Coptic ICONS
                          'Their history and Spiritual Significance'
                                         By Dr. Zakaria Wahba

                Adapted for Copt-Net from "The Orchard" monthly review
                        Published by St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church,
                                         Washington DC, USA.
                                                 January 1993



Icon is a word which  describes a religious  picture, which is  used to depict
the  image of God. Today,  the word "icon" is   primarily  associated with the
paintings of the Orthodox Churches. Icons have prominent place in the life and
worship of the Orthodox Church.

The word "icon" is  derived from the  Greek "eikon" or  from the   Coptic word
"eikonigow" both of which are similar in  their  pronounciation. The word icon
is used in the Greek Bible in the Old Testament where it says, "Then God said,
let us make man in our image ..., so God created man in His  own image, in the
image of God he created" [Genesis 1:26-27]. This word is also  used in the New
Testament (the Greek Bible) in the Epistle of St. Paul  to the Colossians, "He
is the image of the invisible God" [Col 1:15].

Painting has  been  known since the dawn  of the history. The ancient Egyptian
artists   were famous  for their art  of painting  and carving.   One of their
famous works are frescoes  representing  stories and mythological  subjects in
the  tomb of  the priest   Pet Osiris at  Tuna   el-Gebel near  Mallawi in the
province of Al-Menia, Egypt. This is also  evident in the elaborate sarcophagi
designs,  where   Pharaohs were  buried. The  covers of  these sarcophagi were
carved and  painted to  display a portrait  of the buried Pharaoh, for example
King Tutankhamen.  Some of the rich people of pharaonic times were buried with
their portraits iconified  on  a board.  The  ancient  Greeks  and  Romans had
similar customs.

Historians date the  appearance of the iconographic  style to  the first three
centuries of Christianity.  Some  archaeologists believe that icons were first
popular  in  people's houses and  later began to appear  in places of worship,
probably at  the  end of the  3rd century. By  the 4th  and 5th centuries A.D.
their use was widespread. The idea behind the use of icons in the Early Church
is due  to the unique experience  the  Church faced. Most  Christians converts
came from pagan cultures and most of them were  illiterate.  Many of  them had
difficulty understanding Biblical  teachings and their  spiritual meanings, as
well as the historical events that took place in the Bible  and in the life of
the Church. Therefore, the  leaders of the  Early Church permitted the  use of
religious pictures  (icons) because the  people were  not able  to  assimilate
Christianity   and its doctrine   unaided  by  visual means.  Therefore, these
presentations  aided the faithful in understanding  the  new  religion and, at
same time,    illustrated it.   With  the  conversion   of the   Roman Emperor
Constantine (307-337 A.D.) to  Christianity, the situation  changed radically.
The Emperor hastened the triumph of Christianity  over paganism  by forbidding
idolatry. The statues of the  pagan gods were removed  from the capital. Icons
were used to decorate churches and  state buildings. It  is important to point
out the role of the Patriarch Cyril I (404-430 A.D.), (also known  by the name
of Kyrillos the Pillar of faith), the 24th Coptic Pope. He  permitted icons to
be hung in the Patriarchate and all the churches in Egypt.

With the  spread of  icons in  the  centuries  after the Emperor  Constantine,
Christians began to use icons in ways that were  never intended, becoming more
concerned with the art itself  rather than as  a  tool for prayer or Christian
instruction. Icons were never meant to be worshiped or  venerated as something
holy in themselves. The  reverence  shown to  an  icon  must be done with  the
understanding that it is not the icon or artwork itself we are respecting, but
rather the person or event it portrays. An  icon is meant to  be a window into
the spiritual world,  used to help us  contemplate spiritual matters or to put
us into a prayerful frame  of mind, as a reminder  of events in the Bible, the
life of Christ and the Saints, but never as an object of worship.

