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The Glorious Resurrection in the Coptic Iconography.
By: Dr. Pola Saverus.
"By death He has trampled the death, and those who are in the graces He has granted them the eternal life".
(from the melodies of Resurrection).
How did the ancient Egyptian Christian artist expressed the event of the Glorious resurrection?. Were the monumental paintings regarding this event similar to the recent circulated pictures of it?. If it were not, from where did our artist fathers obtain their holy ecclesiastical paintings which are known as "icons" (1) ?.
When we study the monumental icons that reached to us, that are kept until nowadays in our monumental Coptic churches and which date back to the period 13th - 16th. Centuries Ad nearly, we find a unique depiction draw immediately our attention.
First of all we know that there - are seven Great Feasts in the Coptic Orthodox Church They are called "Feasts of the Lord," i. e. the feasts which is belonging to our Lord Jesus the Christ, glory to Him. These feasts reflect the Divine Economy for salivation. They are: Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, the Entering unto (known by Palm - Sunday) , Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost (i. e. descending the Holy Spirit on the holy apostles). These seven main feasts represent the main events in the life of our lord Jesus Christ on the earth.
Now this depiction we just have mentioned them represents the event of the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ glory to Him, in a way that deeply differs from the circulated pictures of Resurrection. How' it depicts this holy event. Let us see this depiction as well illustrated in two monumental icons: The first one, which is attached herewith, measures 60x - 1 - 5 cm. Its date is the 15th century. A. D. approximately, The second one, is one of the panels of a wooden wide tableau hanging on the screen of the southern chancel in the monumental church St. Mary the Virgin at Haret Zawilea. This tableau represents the seven main feasts that just mentioned. This icon measures 454 5. X 35 5 cm, and goes back, no doubt as I believe, to the 13th century.
In the first icon we find two registers. The lower one occupies two - thirds of the icon. In this part we find the figure of our Lord Jesus Christ, glory to Him, in the middle of the scene, wearing a complete white mantle and above it a white cloak. Around His whole Body the "Mandorla". He holds with His right hand the left - hand of an old man getting up from a position of kneeling. Also, He holds with His left hand the right hand of a woman in a position of getting up too. Under the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ there are a lot of skulls and bones. Behind the figures of the rising man there are many figures for men. Also, behind the rising woman there are figures of a lot of women on both sides of the scene.
In the second icon, we also find the figure of our Lord Jesus Christ wears a complete. Mantle, and above it a cloak hanging down on his shoulder. He stands in a deep groove, amidst split rocks. He holds with His right - hand an old man, and with His left - hand a woman. Behind each of them there are human figures. Under the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ there is a shape of two smashed heavy leaves of a door.
This is the depiction by which the ancient Christian Egyptian artist represented the Holy event of the Glorious Resurrection in all the monumental Coptic icons, amidst the icons that depict the main Seven Feasts of the Lord. This depiction is called "the Descent unto Hell". First, it is well known that the sources and supports of the Coptic Art from which the Egyptian Christian artist takes his ecclesiastical subjects are mainly: the Holy bible, teachings and laws of the holy apostles ( = the didache) , petrology, i. e. the sayings and interpretations of the early fathers, and the doctrines and rites of our Coptic Orthodox church.
Truly, this scene is ever known in the general Christian Art, as we find the same scene on a wall - painting that goes back to the 7th / 6th. Century AD. , in church, in. This is the most ancient one we ever received till now.
Now, from where did the Egyptian Christian artist inspire this artistical expression for the event of the Glorious Resurrection?. Had he, as some imagine, been influenced by Byzantine art then he copied it?.
Second, there is also in the Coptic Orthodox Church an inexhaustible spring. It reflects, in my opinion, the Egyptian Christian heritage in a living and recently way. This spiritual spring is the so called "Church melodies and hymns" Most of these hymns in their recently shape date back nearly to the fifth century AD. But their principles and origins date back to the first century AD.
Any how, these melodies and hymns are but expressions that have been quoted from the Holy Scriptures. He who has a circumcised ear, present mind, a fervent spirit that inflamed by the love of the Lord and hearkens attentively will realize immediately without the least toil how much the extent of their deep is. How our holy fathers have put in them the essence of the accurate theological teachings, the Orthodox doctrinal and ritual principles, and the fruits of their long struggle for t he sake of keeping on the flame which they had received from the holy apostles until they deliver it fully and honestly to their descendants through the ages.
These melodies and hymns, especially that go back prior to the 13th century before the recent additions of the 19th. century, contain all the theological, doctrinal and principal of faith. Besides, deep, supreme, and spiritual meditations of our Orthodox Coptic Church.
Doubtless, these hymns and melodies were a great spring for all the Egyptian Christian artists. Out of it they had drunk a lot, and still obtain their artistic imaginations whenever they want to express artistically the ecclesiastical events.
May be the tones and music of these melodies and hymns please many more than the words itself But once you pay attention to the words and expressions you will discover the deep teachings and the precious treasures the been deposited in this Egyptian Christian heritage. You will wonder how our father could concentrate the theological teachings, which are hard by its nature, in these nice, fascinated musical statement to be pleasure to the ear and easy to be kept by the heart.
A good example to that is the Coptic icon of "the Descent into the Hades". Let us see the treasures of the Coptic heritage that entrusted in them.
