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HOW THE COPS PRAYED? THE ORANS POSITION

August 26, 2017

A8

Recently, Christie’s sold a Coptic textile fragment from the c. 5th/6th century AD. It is 38 cm by 31.7 cm; and it fetched a price of $8,750.

It is an unusual fragment. It depicts a Coptic man praying. The middle aged, bearded man lifts up his two arms; his hands wide open and with the palms facing away from him towards the Almighty. This is the prayer position the Copts have adopted from the beginning, and still follow, as they stand up for prayer, whether at the public prayer in church or in their private prayers.

This is the position known as “orans” or “orante”, which is derived from Latin, and means “one who is praying or pleading.  It is adopted by early Christians, and one can find representations of Christians in the art of Egypt and Rome, as in other places, with the praying Christian adopting the orans position. It is, however, not particularly Christian, as Jews and pagans adopted it too. The Ancient Egyptians, as their art would show, prayed in the same way the Copts now pray.

The Coptic Middle Age scholar, Ibn al-Assal in his Al Majmoa al-Safawi, quotes Biblical verses that support the orans position at prayer: “I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting;”[1] “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord;”[2] “Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction: Lord, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched out my hands unto thee;”[3] “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all thy works; I muse on the work of thy hands.”[4]

He adds: “The raising of the hands with open palms (رفع الأيدي مبسوطات الأكف), particularly at the times of talabat (الطلبات, that is the petitions in the Agpiya or hourly prayers),[5] is desirable (مُسْتَحَب).”

We don’t have earlier written evidence on this matter, but Coptic art in earlier and Medieval periods, whether in St. Minas flasks, textile fragments like the above one, or paintings and murals, all show that the Christians of Egypt adopted the orans prayer position, standing up with hands uplifted and palms open wide, but even more characteristically, with the palms pointing away from the praying person and towards the Deity. This is different from Muslim prayer. And while the Copts, clergy and laity, are allowed to use this position at all prayers, Catholics are restricted in its use, such as at the Our Father prayer, when only the priest is allowed to use the orans position while the laity aren’t.

It is also different from the prayer positions one sees often nowadays such as prayer positions with the individual kneeling and the hands kept with palms opposite each other or hands clasped.

__________________________

 

[1] 1 Timothy 2:8.

[2] Psalm 133:9 (Coptic).

[3] Psalm 87:2 (Coptic).

[4] Psalm 142:6 (Coptic).

[5] For the Agpiya or Book of Canonical Hours, go to Coptic Encyclopedia: CE:446b-449a.

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mel Gaffey permalink
    August 27, 2017 1:11 am

    It is worth a lot more anyway !

  2. August 27, 2017 3:17 pm

    Dear Dioscorus, You are doing a GREAT job , very well researched and documented subjects that every Copt need to know, your efforts are very much appreciated. Did you consider publishing your posts in a book, Thank you so much,

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      August 27, 2017 4:45 pm

      Perhaps one day, Raafat. Thank you very much for your support. Dioscorus

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