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MURAL OF SAINT SAMUEL OF KALAMOUN FROM 13th CENTURY: THE BEAUTY OF OLD COPTIC PAINTINGS 

December 9, 2019

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The 13th century mural at the Monastery of Saint Anthony at the Red Sea showing Saint Samuel of Kalamoun’s.

Saint Samuel of Kalamoun (Qalmun) is one of the great Coptic saints. He lived in the seventh century and was guided by an angel to the Kalamoun Mountain in Fayum area to establish his monastic community. He witnessed the persecution by the Byzantine patriarch and civil ruler, Cyrus. He reportedly tore a copy of the Tome of Leo which was given to him and to his monks at the Monastery of Kalamoun, for which action he was kicked in the eye, losing his vision in that eye. Prior to that, he had been enslaved by the Pagan, Libyan Amazigh who tried to seduce him by all means to abandon his faith, including tying him to a woman to force him to commit fornication and fall from grace. He was later to be freed. He also witnessed the Arab Conquest, and reported to have prophesied their invasion, the evil that would arrive with them, and is said to have foretold the demise of Coptic, “our beautiful language … in which the Holy Spirit spoke”, which he lamented and blamed the Copts themselves, laity and particularly clergy, for making that happen by their neglect. All these events stuck in the Coptic collective mind, and such memories are evoked in the Copts’ mind once his name is mentioned, giving Coptic artists plenty of material to include in their paintings.

One of the paintings is a mural in the archaeological church at the Monastery of Saint Anthony the Great at the Red Sea which I reproduce above. It dates from the 13th century. It is probably the oldest icon of St. Samuel that is extant. We do not know the artist but he was probably Theodore who painted a lot of the works of art at the monastery. St. Samuel is depicted in his late middle age, a tall man standing with his hands raised in the orans prayer position. He has white beard but black eye brows and thick black eye lashes. He wears a brown tunic with a white robe with close, black stripes. He wears a brown thin belt round his waist and schema that dwindles from his shoulders. The schema is made of leather, and is reserved for anchorites who have reached an advanced stage in their asceticism. Later icons of St. Samuel are shown with the right eye lost but in this earlier icon there is no evidence of it: the saint is shown in his full glory, perfect body and beautiful eyes as one would expect the saints to be in the Kingdom of Heaven depicted also is the Mount of Kalamoun with two antelopes and small bushes, and the angel said to have guided the saint to it.

One cannot but admire the icon, which is richer, more expressive than the later icons (nineteenth century and twenty century icons shown below). Compared to it, modern icons look flat and their insistence on showing the blinded eye of the saint is unbecoming and contrary to what the 13th century artist wanted to show.

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Icon of Saint Samuel (I think from his monastery at Kalamoun) which most probably dates from the late 19th century. See how his habit is different here. Here, the saint supports his left hand on a staff while holding a cross in his right hand.

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A modern, 20th century icon, probably by Isaac Fanous, depicting the saint holding with his two hands the Bible. Also depicted, minor paintings showing him tied in ropes with the pagan Amazigh woman and his tearing of the Tome of Leo.

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