Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Hard Work of Re-Establishing an Artistic Tradition - The Icons of Dr Stephane Rene

Some NLM readers will be aware of the Neo-Coptic iconography of Dr Stephane Rene. He is one of the main figures in the group of iconographers who are working to maintain the momentum of the revival of the Coptic style of iconography, a student of the man who is generally seen as responsible for reestablishing Coptic iconography in the mid-20th century, the late Dr Isaac Fanous.

In my opinion, the Coptic revival demonstrates just how a tradition can not only be re-established after a hiatus in practice, but it can be done so in such a way that the new work surpasses the quality of the old. This latter point is just a personal opinion, but I am struck by how powerfully distinctive and instantly recognizable the neo-Coptic style is. It participates in the tradition of Coptic iconography, but at the same time has a wide appeal to contemporary Christians from other rites and churches, as well as, presumably, Coptic Christians. I have seen Stephane’s icons in Catholic churches on a number of occasions, for example.

Furthermore, (and again, this is just a personal opinion), although the style originates from a very different starting point, they do not look so “un-Roman” as, for example, a Russian icon. I would be interested to know how readers feel about this.

I wanted to bring his work to your attention again for a couple of reasons. One is that I had occasion to talk to him not long ago, and he sent me examples of recent work.

The second is that he told me of his concerns about ensuring that the tradition survives, and has started to take on students who are committed to learning and maintaining the tradition. He is in touch with a number of students in the US and Canada whom he tutors via video connection. He told me that he was initially skeptical of the potential for such distance-learning, but has now changed his mind.

“I now have three promising young Coptic students, two doing a BA in fine art in Canada, and a third from California who already has a BA in painting. I had been following them for the last 2-3 years on Facebook, and they eventually contacted me separately, begging me for some kind of tuition. I accepted and started weekly group video calls on Messenger (for now). It has been quite an interesting experience so far, and I now see that my reservations about teaching iconography online were not warranted. I give them written assignments, exercises and a reading list that includes The Way of Beauty, which I consider a must for any student of Christian sacred art. As you may already know, the very existence of Coptic iconography is now very much in jeopardy and I want to do whatever I can to contribute.”

In the Roman Church, we are lagging behind the Eastern Churches in this regard. This is going to sound harsh, but in my opinion, we are still looking for our own Fanous who will re-establish the distinctive Catholic traditions of art, such as the Gothic or Baroque, with such great effect. I hope that this story will inspire artists out there to believe that we can have beautiful liturgical art again.

If anyone wishes to contact him, you can do so via his website: www.copticiconography.org.

Also, here is an excellent interview with Stephane, who is a deacon at the Coptic Church in London where he lives, in the Orthodox Arts Journal.


For reference, here is a 6th century apse from Bawit, now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
Related image
And here is an icon by Dr Fanous, circa 1970, from St George Coptic Church in Sporting, Alexandria.
Early icon of the Virgin by Isaac Fanous, circa 1970.  St George Coptic church, Sporting, Alexandria

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