A movement arose in the 8th  century opting  for the elimination of icons from
churches on the grounds that they were being worshiped as graven images.  They
based their ideas on the Biblical verse, "Thou  should not  make unto thee any
graven image, or any  likeness  of anything that  is in the earth beneath,  or
that in the water  under the earth,  thou shalt not  bow down thyself to them,
nor serve them" [Exodus 20:4-5]. One of the key  figures "Lawon el-Esafry" and
his followers  were  involved in  the   destruction of many icons  during this
period, which is known  as the  Iconoclast (icons-destruction) controversy. It
is  interesting to note  that during the reign  of Emperor Leo III in  the 8th
century, the Iconoclast Controversy began and became a serious conflict in the
Church. This coincided with  the  Moslem invasions of Syria,  Iraq,  Egypt and
Persia. The Christian holy places in Jerusalem fell into Moslem hands.  During
this conflict the  two most prominent theologians  who stood to defend the use
of icons in  the Church  were  St. John  of  Damascus  (675-749 A.D.) and  St.
Theodore of Studios  (759-826  A.D.) at the  7th Ecumenical   Council  of  the
Eastern Orthodox Church in 787 A.D.

Although Christianity prohibited the worship of idols, the use of icons in the
proper way was not banned due to the reasons mentioned before. History relates
that the use of icons in the Church has its Christian  roots from  the time of
Christ. There is a number  of historical  documents for  these.  First, it  is
known that the Evangelist Luke was a talented painter as well as  a physician.
He painted an icon presenting the Virgin  Mary  holding the Child Jesus, which
many churches  all over  the world later   on copied.  Also,  in  a  reference
mentioned that the historian  "Van  Celub"  found  an icon of   the  Archangel
Michael during  his visit to a  Cathedral in Alexandria, that  was made by the
Apostle Luke. Second, an icon the Savior made without hands,  goes back to the
first  century  when king  Abagar of  Edessa (located  between the two rivers,
Euphrates and Tigris, an area in eastern Iraq)  sent a message with  his envoy
Ananius to the Lord Jesus Christ to  ask if  He  could  visit the king to heal
him. The king suffered from diseases and he wished  to the Lord would come and
live in  his kingdom. Ananius the envoy  was a talented artist,  and  tried to
paint a picture of the Lord, however the glory  and the perfect  appearance of
the Lord was so great that he was unable to do  so.  The story  says  that the
envoy went back to   the king with  a piece   of cloth that  had  an image  of
Christ's face. The image of the Holy  Face  of Christ  healed the  king of his
diseases in the absence of Christ himself, the Holy image  had power to effect
the healing of  the king. The  legend is saying virtually  the same as St Paul
says "But we  all, with open face beholding  as in  a glass of   the Lord, are
changed  into the same image from  glory  even as by  the spirit of  the Lord"
[2-Cor 3:18]. This story  and the two  letters were copied  word for  word and
published (in pages 56 and 57) in the book of "The History  of the  Church" by
the  early Christian historian Eusebius  of   Caesaria  [264-340 A.D.]. Third,
another story of early icon use  involves the woman in  [Luke 8:43] that Jesus
Christ healed from a twelve year bleeding. The woman had drawn  on the door of
her house (in village of  Banias, near   the source of   the  Jordan river)  a
representation of Christ and another  of herself lying prostrate at  his feet.
The historian Eusebius of Caesaria has cited this in his book "The  History of
the Church" after he saw the image at the woman's house which was still intact
at the time of his visit in the 3rd century.

Therefore, an icon can  be used  in  the service of the  Gospel and   the Holy
Tradition  of the Church, not a  mere artistic device.  Icons are windows into
heaven. A believer meditates on  the person whose portrait is  on the icon. In
this way an icon  may play a   role in enhancing  the  spiritual life  of  the
believer through  the  imitation of  the   life  of the  person  in  the icon.
Therefore, icons can be a blessing in our lives if we use  them in a spiritual
way. An icon is not merely a piece of art,  but it carries  a lot of spiritual
meaning in our lives.  The center of Christian faith, is that "the Word became
flesh" [John 1:1].  It is not surprising to see  that  the loving and merciful
face of our Lord Jesus Christ is the subject of most icons.

