Coptic Iconography A short overview      






A Living Tradition  

Iconography is the Sacred Art of the Orthodox Church. Unlike its monotheistic Abrahimic counterparts, Judaism and Islam, Orthodox Christianity holds the human figure as the focus of its visual art. This is mainly due to the belief in the incarnation of the Logos, the second person of the Trinitarian God as expressed in the first few lines of St. John’s Gospel: “...and the Word was made flesh…” The primary function of iconography is liturgical. Icons are an integral part of Orthodox worship to inspire and teach the faithful the mysteries of the Christian faith through the medium of art. Iconography is above all visual theology. Icons stand on the threshold  of the material and spiritual realms.

Coptic Iconography reached its zenith during the Coptic period, 4th-7th C.  This time frame coincides with Emperor Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity in AD 311-313 and Egypt’s invasion by Islamic forces in AD 642. Coptic spirituality and culture flourished during this time. Some of the finest examples of Coptic painting were uncovered in the monasteries of the Nitrian and Red Sea Deserts, as well as in Upper Egypt, in the Bawit and Saqqara regions.  Coptic artists and craftsmen were prolific during the Fatimid period, 10th-12th centuries. This period saw church building and restoration flowering in to a renewal of Coptic Art. By the second half of the 19th century Coptic iconography had disappeared.


The Contemporary School

Dr. Isaac Fanous Yossef is the founder of the contemporary or Neo-Coptic School of Iconography. This new school came about as part of a general renaissance in Coptic culture which began during the patriarchate of Abba Kyrillos VI (1950-70’s).  The style and canon of proportions, the artistic vocabulary and symbolic system of the Neo-Coptic School have inherited much from Ancient Egyptian art. Each gesture has a significance and colours carry symbolic meaning. Designs are uncluttered, free of unnecessary elements and decorations and present the viewer with the essential information to experience the icon at a level beyond mind and thought.




The techniques employed in the making of icons on wooden panels have not changed over the centuries. There are two; encaustic and egg tempera.

The first, encaustic on gesso, disappeared around the iconoclastic period 8-9th century. It consisted of molten bee’s wax mixed with pigments and kept in a liquid form on a hot plate. It developed into a very high standard during the Greco-Roman period, 200BC—400AD, as exemplified by the funerary portraits from the Fayoum Oasis (right) that are considered the immediate precursors of the Christian icons.  The second technique is egg tempera, which is still in use today in the making of icons.  Both are best used on wood prepared with gesso.


Gesso, is the name of the white background upon which the icon is written. Its soundness is of paramount importance to the overall success of the work. Gesso is made up of white lime and natural glue, and spread on the panel in thin layers to achieve a hard but porous surface. After vigorous sanding a design is applied and gilding takes place. Tempera comes from the Latin word tempere, which means mixing in due measure. The technique of egg tempera requires a process of illumination from dark to light, symbolising the passage of the soul from the darkness of the physical world to the light of Christ.






Flight into Egypt, Neo-Coptic

Egg tempera on gesso

Funerary portrait 2nd c. AD,

egg tempera on gesso, Getty Museum

Palette of natural pigments

Christ & Apa Mina, Le Louvre

 6thC  Bawit, Egypt

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