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Collection Highlights

Icon depicting Christ

Icon depicting Christ
© BA Antiquities Museum/C. Gerigk

Registration Number(s)
BAAM Serial Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum Number 0930

Inv.Inventory
 (Coptic Museum) 3362

where to find


showcase 20

Icon depicting Christ

Category:
Religious / Cult objects, icons
Date:
Byzantine Period, 18th cent. CE
Provenance:
Upper Egypt, Cairo, Old Cairo (Anba Shenouda Church)
Material(s):
Organic material, wood
Length:
70 cm;
Width:
56 cm
Hall:
Byzantine Antiquities, showcase 20


Description

This icon depicts Jesus Christ sitting on the Throne of Glory surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists: the face of a man symbolising Matthew, the face of the lion symbolising Mark, the face of the bull symbolising Luke and the face of the eagle symbolising John. The Christ holds an open book and the artists added in red "May God reward the one who endures". The icon was painted by Ibrahim and John the Armenian in the eighteenth century A.D.

Icons

The origin of the word 'icon' is the Greek word είκών, which means 'image' or 'portrait'. The term eventually referred mainly to the portrayal on wood of religious personages, particularly those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, although the meaning nowadays refers to a person or a symbol of particular cultural significance.

Icons have come to refer to any depiction of a Christian personage or sacred objects and motifs executed on flat wooden panels, textile material stretched on wood, plastered wood, metal, carving on stone or embroidery on cloth. Colours were fixed by using hot wax (referred to as encaustic painting) or by mixing egg yolk with coloured pigments (tempera painting) on gesso or gypsum.

The Role of Icons

Icons are an open sacred book in the language of simple colours. They carry out an educational role in the devotional life of Church followers.  Icons were a subject of veneration or worship, not only for monks in monasteries, but also for the ordinary folk.

Icon Motifs

Icons in the Coptic Church are highly venerated and shed light on the understanding of the creed. Subjects or motifs varied, such as the birth of Jesus Christ, his baptism, the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Ascension and the victory of Jesus Christ. There are also icons of the Virgin Mary (Theotokos) carrying baby Jesus, as well as icons depicting angels and saints, such as archangel Michael and Saint George.

Icons convey via symbols sacred subjects related to the Church, and the content of the icons also helps to explain the subject matter. Coptic icons testify to a creative art replete with symbolism.

The Development of Icon Art and Subject Matter

Icon painting goes back to the first three centuries A.D., when Egyptian Christian icons borrowed elements from the ancient Egyptian religion and a mixture of Hellenistic influences. While there is a degree of overlapping, it is possible to divide the history of icons into three main stages which explain the development of that art form:

1. The first stage used symbols on a large scale by the fourth century, among others, the depiction of Jesus, as the Good Shepherd or as a fish or when the two initials for Jesus Christ in Greek "XP" are formed into a cross. The fish was also a famous symbol, as the word fish in Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) is an acronym for “Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ”, (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which translates into English as “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”.

2. The second stage refers to the use of icons as depiction of subjects in the Holy Bible for educational purposes. Icons here become a general language that can be read and understood by any person.

3. Icons of the Afterlife: When the Second Coming of Christ became a philosophical subject that preoccupied Christian philosophers which moved the early Christians to adopt a monastic life in its anticipation, icons bore a strong trend to represent the Afterlife. Jesus Christ was therefore depicted sitting on his throne in heaven, martyrs and saints were portrayed in glory, and icons of angels proliferated.

Icons developed further during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were closely linked to religious rituals. A number of important artists appeared who showed great religious and artistic confidence, such as Ibrahim al-Nasikh and Yuhanna al-Armani al-Qudsi. They established an art school which taught a large number of artists their distinctive style.  Icons then also bore the signature of the artist and inscriptions in both Coptic and Arabic. The icons are preserved in many Coptic churches to this day.


Characteristics of Coptic Icons

A characteristic feature of Coptic icons is the unusually large round face surrounded by a golden halo and round eyes, both sharply delineated. The face in general is also larger in relation to the body which is not well-defined. No attempt is made in Coptic icons to have a three-dimensional perspective. Faces in Coptic icons convey simplicity, docility and piety.

Placement of Icons

In general, Coptic icons are placed on the wooden panel (called iconostasis) separating the sanctuary (altar) from the rest of the body of the church (nave). Icons play an important role during the religions service, particularly during feasts and festivals.


The information given here is subject to modification/update as a result of ongoing research.

Bibliography
  • "Icons”. In The Coptic Encyclopedia. Edited by: Atiya, Aziz S. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991.
  • Hondelink, H., ed. Coptic Art and Culture. Cairo: Shouhdy Publishing House, 1990.
  • حكمت محمد بركات. جماليات الفن القبطي. القاهرة: دار المصري، 1999.
  • عزت زكي حامد قادوس ومحمد عبد الفتاح السيد. الآثار والفنون القبطية. الإسكندرية: الحضري للطباعة، 2000.
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