Coptic Iconography in the UK


Hope and Fragility: An Interview With Neo Coptic Iconographer Stéphane René

by Jonathan Pageau

The Coptic tradition of iconography is one of which we know very little about in the West. So many of the ancient monuments were destroyed or came to disrepair as Copts in Egypt were subject to Islamic rule in the 7th century. The late Dr. Isaac Fanous made major strides in renewing this art form via the Neo Coptic style of iconography
Dr. Stephane René, a disciple of Fanous who lives and works in London.  He has painted several churches and icons and is also the director of the Sacred Space Gallery under the patronage of the Anglican bishop of London.  His website is here.
Dr Rene took some time to answer our questions as he prepares for an exhibition of his own icons for the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts (PSTA), where he also teaches.
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Christ Pantocrator by Stephane Rene 2015 – to be shown at upcoming PSTA exhibition.

Pageau – The second half of the 20th century saw a rediscovering and renewal of sacred arts. Certain figures shine, like Photios Kontoglou for Greece, Leonid Ouspensky or Mother Juliana for Russia. One of the figures that has shone like a beacon for Coptic art has been Dr. Isaac Fanous. His creation of the Neo Coptic movement has reinvigorated Coptic iconography and his style is being continued by several students.

The style is very vivid, referring all at once to ancient Christian prototypes, to modern composition and abstraction, but also to a pan-Egyptian identity. You studied and worked with Dr. Fanous. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to Neo Coptic iconography, how you learned, and we would also like to get a better glimpse of Dr. Fanous, a figure that stands large but of whom we know little about in the West?

René – First, I would like to thank OAJ for requesting this written interview about the Coptic iconographic tradition, which I have been studying and practicing for more than half my life. The process of answering your pointed questions have raised many issues that could not be properly addressed in this format. 

However, I have tried to be as accurate, objective and succinct as I could and hope that I will not offend anyone in my candid answers and analysis.

After years dreaming of rediscovering the Coptic iconographic tradition, Isaac Fanous had become convinced that the only way to retrieve the technique, visual grammar and symbolic vocabulary of Coptic iconography was to study it under a master from a living Orthodox tradition.

It was during a two year restoration course at Le Louvre in 1962, that Isaac Fanous found the Russian iconographer and theologian, Leonid Ouspensky, and took this God sent opportunity to study iconography under him. He then enrolled on Ouspensky’s course at L’Institut Saint Serge in Paris, an institution under the aegis of the Russian Patriarchate in exile.

Prof Isaac Fanous, photographed  by Monica Rene 1987

Prof Isaac Fanous, photographed by Monica Rene 1987
It was there that he met Russian theologians Vladimir Lossky and Paul Evdokimov, who were friends and colleagues of Ouspensky, and also taught courses at the institute. These heavyweights of Orthodox theology/iconology had a profound and lasting effect on Fanous and acted as a catalyst in the creation of the new Coptic canon. 
After completing the course, he eventually returned to Egypt equipped with the proper tools to start the revival of his ancestral iconographic tradition in earnest. His time in Paris represents a watershed in his timeline, creating the “pre-Paris” and “post-Paris” periods.

Example of a “Pre-Paris” icon by Dr. Fanous, from St- George’s Church, Sporting, Alexandria
Early icon of the Virgin by Isaac Fanous, circa 1970.  St George Coptic church, Sporting, Alexandria

Early icon of the Virgin by Isaac Fanous, circa 1970. St George Coptic church, Sporting, Alexandria
Wedding of Cana, Fanous, 1977 at  St Mark's Coptic Church, London

Wedding of Cana, Fanous, 1977 at St Mark’s Coptic Church, London
Apart from being an unusually talented individual, the fact that he formally studied Orthodox iconography/logy, de facto separated him from his Coptic peers back in Egypt, who unequivocally refused to study under him after his return, being content with copying his techniques and materials, but not the theory, which they regarded as unimportant. Is a man ever a prophet in his own country? (For more background, see Contemporary Coptic iconography, Monica Rene, Coptic Civilization, edited by Gawdat Gabra, AUC 2013).
Examples of Early Coptic iconography, from the Monastery of St-Anthony, Egypt

Examples of Early Coptic iconography, from the Monastery of St-Anthony, Egypt
Frescoes from the Red Monastery, Egypt

Frescoes from the Red Monastery, Egypt
Pantocrator by Isaac Fanous during Coptic liturgy.

Pantocrator by Isaac Fanous during Coptic liturgy.
This he did by creating a new canon and visual vocabulary based on the old, but reinterpreted anew, a task arguably more difficult than that of his Byzantine counterparts. Another difference is that while Kontoglu, Kroug and Ouspensky were widely recognised and respected by their own people, Fanous had to struggle to be taken seriously.
Although he had some important and influential supporters, he had also powerful opponents. A good example of the nature of this struggle is the iconography of St Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo, which should have unquestionably been given to him, but was instead given to the very people who refused to study under him on his return from Paris. The project fell through and only a mediocre iconostasis was eventually erected.
Iconostasis at St-Mark's Cathedral, Cairo

Iconostasis at St-Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo
I first became acquainted with the work of Isaac Fanous in 1982, when my wife Monica and I started attending liturgies at St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in London. I have been a deacon (psaltos) there for over 30 years now.
Dr Isaac and René at the ICS studio 1986

Dr Isaac and René at the ICS studio 1986

While studying with Isaac Fanous, I met other students who attended a weekly 2 hour class in icon painting on Fridays. These he referred to as pupils. They were mainly women who enjoyed icon painting as a hobby.

