INTERVIEW: Let our Coptic icons shine again

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 4 Jan 2018

The Nativity icon
The Nativity icon

Coptic artist Adel Nassif has been retelling Egypt's Christian history in beautiful icons in an effort to push back against what he describes as a trend towards low-quality mass production.

“The time has come to give more attention to the quality of Coptic icons rather than focus on mass-produced items of limited aesthetic quality. I am committed to doing just that,” he said.

For over 30 years since his graduation from Alexandria University, Nassif has dedicated himself to the “rebirth of the beautiful art of icon painting.”

Although icons are an essential element of Coptic art, they are also unmistakably influenced by Pharaonic and Hellenistic art, he said.

“Nobody can say for sure when, or for that matter where, the first icons were made, because in Egypt we have the [Greek period] Fayoum Portraits, and in Russia and Greece there are also incredible collections of old icons that make it difficult to establish a single genealogy,” Nassif said.

“In general, I think it would be safe to say that the first icons in Egypt were painted in the first century CE, and by the fourth century there was a marked trend towards covering the walls of churches with icons,” he added.

By the late seventh century and with the Arab conquest of Egypt, there was a decline in attention given by artists to icons, and later some of Egypt’s Muslim rulers ordered an end to the paintings altogether.

“Archaeological excavations have revealed drawings and icons that were covered over on the walls of old churches and monasteries. Today, these are coming back to light, but of course many of the best icons are on display in museums all over the world,” Nassif said.

Wall drawings depicting the journey of the holy family in Egypt
Wall drawings of virgin marry

Nassif is convinced that icons are not an art of the past, but are an integral part of churches that are still being built and will continue to be built.

“However, this is precisely why I think that this art, delicate, taxing and expensive as it is, is being reduced to mere copying,” he argued.

Having spent years of his life painting icons and frescoes for churches in Egypt and abroad, Nassif is well aware of the kind of labour and the length of time required to produce a single quality icon. He is not willing to accept the need for “more icons” as an excuse for “less beautiful icons.”

“Icons have to be beautiful and artistic because they are portraits of holy figures, and if they are not beautiful they do not allow worshippers to see the light within the characters,” he said. Having worked for years on the spirituality of religion, Nassif says it would be impossible for an artist to paint icons if he is not sensitive to this mysticism himself. 

“An icon that is stripped of mysticism is irrelevant because it fails to serve the purpose of inspiration for the worshipper. It becomes just a piece of wood with some painting on it, and it has no soul to reach out to,” he insisted.

“This, rather than anything else that the Copts have had to put up with, would usher in the end of this fine and unique element in Coptic art,” Nassif said. “For decades, the Copts had to live under the rule of the most eccentric Arab rulers. But this art still lived. However, what could really bring it to an end is to have icons reduced to mass production,” he added.

The way off this unfortunate path, according to Naguib, would be for the Coptic Church to insist on quality when commissioning icons. “When you have a new church built, you need to make sure that the quality of the artwork is not compromised,” he said. There is a need to invest in training talented artists and providing them with the means to perfect their skills.

“I have seen some very talented artists put off by the difficulty of finding a space to perfect their skills or simply by a lack of means,” he said.

Wall drawings depicting the journey of the holy family in Egypt
mosaic of virgin marry

Nassif added that there was a need to refuse the clumsy mass production of icons that is designed to produce as many as possible for gift shops next to old churches and monasteries.

“These things get little attention from most visitors because they are not beautiful in the first place,” Nassif insisted.   

Tourists could be better served by pictures of the Coptic icons that have been painted throughout the centuries of Christianity in Egypt.

“I think this would serve the purpose of keeping the Egyptian touch there, rather than having it replaced with either a Western touch or even by the Asian touch we have seen in mass-produced items copied from either Western or other originals,” he said.

“But to really preserve the art of icons we need to think in a more holistic way about preserving the other elements of Coptic art as well. This is a serious mission that requires national commitment and lots of work,” Nassif concluded.

icon of virgin marry carrying baby Jesus
icon of virgin marry carrying baby Jesus

mosaic of virgin marry
Wall drawings depicting the journey of the holy family in Egypt

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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