In simple terms, a Coptic Icon is a painting or a 2-dimensional image, which follows the Neo-Coptic traditions and aids/prompts a worshipper in prayer.

Neo-Coptic is the term given to the new Coptic style that was developed in the 1960’s by the late Professor Isaac Fanous, under the instruction of Pope Kyrollos VI. Until this period, a formal understanding of the Coptic arts (e.g. Art, Music, Language) was barely existent among the Copts. It had been lost over the centuries for various reasons. It was therefore the late Pope’s instruction – to several qualified members of the church – to seek out what had been lost in these arts and to re-educate the people.

As once pointed out by the poet William Blake, our visions of Christ and of heavenly matters differ greatly from person to person (‘The Everlasting Gospel’, William Blake). No two people can perfectly agree on the exact personality or much less the exact physical attributes of Christ. Therefore in their abstract style, icons seek to provide the church with the simplest common denominators of the person Jesus. That He was a Jewish man, we know. That He had a beard and long hair because of His Jewish tradition, we know. Greater than this, we do not know. Therefore to reduce, or ‘abstract’ the human face into the geometrical forms that we use in icons, seeks to be ‘true but not exact’ to the great variety of imagined forms that Jesus’ face can take in each of our imaginations. And because all things begin and stem from the Creator, all icons are painted in this manner and style.

What is a Coptic Icon? What does ‘Neo-Coptic’ mean? Why is the Coptic style abstract, and not realistic?

Isaac Fanous spent several years in France studying iconography with the Russian Iconographer Leonid Ouspensky, before returning to Egypt and redeveloping the lost Coptic style. The Neo-Coptic school of iconography was then born with his appointment as head of the Coptic Arts department at The Institute of Coptic Studies, Egypt.

In the case of Coptic Icons, we also refer heavily to the artistic style of our Ancient Egyptian ancestors, in order to keep alive the remembrance of our heritage. Both styles create hierarchy by having figures of great importance painted larger in size than those deemed less important. Christ, for instance would be painted larger than those he was preaching to. Both styles are also devoid of perspective and try always to push all figures in the image against the picture plane, in a 2-dimensional way. Both feature large eyes for all figures in the paintings – owing to the Ancient Egyptian attribution to the god Horus.

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