. Of those I met during this time at the institute, few are still active today. Ashraf G. Fayek and Guirguis Boktor were two. Ashraf now lives in Australia and works under the bishopric of Melbourne.

Nativity, Isaac Fanous 1991, Holy Virgin Coptic Church, Los Angeles, CA

Nativity, Isaac Fanous 1991, Holy Virgin Coptic Church, Los Angeles, CA

Pageau – Form the outside, it seems as if Neo Coptic iconography has received an almost unanimous acceptance within the Coptic church. Is this perception accurate? What is the general reaction to the new style and how have you found that clergy and parishioners identify with the new art?

René – The perception of a “unanimous acceptance” is unfortunately quite inaccurate. When I first saw the icons of Isaac Fanous, there was absolutely no doubt in my western mind that this was the authentic canonical iconography of the Coptic Church.

However, on our first trip to Egypt, we quickly began to realise that this style of iconography was not at all the norm and even rather disliked by a large majority of Copts who considered it “naive” and “childlike”, preferring Western religious models instead. I thought the whole thing quite strange then, but I am almost used to it by now.

View of the iconostasis at the Cathedral of Sharm-el-Sheikh

View of the iconostasis at the Cathedral of Sharm-el-Sheikh with its very Western style art.
Iconostasis, Stephane René, St Mark's Coptic church, St Thomas, US Virgin Island.  2012

Iconostasis, Stephane René, St Mark’s Coptic church, St Thomas, US Virgin Island. 2012

The lack of education in iconology is unfortunately not restricted to the congregation, but also extends to the hierarchy of the church. Unlike the Russian Church, for example, who is known to foster and nurture the knowledge and appreciation of iconography among its clergy, Coptic clergymen are generally left to their own devices, deciding according to their own personal taste what kind of art should go in a new church building under their jurisdiction.

A recent article written by Fr Moses Samaan, posted on his blog http://becomeorthodox.org/the-slow-death-of-iconography-in-the-coptic-orthodox-church/ laments the “Slow death of Coptic Iconography” before our very eyes. It is the first time a Coptic clergyman has openly commented critically on the state of Coptic iconography and the general attitude towards it. Perhaps a change is slowly emerging…
Pageau – In the Byzantine/Russian tradition, although there is some room for improvisation, certain types, such as the festal icons or other major types are pretty resolved in their composition and cannot take too much change.
René – One cannot look at Coptic iconography through the same lens as Byzantine iconography. The canon has been maintained and nurtured in Byzantine iconography from the earliest period. This is not the case with Coptic iconography, whose canon, established during the Coptic period (4th – 7th c.) was not allowed to develop and flourish, due to certain historical factors, not least of which is the advent of Islam and the systematic oppression of Egypt’s indigenous Christian people and their culture.
2013 Royal Mail stamp without the usual stars.

2013 Royal Mail stamp without the usual stars.

Holy Face by Stephane Rene, 2013 This face represents the standard canon for the human face of God the Son, for the contemporary Coptic style  of iconography and is designed and painted using the principles and geometry established by Isaac Fanous.

Holy Face by Stephane Rene, 2013
This face represents the standard canon for the human face of God the Son, for the contemporary Coptic style of iconography and is designed and painted using the principles and geometry established by Isaac Fanous.
For me, the designing stage is crucial, because it represents the support, the architectural grid of the icon, if you will. Here, the geometry is established and the icon finds its form. Just as there cannot be a great building without a great plan, there cannot be a good icon without a good design.
After designing, lighting becomes of paramount importance. Iconography is all about light, the “heavenly light”, as Prof Isaac called it.
Icon of Pentecost, Stephane Rene, 2013, Sts Mary and Peter Roman Catholic Church, Leatherhead, UK

Icon of Pentecost, Stephane Rene, 2013, Sts Mary and Peter Roman Catholic Church, Leatherhead, UK
René –I hope more Christian liturgical artists will come to do research at the school, enriching our knowledge and appreciation of our Christian artistic heritage.
Virgin Platytera, Stephane Rene 2015 -To be shown at PSTA exhibition-

Virgin Platytera, Stephane Rene 2015 -To be shown at PSTA exhibition-
My upcoming exhibition is partly a reaction to the current dynamics regarding Coptic iconography discussed above. I have not had an exhibition in 10 years, but felt it would create a needed opportunity to share and discuss this lesser known tradition with a wider public, as it is written: “Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand…” (Matt 5:15).

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Three Youths in the Furnace, Stephane Rene 2014. Sts Mary and Abraham Coptic Church, St Louis Missouri
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Sts Sophia, Elpis, Pistis and Agape by Stephane Rene 2014. Sts Mary and Abraham, St Louis, Missouri
Christ Pantocrator, Stephane Rene 2014 in the apse of Sts Mary and Kyrillos VI, London

Christ Pantocrator, Stephane Rene 2014 in the apse of Sts Mary and Kyrillos VI, London
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Christ Pantocrator and the 24 Elders of Revelation 2001 by Stephane Rene,