Concerning the study of iconography

As a senior practitioner of the Neo-Coptic Style as taught by Isaac Fanous, I receive regular enquiries from people seeking advice and/or tuition in this particular style of iconography. All are disappointed and perplexed as to why it should be so difficult, if not impossible, to find a decent course on the subject, while Byzantine icon courses are so plentiful, some even with excellent masters.

There is an increasing number of Coptic youths eager to study and practice iconography. They lament the nearly total lack of information on the subject, leaving them with no choice but to go it alone using models and a plethora of techniques found online, or else join the nearest Byzantine course. What they do not realise however, is that they will not be able to switch from one style to the other, from one tradition to the other, when they feel like it. Although related through faith and history, the Byzantine and Coptic iconographic traditions are very different from each other, like the languages or spices of different cultures. Yet, there is generally no other choice available to them in most cases. Even if they attend a 5 or 10 day course, they will learn nothing of substance in such a short time. In addition, personal practice is of the essence and a rigorous regimen needs to be implemented under supervision if any progress is to occur. Still technique is one thing, but theory is another and the latter is arguably as important if not more important than the former. But the vast majority is mainly interested in learning painting technique, the know-how rather than the know-what or know-why. These three aspects of knowledge (discipline), the know-what, know-how and know-why, perfectly complement each other like three facets of the same stone, so to speak.  But if one of the three is subtracted from the equation, it immediately creates a problem – for example knowing what to do, but not how to do it or why, or any other permutation, will lead to the same negative outcome. That is why appropriate education is so important to hold the three in balance for optimum results.

In the West, those who are specifically interested in studying Neo-Coptic iconography will not find anything remotely related to it on any of the available art college courses. Entrenched in post-modern secularism and political correctness, Western art colleges do not consider Christian art as a living tradition, let alone worthy of a dedicated course.

So acute is the need that I once considered starting an online course, perhaps through an online Coptic academic platform. It seemed like an excellent idea at first. But after careful consideration, I concluded that the online format failed to take into account that iconography is a studio-based practice and requires an analogue studio/building where students can try their hand at gesso making, drawing, using pigments, as well as attend lectures and discussions on its various aspects. These basic practical studio activities are unfortunately not possible in a virtual classroom.

The Department of Art & Archaeology at the Institute of Coptic Studies Cairo, headed by Isaac Fanous was the epicentre of Coptic art for 50 years and provided precisely what my enquirers desperately seek, i.e. a place to study the liturgical arts of the Coptic Orthodox Church, both theory and practice. I was greatly fortunate to study there for 8 years in the 1980s and will never forget the powerful and highly inspiring atmosphere pervading the place. The studio was a hive of activity: students were busy helping in the preparation of large icon panels, gilding, laying down the proplasmos (underpainting) after Dr Isaac had completed the designs. Everything was done under his meticulous scrutiny, as there was no room for mistakes. Work went on 6 days a week. Many of Dr Isaac’s icons now considered heirloom master pieces of contemporary Coptic art, were painted during this very prolific period of the 1980s (See Fanous Claremont Coptic Encyclopaedia).

This is the ideal way to study iconography, getting hands on experience in a busy studio and most especially under a great master. Of course it is not the only way to study it, but it is by far the most preferable, as well as the most traditional/ancient. The way things are currently shaping up, it would seem unlikely that this kind of environment could be replicated in the contemporary Coptic context. There are however some activities still taking place in the now modernised art department at the Institute of Coptic Studies. Yet even with the cosmetic facelift, it is only a pale shadow of what it was in its heyday. The fact that it is no longer the epicentre of Coptic iconography is not meant as a criticism or the fault of any individual, but a mere observation by simple before/after comparison. Taking a cursory look at the art of the recently completed St Mark’s Cathedral is enough for the informed eye to realise that, as the expression goes, things ain’t what they used to be.