The art  of  making Orthodox  icons  follow certain  symbolism that carries  a
meaningful message. Some  of these characteristics are: First,  large and wide
eyes symbolize the  spiritual eye  that  look beyond  the material  world, the
Bible says  "the light of  the body is the eye:   if   therefore thine eye  be
simple, thy whole body shall be  full of light"  [Matthew 6:22]. Second, large
ears listen to the word of God; "if any man have ears to  hear, let them hear"
[Mark 4:23]. Third, gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord "My mouth shall
praise thee with joyful lips"  [Psalm 63:5]. The eyes and  ears on a figure in
an  icon are disproportionately large, because  a spiritual person spends more
time listening to God's word and seeking to do God's will. On  the other hand,
the mouth, which can also be often be the source  of empty or harmful words is
small. The nose, which  is seen a sensual  is  also small. Also, when  an evil
character is portrayed on an icon, it is always in profile because  it  is not
desirable to make eye contact with such a person and thus to dwell or meditate
upon it. Figures in Coptic  icons  often have  large heads, meaning that these
are  individuals devoted   to contemplation and   prayer. Icon artists  deeply
understood  the meaning and  benefit  of icons on  the spiritual  life of  the
believers. It  is interesting to note  that  the majority of the Coptic icons'
artists did not sign their names.  They were not looking or self-glorification
and fame, even the few who signed their names did so in the  form of a prayer;
such as "Remember O Lord your servant  (name)". Some icons  portray Saints who
suffered and were tortured  for their  faith with peaceful and  smiling faces,
showing that their inner peace was not disturbed,  even  by the hardships they
endured, and  suffered willingfully  and joyfully  for the Lord.  Although the
aristic style of iconography varies a little from one  culture to another, all
Orthodox icons  have the same meaning,  usage and symbolism (this includes the
Eastern Orthodox Churches;  Greek,  Russian,  Serbian, Bulgarian, ... etc,  as
well  a the Oriental  Orthodox Churches; Coptic, Armenian,  Syrian, Ethiopian,
... etc).

There  are a few  names that  have been important   in the Coptic iconography.
They are arranged chronologically:

  (1) St. Luke the Evangelist, who was a talented painter and is credited with
      painting the first icon.
  (2) Pope Macari I, the 59th Patriarch (931-95O A.D.)
  (3) Abu Yusr ibn Yalg of the 12th century.
  (4) Pope Gabriel III, the 77th Patriarch (1261-1263 A.D.)
  (5) John el-Nassikh, Baghdady Abu el-Saad and John the Armenian of the 17th
      and 18th centuries, and
  (6) Anastasy the Greek of the 19th century.

Nowadays, the art  of Coptic iconography is been  revived by dedicated artists
who are both professional and amateurs. The icon artist Dr.  Ishaq Fanous, who
is the professor of Coptic art at  the Higher Institute  for Coptic Studies in
Cairo, has done a  lot  of  work for  many churches  in Egypt and abroad. 

It  is  interesting  to note that  from  time   to  time, we  witness miracles
performed by God through icons. For instance, in the last few years there have
been Icons that  have "wept" oil. This phenomenon  has lead to the  healing of
many, the conversion  of some  non-Christians,  and the  renewal of  faith for
Christians. This has happened in Cleveland, OH,  Houston, TX, in  Egypt and in
other churches such  as the Albanian  Orthodox  Church in Chicago,  IL.  These
happenings have attracted the attention of the National and International News

In conclusion, icons in the Orthodox tradition are not  to be taken as art for
art's sake but  rather, they are to be  used as  windows into spiritual world,
designed to help us achieve a prayerful mind set and  lead  us into a  life of
prayer and contemplation. The interested reader might want  to check the icons
scanned and stored in Copt-Net Archives.