Neo-Coptic icon of the Flight into Egypt – Stéphane René 2020

On the broad scope relatively little is known of authentic Coptic Iconography or Coptic Art, which originated in Egypt around the 3rd C. AD. Very few would have even heard the name Isaac Fanous Youssef (1919-2007) much more to be aware that he single handedly revived true Coptic iconography in the mid-20th century. His introduction of a new iconographic canon and the renewal of Coptic Art in Egypt in the contemporary period is an outstanding achievement which is intimately linked with him as the founder of the Neo-Coptic style of iconography.

Relatively speaking, only a marginal few would be familiar with the name Monica Rene as well, whom, through Fanous’ suggestion relinquished her work as a fashion journalist, on glossy women’s magazine like Vogue, to forage through the hallowed halls of history, photograph and learn about Iconology which led her to do her PhD research in (Coptic) Art History. This has indirectly served to compliment the work of her husband Stephane Rene, who happens to be one of very few Coptic iconographers with an understanding of the innate spiritual essence that informs this artistic expression known as the sacred art of the Orthodox Church.

It has been a lifelong commitment for Stephane and Monica who have both spent some 38 years strictly dedicated to this vocation. Now that Stephane’s master has transitioned and he has become the new Coptic master Iconographer it will be interesting to see to whom he shall pass the mantle, since there is a handpicked selection process for candidates whose education on the subject is traditionally based on Master to disciple relationship.

According to Monica’s research, it is notable that until Professor Isaac Fanous, no theologically or culturally authentic Coptic iconography had been produced in Egypt for more than 150 years, mainly due to the onslaught of western missionaries since the early 19th century. Fanous’ work became so much in demand internationally that he was commissioned to create the iconography for St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Kensington, London, which he did between 1976 -1978 with an iconographic cycle that prizes two large stained glass windows, an iconostasis, a large apsidal icon – measuring 5 x 3 metres, four large narrative icons for the nave, a large icon of the martyrdom of St. Mark, three devotional icons, a baptismal font in mosaic, devotional icon of the Flight into Egypt and Christ with the Little Children in the church’s nursery. A collection of processional and menological icons were gradually added.

This body of work exhibits a fully developed style in form and content and is a watershed example of contemporary Coptic iconography. After completing the London church, three decades of work made it the busiest time of his life. His work now adorns Coptic churches in both Egypt and an expanding Coptic Diaspora.

Neo-Coptic icon of the the Martyrdom of St Mark the Evangelist, Isaac Fanous 1976, St Mark Coptic Church, London.
St Mark was a Libyan Jew whose Gospel is the oldest document of the four. He established the church of Alexandria in 42 AD and was martyred in 68 AD, by being dragged through its streets by Roman soldiers. He is called the father of Coptic/Alexandrian Orthodox Church and considered its first Patriarch, of which the present Coptic Pope Tawadros II is the 119th.Isaac Fanous used the traditional technique of egg tempera on gesso that he learned from Leonid Ouspensky, the renown Russian iconographer and theologian who taught at L’Institut St Serge in Paris, in the 1960s. This ancient technique had been forgotten in Egypt and replaced by oil on canvas during colonialism. It was last used in the 18th century by Copto-Arabic iconographers such as Ibrahim the Scribe, Yohanna El Armani
St Ishkiron of Qallini, warrior saint, Yohanna El Armani, 18th Copto- Arabic icon, St Mercurios Church, Old Cairo, Egypt. Photo Monica Rene
Egg tempera involves working from dark to light and is the same technique used in the GrecoRoman mummy portraits. Theologically speaking, it perfectly reflects the idea of God as light, who brings mankind from the darkness of ignorance and sin into the light of Truth. This process is best described in terms of progressive illumination, as the iconographer is said to ‘bring out the light’ from within the icon.Unlike the religious paintings of the Renaissance, when artists used artificially lit live models, the light source of an icon originates from the inner light of the saint depicted. In the icon, colour is essentially equated with light; thus each intermediate hue will be called a light: “This is the heavenly light of Christ that shines through His saints,” Fanous explained. The icon is first covered with all its darkest tones; this stage is called underpainting, (Greek proplasmos or protoplasmos, literally ‘first colours’). Symbolically speaking, this stage represents our state of blindness to the light of the spirit. The next step involves reestablishing the lines of the original drawing, thus restoring order to the design. After this step is completed, painting may begin.During the 1990’s Dr Isaac created iconographic cycles for churches in Southern California. Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, which he completed between 1990 and 1996. He then worked on Sts. Peter and Paul Coptic church in Santa Monica, St. Mark’s Coptic Church, Robertson Blvd, Culver City – the first Coptic Orthodox church established in Southern California in 1968, St. George in Bellflower and St. Mina in Riverside – his last major project. The combination of cultural pride felt by Copts in the ‘lands of immigration’ and their search for cultural identity, made Dr Isaac’s work especially relevant and of special interest in teaching Coptic heritage to bicultural young people.Many Coptic congregations were encouraged to commission Dr Fanous and his students to create icons for their custom built churches and private collections.