In Australia, H.G. Bishop Suriel, Coptic Bishop of Melbourne, is still until this day the only Coptic Bishop in modern times to have included iconography as an integral part of a Coptic diocese. An author and scholar in his own right, Bishop Suriel is a strong believer in the preservation of tradition through education. Under this ethos he established St Athanasius Coptic Theological College (SAC) in the early 2000s, to provide “quality theological education in the Orthodox Alexandrian tradition” according to the College’s website. SAC has a physical campus and its courses have been accredited by the University of Divinity, Australia, since 2011. Bishop Suriel took the unique initiative of including Coptic iconography as part of the curriculum. The course is led by my colleague and friend Ashraf Gerges Fayek, whom I first met in Cairo while we were both students of Isaac Fanous during the 1980s. To avoid the kind of situation befalling the vast majority of Coptic churches around the world with regards to bad and/or heterodox iconography, Bishop Suriel appointed Ashraf as his head iconographer and made him responsible for all matters regarding iconography in the diocese, thus eliminating the problem in one master stroke. This is the very best way to insure the survival and further development of Tradition and H.G. Bishop Suriel should be commended for his far sighted vision and understanding of the issues at stake. Such initiative however, relies solely on whether the iconographer in charge is appropriately educated, qualified and experienced and more importantly, whether he/she, like Ashraf, follows the precepts and canon established by our teacher Isaac Fanous and not their own personal brand. How many of us are left today still practicing and/or teaching the Fanoussian canon? I’d love to hear from them.

Announcement for the iconography course at St Athanasius College, Australia

There was a glimmer of hope in California during the mid 1990s when something concrete and far reaching could have been done with regards to iconography. At the time my wife, Monica, was doing her PhD research on Coptic heritage and the legacy of Isaac Fanous at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Her planned field trip to Egypt had been cancelled because of Gulf War 1 and she had been sent to Los Angeles instead, to look at the Coptic presence there. As it turned out, Isaac Fanous had been in LA for a while, in the middle of completing what has now become his most famous work at Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Highland Park. We stayed with him in the old wooden cottage provided by the church until he went back to Cairo, then continued our work in California for another 4 years on and off.

It was during this time that the diocese of Southern California and Hawaii was created and H.E. Metropolitan Serapion (then H.G. Bishop Serapion) was enthroned as its bishop. We were already acquainted with H.E. Serapion, as he had kindly given Monica some assistance while working on her MA project in Old Cairo in the 80s, when he was Bishop of Social Affairs . It was Fr. Antonios Henein of blessed memory, head priest at Holy Virgin LA and an unconditional supporter of Isaac Fanous and the Neo-Coptic movement (see Claremont Encyclopaedia, Isaac Fanous), who organised some meetings with Bishop Serapion, Monica, Fr Bishoy Brownfield and myself with a view to creating a studio of iconography in the diocese that would include an educational programme as well as the possibility of training apprentices, similar to the above described model implemented by H.G. Bishop Suriel in the Diocese of Melbourne. Let us further bear in mind that these were the mid 1990s and that Isaac Fanous was still very much active and would remain so for the last 10 years of his life, mostly in Southern California. He would have been fully involved in the project from the start, since this was one of his dearest wishes and the subject of many a conversation over the years. Since California has numerous large purpose-built churches as well as remodelled ones, it would have created the perfect ecology for iconography to flourish. Unfortunately, no steps were taken, the project was forgotten and the status quo remained. This had the unintended consequence of turning the Diocese of Southern California into a museum of Isaac Fanous’ work, instead of a living, thriving centre of Coptic iconography. By the same token SoCal became fertile ground for the kind of “innovations” described in a previous post here

The Feeding of the Multitude, Isaac Fanous, Holy Virgin Los Angeles

When speaking of education, let us note that iconography is still largely considered a hobby in the Coptic Church or an extra-mural activity. According to this way of thinking, it follows that one is not required to pursue any particular course of study, hold any degree or qualifications in order to practice in the church. Consequently there is no standard of excellence to strive towards as every/anyone is allowed to do as they please and more or less how they please. As discussed elsewhere in this blog, the post-Fanous era is in many ways much worse than the pre-Fanous period because of the unbridled proliferation of uninformed/misinformed iconography through social media among other things. This is not to say that there is no talent in the Coptic church, far from it. The problem is that whatever talent there is is not fostered, channelled or educated to achieve its best potential and the high level of excellence iconography demands. Rather it is left with neither discipline nor discipleship which are the very building blocks of a living artistic tradition and the main vehicle of transmission of tradition. Whether this is by design or by default, I cannot say, but the results are certainly plain to see…

N.B. this post is mainly concerned with the basic study of iconography, not graduate and post-graduate studies.


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