadīd Governorate, facing the fertile plain, about 15 km from Dairut and 80 km north of Aysut. St. Apollo was a monk who founded the monastery in c. 385/390.

[2] Egyptian Antiquities section, Denon wing, Lower ground floor, Bawit room, Room C.

[3] Coptic art by Klaus Wessel; translated by Jean Carroll and Sheila Hatton (London, Thames and Hudson, 1963); pp. 172-175.

[4] Coptic Art by Pierre du Bourguet; translated by Caryll Hay-Shaw (London, Methuen, 1971); pp. 40-45.

[5] Ibid; p. 45.

[6] Coptic art by Klaus Wessel; p. 174.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2016 8:25 pm

    In our Church, I wonder if we confuse “Abba Mina ente ni Fayat” with the Roman soldier and martyr St. Mina. If the former Mina was an abbot of Bawit (Fayat?), does that mean we have two different saints of Mina, or could they be the same saint, where his time in asceticism lead to a monastic community and eventual martyrdom?

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      March 1, 2016 10:19 am

      Very unlikely that the two were confused. St. Mina the Martyr was called Mina of Nifayat and this was translated into Arabic as مينا البياضى (Mina of Bayat) – the fay letter in Coptic was pronounced f or b in the past. The NI seems to have been the definate plural article.

      In Arabic manuscripts, the body of St. Mina is said to have been taken by a camel which wouldn’t move further once it reached “the lake of Bayat” – this may be a small lake to the western end of Lake Mareotis where we know St. Mina was buried. So, as St. Mina the Martyr, the Wonder-Worker is called Mina of Mareotis, he is called Mina of Bayat (or Fayat).

      It seems to me that St Mina of Bayat is different from Abbot Mina of Bawit.

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        March 2, 2016 12:21 pm

        I have just reviewed Mareotis in E. Amelineau’s La Geographie de L’Egypte A L’Epoque Copte. He does confirm that the region of Mareotis, which is in the Libyan Desert, is called in Coptic Phayat.

        This is why then St. Mina is called ‘of ni Phayat’. The Arabic equivalent is Biadh, since the Copts pronounced the Coptic letter ‘phay’ b sometimes in addition to f.

      • March 2, 2016 2:39 pm

        Thank you 🙂

  2. March 8, 2016 7:31 am

    Reblogged this on DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture and commented:
    interesting .

Trackbacks

  1. THE BRILLIANCE OF THE COPTIC ART FROM BAWIT (MONASTERY OF SAINT APOLLO) | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية

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