Coptic icons are coupled with spiritual and traditional values in its cultural production, use and impact. Neo-Coptic icons combine the hieratic style of pharaonic Egypt with the two dimensional art common to all traditional forms of Orthodox Christian iconography.

Neo-Coptic icon of the Flight into Egypt – Stéphane René 2020

St Moses the Ethiopian, Stéphane René 2015

St Antony is considered the father of monasticism which developed in the Egyptian Desert during the 3rd-4th centuries AD. In this icon, he is seen meeting with St Paul of Thebes, the first Christian hermit. In the background, the two lions are his guardians who, according to the story also helped bury him. A raven that would bring him half a loaf daily, brought a full loaf on the day of Antony’s visit. This emphasises God’s unfailing providence as well as demonstrate how even wild animals are tamed and become the servants of the saints. Photo Monica René

Pentecost, Stéphane René 2009.

This master iconographer believed that all his students should assimilate and synthesize this symbiosis of art, science and spirituality in their own work. His icons are infused with aspects of contemporary art theory, such as Abstraction, Cubism, Impressionism and Gestalt, which “he used in service of the sacred”. They are encoded in the symbolic language prevalent since early Coptic art. Over the decades he revived some of the forgotten menological and hagiographical themes formed by centuries of Coptic history. He used the principles of sacred geometry to great effect in creating harmonious and uncluttered designs. Sacred characters and narratives are void of the popular sentimentality common to other forms of contemporary iconography.

Monica René is the only Jamaican student to have graduated from the prestigious Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo. She was Prof Fanous’ only research student into Iconology. Her work unlike the iconographers who were mainly in studio, focussed on documenting Coptic artistic heritage. During the mid 1980’s her supervisor sought permission from the Coptic Patriarch. Pope Shenouda III, for her to professionally photograph and catalogue the extensive collection of ancient Coptic icons in the 4th century Coptic cathedral of St Mercurios in Old Cairo, a project for which she received her MA in Coptology from the Institute. She then went on to do further research for her PhD on the subject at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, which took her on a field trip to California.

As the only living expert in Coptic iconography, Prof Fanous was also invited specially by the Royal College of Art to attend the examination of Stéphane René’s PhD viva voce in 1990 in London. This was the first time, since its foundation in 1837, that the RCA awarded a PhD in Christian Art, let alone Coptic Iconography in its contemporary form.

Prof Fanous did not discriminate by gender, race or denomination, as to whom he taught in his painting classes, but rather on the individual’s attitude, mindset and what he termed ‘spirit.’ He maintained that a student’s approach to iconography was more important than artistic talent.

Prof Fanous often mentioned that “the icons carry meaning beyond the grasp of that which solicits the eyes.” And that Icons go beyond the accepted aesthetic of fine art. He termed this the “aesthetic of asceticism,” which represent a transfigured reality that is beyond time and space or the physical senses and passions. Icons, he believed, possess a spiritual sensitivity that cannot be fully expressed with mere words. They express a faith whose spirituality is intoxicated with immortality – an attribute clearly inherited from Ancient Egypt.

This article was edited from the entry in the Claremont Coptic Encyclopaedia for Isaac Fanous Youssef written by Monica René



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