Iconography began with the intention of educating both the converts and the believers of the church. It is not merely a picture or a drawing, but a spiritual and dogmatic expression. An Icon is written and not painted. It is a faithful representation of the Holy Scripture or a biography of a Saint. Icons in the Church or at home signify the spiritual presence of Christ, the Saints and events of their lives. The iconographers know the rules to project icons that are considered a religious beauty and aimed to embody the visions of faith and hope. “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For why does one still hope for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24) Icons are an integral part of the Coptic worship. They inspire and teach the faithful the mysteries of the Christian Church. It is visual theology. Icons stand between the material and spiritual realms.
The origin of the work “icon” is in the Greek word “eikon” or the Coptic word "eikonigow.” Within the Greek Bible, icon appears in the verse, “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) Also, “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) In other words, the word “icon” is “image” in Greek. Icons help us learn the mystery of the presence of God in the world. The image in the icon must be equivalent to the Scripture as a revelation of the truth.
History of Iconography
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. Coptic Iconography reached its peak during the 4th and 7th centuries. This time coincides with Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity. The Christian converts beginning to appear were illiterate. They had extreme difficulty comprehending the spiritual meanings, the history of the Church, and the events that took place in the Bible. Therefore, the Church leaders allowed icons to help the people assimilate Christianity and its doctrine aided by visual means. Patriarch Cyril I, the 24th Coptic Pope, permitted icons to be hung in all the churches of Egypt.
Soon, Christians began to venerate the icon itself and to forget the event or person it portrays. An icon is meant to be a window into the spiritual world helping us to contemplate spiritual matters, lead us to a prayerful frame of mind, and remind us of events in the Bible, the life of Christ, and the saints. The icon is NOT to be an object of worship. Again, we must contemplate the scene within the icon and not bow before it. We kneel to Jesus Christ, not to pictures. We kiss these pictures as if kissing the Lord, His Mother, the Disciples who touched Him, and the Saints who precede us to eternal life. These are our true family:
“Our Father who art in Heaven;” St. Mary the Virgin, Queen, Theotokos, and the Mother of the world; and our never-ending accumulation of brothers and sisters.
History relates that the use of icons in the Church has its Christian roots from the time of Christ::
· St. Luke was not only a doctor and a Gospel writer, but also an artist. He painted the icon presenting St. Mary “the Theotokos” holding Baby Jesus in her arms.
· The early Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesaria (264-340 A.D) mentioned in his book “The History of the Church” that King Abagar of Edessa (an area in eastern Iraq) sent a message to the Lord Jesus asking for a visit to heal him from his disease and inviting our Lord to come and live in his kingdom. The messenger returned with a cloth with Jesus' image imprinted upon it. The Lord's image healed the king.
· Another story of early icon use involves the woman who was cured from her twelve year bleeding. (Luke 8:43)
Symbolism of the Coptic Icon
The Savior and the saints must always be depicted facing the worshipper and looking directly toward him. In Orthodox iconography, the halo is an expression of light radiating from within the saint, as a sign of the holiness he attained by his spiritual striving, supported by the grace of God. Contrary to common practice in painting, the iconographer, starts by putting down the dark colors first and then continues putting more and more light into the icon. In this manner, he follows the same order of “enlightenment” which proceeds upon our fallen nature, which is in darkness until the light of Christ shines upon it and saves it. Because the saint has already completed his struggle and has attained victory, then he must be depicted as victorious and joyful, never as weak or full of pain. Icons depict saints in their glorified state for a two-fold reason: to honor the saint who is portrayed, and to encourage us, who are struggling to emulate their lives.
The Icons seem to be out of proportion to the viewer since the eyes and ears are quite large. The characteristics of the large and wide eyes symbolize the spiritual eye that looks beyond the material world. The large ears show ears listening to the Word of God, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mk 4:23) Gentle lips are reminders to glorify and praise the Lord, “My mouth shall praise You with Joyful lips.” (Ps 63:5) The eyes and ears are disproportionably large because a spiritual person spends more time listening to God's word and seeking to do God's will. Large heads indicate that the individual are devoted to contemplation and prayer. The mouth is small because it can be the source of empty and harmful words. The nose is also small since it is viewed as sensual. Notice that when an evil character is portrayed within an icon, it is always in profile since it is not desirable for one to dwell upon, meditate, or make eye contact with such a being.
Use these icons as windows into the spiritual world to achieve a prayerful mindset. They represent images of the Body of Christ for through Him we are all united.