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October 8, 2017


Three icons, showing St. Athanasius, St. Cyril and St. Dioscorus: They are almost identical with nothing much to tell us of their characters. Had it not been for the Coptic text that names each, it will be impossible to tell who is who

Coptic iconography, whether old or new, is great and rich – there is no doubt about this. However, some icons are not as good as others. Those that are not so good, we must criticise so that our iconography can reach a higher level of perfection.

An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly painting of flat images, either on a wooden panel or on a wall (mural painting). It involves either portrait figures (such as Christ, Mary, martyrs, saints and angels) or narrative scenes (such as the Crucifixion, Resurrection, the Cana Wedding, etc.). And its job is to edify and teach, even the simplest, theology; and to make him or her feels closer to God and Heavenly matter.

Unlike traditional painting, icons represent a spiritual reality, not a physical one. They are therefore stylised to emphasise the holiness of their subjects rather than their humanity. The objective of these icons is to produce in their viewers a certain sobriety, not an emotional or romantic reaction. This is particularly seen in the depiction of the face, with characteristic wide, elliptical (almond-shaped) eyes and straight, narrow noses, in Coptic iconography, which invokes ease, calmness, contemplation and a sense of asceticism. The minimal use of shadows in icons gives an impression of eternity. Icons use symbols to represent certain meanings or to identify the subject or subjects of the icon, such as halos/nimbi (with Christ’s halo incorporating a cross in the middle), wings (for angels), a lion and the lighthouse of Alexandria (for St. Mark the Evangelist), two lions and a raven with a loaf in its beak (for St. Pauli and St. Anthony), two camels (for St. Minas). Often a Coptic text is added to identify the figure or figures in the icon.

Identifying figures, especially in portrait paintings, by a text giving the name of the character or the scene is helpful, but it should not be the only thing that can identify a character in the icon. The symbols used are important in helping the viewer in this task. Figures in a narrative scene are usually easier to identify than those in portrait paintings.

Though facial appearances (particularly the wide, elliptical eyes and the straight, narrow noses) are often consistent, the vestments and attires of the subjects have simple folds, and the postures of the figures depicted are frequently simple and conventional, the iconic subject should have much individuality to it: faces, for example, should not be featureless, mask-like or similar to each other. There is much in the face and head (including the shape of the head and the facial hair) that can give a unique image. Also, different characters should not be dressed in the same attire; and a figure should not be dressed in a costume that takes him or her out of the context of their time, except when a certain colour is used as a symbolic way, such as the use of blue dress in the figure of the Virgin to symbolise Heaven.

The Coptic iconographer, while respecting the traditions of his art, should avoid becoming very formal and stiff, painting his icons with stiltedness, and closing his figures in strait jackets that take life, humanity and historicity completely away from them.

Neo-Coptic iconography is beautiful, but I feel that there is more life, depth and freedom in old Coptic icons. One can point to works in our Classic Period such as the famous icon from the 6/7th century depicting Christ protecting the monk Menas,[1] and Ascension, the 7th century painting from Bawit;[2] and also to the mural paintings in our Middle Period, such as those at the Monastery of Saint Anthony, the work of a certain Theodore from the 13th century. We must not forget the beauty of our old icons.

I, regret that I have to use the icons above that depict the Great Heroes of the Faith: St. Athanasius the Apostolic, St. Cyril the Great and St. Dioscorus, as an example of what I have been saying. I am not sure who is the iconographer, and I am not for a moment criticising his work in its entirety as he must have lots of beautiful pieces of art, but I do think there is some stiltedness in those three icons: the three figures lack individuality; they all look and dress the same; and there is little symbolism to identify one from the other. The only thing which can tell us who is who is the Coptic text. An icon should be able to tell us of the individuals in many other ways, and not through a text.

Below, the same mistakes are repeated in another painting by, I suspect, another artist. Again, here, I don’t want to undermine the relevant artist, as he most probably has other beautiful work.



[1] Kept at the Louvre, Paris.

[2] Kept at the Coptic Museum, Old Cairo.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Egiziane permalink
    October 8, 2017 7:38 pm

    So true, very interesting artistic critique.

  2. October 9, 2017 3:13 am

    This, I feel, is my biggest critique of neo-coptic. It takes lots of artistry, but it’s very mechanical in process and final feel. I’ve always looked to the red sea and bawit icons as a style guide for “Coptic”. Then again, I don’t write icons, I make illustrations!



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