Reflections on discipleship and Coptic iconography

In considering the transmission of a sacred artistic tradition such as iconography, it is necessary to consider the master-disciple relationship, or discipleship. Discipleship has always been central in the forming of traditional artists and craftsmen, normally over years rather than weeks or months. All the great world sacred artistic traditions acknowledge discipleship as vital in the process of transmission of knowledge from master to disciple and hence, from generation to generation. It was indeed so in Ancient Egypt, as the records show; teams of craftsmen and artists of all disciplines worked under the keen eye of their respective team masters and over 3 millennia created the greatest artistic heritage in the history of the world. This could only have been achieved through the three fundamental principles, namely apprenticeship, discipleship and mastery.

The concept of discipleship is very much at the heart of Christ’s teachings and of the way they were propagated throughout the world. Coptic history is replete with examples of discipleship too numerous to mention here. All Coptic Christians have heard of St Shenouti and his disciple Wissa or St Makarios the Great and his two young Roman disciples, Maximos and Domadios. Another important case in point is the famous School of Alexandria, called Didascalia, where some of the most important church fathers like St Basil, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa and many others, sat at the feet of their teacher Origen. The sacred art of icon-painting is the visual expression of the theology established by these church fathers. By virtue of this fact, it should be considered and treated as a spiritual discipline and as an integral part of the spiritual and liturgical tradition of the church, not just a self-taught hobby or a personal artistic pursuit.

The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, which means learner. A related word is discipline from the Latin disciplina, meaning instruction, referring to knowledge received through instruction. Hence a disciple is one that acquires knowledge through discipline. The most important element in this equation of course, is the source of that knowledge and the instruction through which it is conveyed, namely the teacher/master who embodies and transmits it correctly. Without this synergy of discipulus and disciplina, the continuous thread of tradition is cut and it can no longer be passed on and disappears. This is precisely what happened to the Coptic painting tradition in the 19th c. (see Coptic Civilization AUC 2016 chapter 21 for more details). Sadly, it is also what is in the process of happening again as these lines are being written.

One day early on in my studies, while walking from the studio to his nearby home for our lunch break and chatting about general studio ethics, Dr Isaac said to me: “outside of the atelier, I am your friend, but inside the atelier, I am your master. You must never forget that!”. I never forgot it and today, some 38 years later, I still consider myself his disciple and will probably do so for the rest of my life. Without his guidance, profound knowledge of the tradition he embodied and his great generosity, I would never be who I am today and would certainly not do what I do or know what I know. I am therefore eternally grateful to God for this unique and unexpected blessing of being his disciple. He didn’t feed me tons of informations or give me books to read or burden me with papers to write. His way of teaching was oral, informal and spontaneous. However, he always encouraged me to do my own research while gently prompting me in the right direction during our discussions. During of of these conversations he said : “a master does not give his disciples ready-cooked fish, rather he teaches them how and where to catch it for themselves. This metaphor is very profound and reminded me of the passage in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells His disciples where to throw their nets to catch an abundance of fish (John 21:6). In our context, it refers to the master giving his disciples the right tools and informations to discover the beauty, proportion and truth, in and for themselves. The master-disciple relationship is not based on ego or fear, but on love, mutual respect and trust.

An aspirant should not come with any pre-conceived ideas about iconography. He/she should ‘unlearn’ what they think they know about art, especially if they have a modern art college background. The pursuit of personal fame, celebrity, vanity and all the things associated with an egotistical mindset, are contrary to the spirit of iconography. One should surrender in humility and acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance, like an empty vessel ready to be filled with knowledge and beauty. For how can a vessel be filled if it is already full, especially if full of ego and misconceptions? The mindset and attitude of the aspiring student is therefore of the utmost importance in determining whether they have the aptitude, fortitude, single-mindedness and resolve needed to progress through to eventual mastery, or just temporarily passing through to catch some technique and disappear as soon as they’re satisfied. The latter kind was certainly not favoured by Dr Isaac. (see Claremont Coptic Encyclopaedia entry under Isaac Fanous, Monica René 2019)

As a spiritual discipline, iconography is to be considered a vocation, on the same level as any other ecclesiastical vocation. It is certainly so in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not be considered a “job” in the profane sense of the word, or some mundane commercial venture. It would indeed be a grave mistake to regard it as such.

In theological matters, the responsibility of an iconographer is as heavy as that of a priest, since they are both involved in the preaching of the Word, the priest orally, the iconographer visually. There is therefore not much room for innovation or artistic self-expression, unless rigourously subjected to Orthodox tradition and theology.

Sadly and ominously, the current post-Fanous generation of iconographers does not know about discipleship or studying under a master such as Isaac Fanous. Most are self-taught and isolated, picking up tips from other self-taught individuals, who picked them up from someone else. Needless to say the original message gets lost in translation and the end product bears no resemblance to the prototypes. Many resort to Facebook groups to ask for advice since they receive no tuition. The generation who had the privilege and opportunity to know Dr Isaac and to study under him are getting old (myself included) and many do not practice much anymore. The result of this post-Fanous apathy and laissez faire attitude towards iconography is at its most obvious in St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, whose iconography was recently hastily completed for its 50th anniversary. This subject however will be examined in a future post.

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