THE NEO-COPTIC INNOVATION

It is unusual that a completely new style of icon painting — a new “school” of icon painting we might say — is created by a single person.

We have seen that Photis Kontoglou (1896-1965) began a revival of a more traditional style of Greek icon painting in the 20th century, based largely on inspiration from monastery frescos of earlier centuries; his style is distinctive and recognizable, and has strongly influenced modern Greek Orthodox icon painting, but we cannot say it is entirely new.

That is not the case, however with the painter Isaac Fanous (ⲓⲥⲁⲁⲕ ⲫⲁⲛⲟⲩⲥ, December 19, 1919 – January 14, 2007), who single-handedly created a completely new style in icon painting that has become considered characteristic of contemporary Coptic iconography both inside and outside of Egypt. The innovation of Fanous is like the Iridium layer in geological strata that separates the age of the dinosaurs from what came after. That is just how significant a change he made in Coptic iconography. That does not mean, however, that the more conservative among the Copts have abandoned the strongly European-influenced realism so often found in Coptic churches in Egypt, or that there are not those in the Coptic church who oppose the simple style of Fanous, preferring the more flamboyant “Italianate” realism that most Copts had come to recognize as the norm. Nonetheless, when those outside of Egypt think of contemporary Coptic iconography, they now think of the “Neo-Coptic” style introduced by Fanous, which has become increasingly popular among new icon painters.

Fanous began his art studies in Egypt, but later studied icon painting under the Russian emigré Léonid Ouspenskiy (1902-1987) in France. Ouspenskiy’s book Theology of the Icon is often mentioned in discussions of the history of icons, but I always caution students that Ouspenskiy’s view of the history of icons is more based on Orthodox tradition and wishful thinking than on solid historical fact, and can give students a very mistaken impression.

In any case, the time spent by Fanous under Ouspenskiy seems to have had no visible effect on the course of his icon painting, because the new style he later created — the “Neo-Coptic” style, is not only easily recognizable but quite distinct from anything that came before. Now that style has been taken up by not only Coptic iconographers, but also by many painters who are not Coptic Christians — but just enjoy its clarity and straightforward simplicity.

Here is an icon by Fanous in the St. Peter & St. Paul’s Coptic Church:

The title inscription is in Coptic — the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language. It reads:

STEFANOS PISHORP

Stefanos is the name — Stephanos in Greek, Stephen in English. You can probably read it easily now that you have learned the Greek alphabet (you have, of course, if you are a serious student here). The Coptic alphabet consists of Greek letters with added special letters to make it fit the Coptic language. Pi ( ⲡⲓ )is the masculine singular definite article, found as a prefix that functions rather like ho in Greek icons — it can loosely be translated as “the.” Shorp (ϣⲟⲣⲡ) means “first” here. So if you know your New Testament, you will recall the story in Acts of the martyrdom of Stephen — the “first” Christian martyr. And that is the fellow shown here. So the title begins:

“STEPHEN THE FIRST …”

It continues in smaller letters below:

PIARKHDIAKON MMARTYROS

It is not hard to recognize the first “prefix” word as PI- “the” — plus the borrowed Greek word for Archdeacon, and the rest at right begins with another prefix — ⲙ/M, meaning “and” here, followed by the borrowed Greek word martyros — “martyr.” So the whole inscription reads:

“STEPHEN THE FIRST ARCHDEACON AND MARTYR”