I joined Facebook when it first started in the mid 2000s, but stayed inactive for years because I found it uninteresting and useless. It all changed when the Egyptian revolution v.2.0 happened in 2011, because social media became the best way to follow events and hearing about them directly from friends and people who were experiencing them firsthand. By then Facebook had literally exploded into this humongous social media phenomenon and the whole world seemed to be on it, certainly the whole of Coptic Egypt. Through Facebook I was easily able to monitor what was happening in the Church with regard to iconography. Soon I began to see hair-raising stuff in terms of bad iconography and the misuse of symbolism, even the outright plagiarism of Pharaonic symbols and much more I will not mention. Prof. Fanous’ passing in 2007 seems to have opened the floodgates and released a tsunami that had previously been held back by the established order he represented. Now that he was gone, this tsunami was unleashing on Facebook and I have watched it swell-up ever since. Even though I do sometimes share some of my own work, over the years I have come to the conclusion that the Facebook phenomenon has had a particularly pernicious effect on iconography, especially on contemporary Coptic iconography, which unlike its Byzantine counterpart, is still in its infancy, in a state of flux and with as yet no firm canon. To a large extent, social media has unfortunately contributed to the trivialisation and cartoonisation of Coptic iconography.
In this context, errors are made by one and copied by others, who in turn pass them on, like some infectious viruses creating an epidemic of bad iconography. Repeated often enough and enthusiastically shared by enough individuals, these errors eventually become the accepted norm, like a lie can become truth, merely through continuous repetition… Iconographers are now literally created on Facebook, legitimised by a selfie with the Patriarch or a bishop as a profile picture and confirmed by the number of likes, followers, compliments and shares. Many even post their practice doodles or their first shaky attempt at icon painting… Yet others spread their name and phone number writ large across the image to solicit business, like higglers in a virtual Khan El Khalili bazaar… Is this the appropriate way to treat sacred liturgical art, like mere commodities on a market place?
A growing Coptic Facebook related trend is dubbed “digital iconography” by its practitioners and spreading on social media. These “digital icons” are created on computer based graphic applications, usually on a tablet. It requires basic computer skills, which most young people have these days. The style varies from individual to individual, and more importantly, there are no rules to follow or respect. One such digital image accompanied the headlines internationally in recent years when Islamic State terrorists gruesomely beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. Because of the speed of computer graphics as opposed to the traditional techniques and the ease of social media publishing, the image went viral within hours of the event. It was even printed, censed and carried in procession in Coptic churches around the world. Please note I am not discussing the tragic Libyan event here, only the response it triggered with regard to iconography in the Coptic context. Nor am I criticising the author of the image whose heartfelt and spontaneous response was to create the image and post it on his Facebook page and was himself astounded by the viral response. Some of these “digital icons” are strongly influenced by contemporary trends such as manga, a Japanese cartoon style favoured by millennials. Others are just copy/paste jobs of existing “analogue” icons with the author’s personal touch added to the original. The vast majority lack content and prioritise form over essence. There is even a priest in California who designs and prints his own digital images and sticks them on the walls of his church.
I could go on describing the myriad of ways genuine Coptic iconography is being besieged by the current wave of technological charlatanism. Many however call these images “icons” and consider them as valid as traditional icons. When I try to explain why they should not be called icons, I usually get very negative reactions and told why they should indeed be considered icons. I will therefore take the opportunity to set the record straight and explain why they are not and will never be icons.
In the Coptic Orthodox tradition, an icon is considered to be a liturgical object and as such must go through a consecration ritual to be anointed with holy chrism by the Patriarch or a bishop – the same is true for the altar, the holy patten and vessels, the iconostasis and even the walls of the building. On that basis alone, it is clear that these digital graphics can never be considered icons in any liturgical sense of the word, because they are only lines of 0s and 1s stored on a computer’s hard drive. Although the iPad may make the user feel he/she is an iconographer, one should not mistake virtuality for reality. Moreover, the whole process of making an icon is as important as the finished product. The technique itself is full of profound symbolism, which cannot even begin to be approached on an iPad. These reasons and more, are why these images cannot and must not be called “icons” or be used in a church, masquerading as liturgical art. If things continue as they are, Coptic icons of the future will be made by AI and displayed on LCD screens or 3D projection devices, thus by-passing the need for both the human hand and human soul.
Also connected to the above is another trend that should also be mentioned here. It concerns the increasing use of very large architectural laser printed reproductions of icons and/or monumental mural paintings, instead of commissioning new works. At least some of these reproductions are of the work of Isaac Fanous and therefore beautiful and correct. Yet they stop the tradition from being practiced and passed on. This technique seems to have become a standard practice for a growing number of new Coptic churches in the US, especially in California where the trend started. Photographs of whole iconostases are printed on screens resembling roll-up exhibition display screens. I also recently saw a video of the installation of a large Pantocrator, approximately 4 to 5 metres high, being unrolled and stuck in the eastern sanctuary apse of a Coptic church, a process which took no more than a few hours, half a day at most, as opposed to the many days/weeks it takes to paint a real one. This I’m told was only a temporary measure, but some however see it as a shortcut to having instant iconography on the cheap. Actually not all that cheap, but somewhat cheaper than the real thing, but with only a tiny fraction of durability, 10s of years as opposed to 100s or even 1000s. It should be noted that such practices are the best way to ensure the disappearance of the icon-painting tradition, and reducing it to mere interior decoration, like some theatre stage design, i.e. it appears to be real, but it’s only an illusion, a make-belief or pastiche. Like all goods in our consumer society, this is throw-away iconography which of course, and contrary to church tradition, cannot be consecrated and anointed with holy chrism. Such practices, temporary or otherwise, represent yet another nail in the coffin, since iconography only thrives through demand and supply. Such trends if continued long enough, will easily spell the end of it.
As long as there are no established standards, fads such as these will continue to creep in, as the intention is obviously to by-pass the proper study of the tradition by hooks or by crooks, by any innovative/progressive means necessary. This is certainly not the correct way to achieve a canonical contemporary Coptic Orthodox iconography fit for liturgical use. Iconography and hymnography, like the liturgy itself, must/should not be subject to transient fashions and individual whims. But that is unfortunately the perplexing reality in AD 2020. Perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on the meaning and place of Tradition (with a capital T) in the contemporary Coptic Orthodox church.
As always, what is so obviously and profoundly needed is education, not only towards the forming of future iconographers, but for the clergy too, who should be given strict guidelines regarding what is and what is not acceptable in an Orthodox church, since they are ultimately responsible for what is allowed inside a Coptic church building. However, any move toward better education must be preceded by an acknowledgement that the problem exists. Until then Coptic iconography will remain rudderless and will continue to fall further into a state of decadence and confusion, a state worse than the barrenness of the pre-Fanous era.