What is a Coptic Icon?
In simple terms a Coptic Icon is a painting, window, or a 2-dimensional image, which follows the Neo-Coptic style and traditions. It aims to aid a worshipper in prayer and give a deep understanding of biblical truths, as taught by the Orthodox Church.
1) A Coptic icon of Christ the Shepherd by Isaac Fanous being used in a service 2) Coptic icons in a Coptic church in the USA
What does Neo-Coptic mean?
Neo-Coptic is the term given to the new Coptic style that was developed in the 1960’s by the late Professor Isaac Fanous. Until this period, a formal knowledge 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 Kyrillos VI'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.
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.
1) Isaac Fanous with a student 2) a close-up of a Fanous St George icon circa 1990
Why is the Neo-Coptic style abstract and not realistic?
There are several reasons for the use of abstraction in Orthodox iconography. The most important of these is to help the worshipper focus on the beauty of the spiritual realm and on truths about the kingdom of God, rather than admire the beauty of the world as we see it with our human eyes.
It is well documented that the the aim of paintings made in a realistic style, which were heavily developed during the Italian Renaissance period, was to celebrate the beauty of the body, of the human physique, and to celebrate the impressive skill of the artists who were able to recreate these in paint. In complete opposition to this, Orthodox iconography aims to focus our attention away from the impressiveness of individual artists and away from the beauty of the corruptible body, and focus us towards the beauty of the incorruptible transfigured body, which followers of Christ acquire through the work of the Holy Spirit.
It was Clement of Alexandria who said "he who obeys the Lord ... becomes a god while still moving about in the flesh". And it was St Athanasius who echoed this saying "Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we men are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life... For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." Since this transfigured nature that we acquire cannot be adequately represented in a realistic visual manner, the use of geometric symbols such as halos and mandorlas (oval auras seen around Christ) seek to represent these in a diagrammatic and more factual way. In their abstract style Orthodox icons also aim to remove the unnecessary elements of stories and highlight only the elements that 'fast-forward' our focus to the spiritual meaning of their subjects. Sky, clouds and backgrounds, for example, are often entirely removed and replaced by gold leaf which serve instead to symbolise the glory and presence of God.
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 artistic heritage. Both styles - Coptic and Pharaonic - 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 also avoid natural 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.
1) An icon of St George in the Neo-Coptic style 2) An an oil painting by Raphael
About the Iconographer
Fadi Mikhail, (born 1984) is an Egyptian-English painter and a graduate from the world-renowned Slade School of Fine Art, University College London (UCL).
In 2013, Fadi was commissioned by Royal Mail to produce an Icon of Christ and St Mary for their £1.88 Christmas stamp. Fadi was also commissioned by the Coptic Church to produce 2 icons for HRH Prince of Wales who visited The Coptic Church Centre on 17 Dec 2013.
Further to his studies at The Slade, Fadi was apprenticed by the father of Neo-Coptic Iconography - the late Professor Isaac Fanous - in California USA. Professor Fanous was undoubtedly one of the most inspiring figures in Fadi's development as a painter.
Even before focusing on iconography, his work has always been semi-abstract and figurative, with close links to both German expressionism and English romanticism. His paintings have been exhibited in such venues as The British Museum, The Royal College of Art and Westminster Cathedral in London, but most find their way to private and domestic collections.
In his spare time he is an active and experienced musician; performing as a singer, guitarist and percussionist, as well as conducting a choir in Hertfordshire.
1) Fadi Mikhail in his studio 2015 2) Fadi painting live on Sky's Landscape Artist of the Year 2017