In our ecclesiastical melodies and hymns we find the following:
1 - In the part which are recited on the feast of the Resurrection we read "by His strength He has abolished the death. And let the life shines for us. He who also went down unto the lower parts of the earth. Gate - keepers of the Hades had seen Him and scared. He so destroyed the pangs of death that could not hold Him. He has crushed the gates, broken the iron barricades, and driven His own elect out gladly and joyfully.. He brought thl7'ffi up unto the high, to the place of His own rest. He has saved them for the sake of His holy name He has shown them His strength. Therefore we are rich with the full goodness and through faith we chant Hallelujah". (Coptic orthodox church book of the annual psalmody, pp: 554 - 556).
2 - In the "paralex" (2) which is chanted after reading a chapter of the Acts (praxis) , and before the act - show of resurrection during the Mass of this feast we chant saying "He captivated the Hades, destroyed the brazen gates, broke the iron barricades, and changed the punishment Unto salvation. He who brought Adam back to the paradise with joy, gladness and pleasure. He and his children those who were in custody, send He them back to the place of paradise once more".
3 - In the Coptic Mass of St. Basil the priest prays always in the petition of "He was incarnate and became man" saying "He who has loved His own, those who are in the word, and gave Himself up for our salvation even unto the death that reigned over us. He descended into Hades through the cross.".
We have just mentioned here above that these melodies and hymns depend totally on the Holy Bible and the reaching of the early fathers. Hence, this Orthodox Tradition which says that our Lord Jesus Christ, glory to Him "went down into the Hades' according the expression of the Basilic Mass, or" into the lower places of the earth "according to the Coptic annual Psalmody" through the cross "in order to" save Adam and his children "or" His own elect "and" to bring them up unto the High place where the place of His own rest "that is" the kingdom of God ", and to" restore them once more to the paradise which Adam has been chased out of it because of his disobedience and trespasses ".
In other words, descent of our Lord Jesus Christ, glory to Him, into Hades through the cross to save all those who died in the hope of the glorious Resurrection since Adam up to the time of the crucifixion,.
This Orthodox Tradition that has ever been kept in this overflowing patrological heritage depends basically in fact on the teachings of the Holy bible as follows:
1 - Our Instructor St. Peter the apostle says in his first epistle "For our Christ also suffered once for sins.. being put to death in the flesh... by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison". (1 pet. 3: 18& 19).
2 - Also our Instructor St. Paul the apostle says in his epistle to the Effusions "when He ascended on high he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. Now this" He ascended "what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens". (Eph. 4: 8 - 10).
3 - Even Isaiah the evangelical prophet when he talks beforehand of the works of our Lord Jesus Christ during His life on the earth, he says in his prophecies "to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house (42: 7) ;" that You may say to the prisoners 'go forth', to those who are in darkness 'show yourselves' "(49: 9) ;" the Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed Me to.. , to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound ". (61: 1).
Now, as the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, glory to Him, from the dead is not a work that belongs to Himself in His divine Person (for He is the eternal life itself) but is a work that has been performed by the Lord of Glory (by His complete will) to save all the humankind since Adam unto the end of all ages.
In other words, as the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus the Christ does not only mean victory upon sin and death, and removing the anger of God from us, or reconciliation and forgiveness, but besides all these, it means also bringing back all the humankind to the eternal life, and to the Divine Bosoms which the mane though the first Adam by His disobedience and transgression) had lost it.
Therefore the Coptic artist, who is deeply acquainted with his Holy Bible and doctrines and teachings of his father, has taken out of the great and diverse done, the works and meanings that express the context of the Resurrection of our Lord. He took the main dimension which belongs to us as humankind and expressed it with his brushes and colours.
For the resurrection of the Lord mean at the end of any analysis the resurrection of us, the human beings from the death of sin and setting us free from the devil's capture. As the Holy Bible says in many places "even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ" (Ephes. 2: 5). [See also: 1 Tess. 4: 16, Rom. 6 5, ··etc]. Also, our instructor St. Paul the apostle says "and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Ephes 2 6).
That is why also the priest says always in the "litany of Gospel" which he prays in the Masses and raising incense "for You are the life of us all, the salvation of us all,... , and the resurrection of us all.".
Hence, our fathers expressed in their monumental ecclesiastical depiction the Glorious Resurrection wit the scene of liberty from the captivity and raising us from Hades, destroying its brazen gates and breaking its iron barricades. In other words, as we say nowadays subverting the prisons and putting them down, as a reference to the complete freeing for all the prisoners.
Thus the Coptic Icon does not stand alone, or far from the long possessed faithful heritage of the Coptic Church. Also, Coptic Icon is not a field of pure individual personal imagination For it is not but one of the several means by which the orthodox facts of the belief could be conveyed to the believers. Icon is the same like the written word.
Therefore, it is necessary for the iconographer in all the eastern Churches to have certain and very sharp rules (3) before he even thinks to draw any canonical icon that is the religious icon which could be put officially in any Orthodox Church. Even the icon itself must be also, anointed with the holy Myron by an official bishop to be fit for a church.
The work of the iconographer, as we see, equals the work of the church teacher and interpreter. For he explains with colours and lines the same facts that teacher or the interpreter explains Hence, the canonical iconographer can not depend only on his artistical speculations in depicting the most holy ecclesiastical scenes.
1 - There are deep differences between the ecclesiastical "icon" and the picture or tableau even If it "were religious. See the details in my work" Baramous monastery: historically. Archeologically and artistically'; HICS, anba Ruwesse. Abassia, Cairo, Egypt, 1991, sec3.
2 - A Greek word means a melody that is chanted repeatedly and alternatively.
3 - Concerning these conditions and rules. see in detail: Paula Sawires. "Baramous monastery: historically,archeologically and artistically". HICS. Abassya,Cairo,Egypt, 1991 ,sect. 3.