Coptic Culture

Art and Music

Art and music are the most ancient languages of worship which have led the faithful to experience a heavenly atmosphere and deepen fellowship with God. Worship is the expression of our response to God’s infinite love. At times when mere words are inadequate to express this response, the gift or art and music are utilised as a form of worship.

It is the desire of many to offer their lives and devote their culture to express that deep, unspeakable love for God. At the same time, it is God’s beneficence that He longs to sanctify man’s being, life and culture as a sign of the great value that we as children of God have in His sight. God loves our being as a whole; He accepts our soul as His dwelling place and does not despise our body and human culture, for both these can be sanctified by the Holy Spirit to act spiritually as instruments of righteousness, for the edification of God’s Church on earth.

Coptic Art

In the early Christian era, many thousands of Copts preferred to live in the wilderness out of their longing for the angelic life. For those who remained in the cities and countries, the Christian Faith penetrated their daily life, even their eating, drinking, literature and arts. There is evidence that Christian symbols and images were inscribed on their rings, painted on their walls, doors, cups, plates, chairs, and the like.

Coptic Iconography

The word ‘icon’ denotes 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.
Historians date the appearance of the iconographic style to the first three centuries of Christianity. The idea behind the use of icons in the early Church was due to the unique experience that the Church faced. As many Christian converts had difficulty understanding Biblical teachings and their spiritual meanings, the early Church leaders permitted the use of icons to help them.

With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine (307-337 AD) to Christianity, came a dramatic change. He hastened the triumph of Christianity over paganism by forbidding idolatry. The statues of the pagan gods were removed from the capital, and icons were used to decorate churches and state buildings. In the following century, Pope Cyril I (404 – 430 AD), the 24th Coptic Patriarch, permitted icons to be hung in the patriarchate and in all the churches of Egypt.

Icons are not meant to be worshipped or venerated as something holy in themselves, in the way that idols were; the reverence shown to an icon is not to the artwork, but rather to the person or event which it portrays. An icon is meant to be a window into the spiritual world, used to help the believer to contemplate spiritual matters and to put him into a prayerful frame of mind, as a reminder of events in the Bible, and of the life of Christ and the saints. The centre of the Christian Faith is that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:1), and thus it is not surprising that the loving and merciful face of our Lord Jesus Christ is the subject of many icons

The art of making Orthodox icons follows specific symbolism which carries meaningful messages. Some of these characteristics are, for example: firstly, large and wide eyes, symbolising the spiritual eye that looks beyond the material world, for the Bible says, “the light of the body is the eye ” (Matthew 6:22); secondly, large ears, which listen to the word of God, for the Bible says, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23); and thirdly, gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord, for the Bible says, `My mouth shall praise You with joyful lips”(Psalm 63:5).

The eyes and ears on a figure in an icon are disproportionately large because a spiritual person spends much time listening to God’s word and seeking to do God’s will. On the other hand, the mouth, which can also often be the source of empty or harmful words, is small. The nose, which is seen as sensual, is also small. When an evil character is portrayed in an icon, it is always in profile, as it is not desirable to make eye contact with such a person and thus to dwell or meditate upon them. Figures in Coptic icons often have large heads, meaning that they are individuals devoted to contemplation and prayer.

Icons portraying saints who suffered and were tortured for their faith, depict them with peaceful and smiling faces, showing that their inner peace was not disturbed, even by the hardships they endured and suffered willingly and joyfully for the Lord. It is noteworthy to mention that from time to time, miracles are performed through icons. In the last few years, for instance, there have been icons that have ‘wept’ oil, leading to the healing of many, the conversion of some non-Christians, and the strengthening of the faith of believers. This happened in many places both in Egypt and in our churches around the world.


Coptic Music

The Copts inherited a very ancient musical tradition from their ancestors the pharaohs. One of the foremost Coptic musical scholars, Dr. Ragheb Muftah, says, ‘Scientific research has proven that the music of the Coptic Church is the most ancient ecclesiastical music in existence, and constitutes the oldest school of music which the world now possesses. The Coptic Church owes the preservation of this monumental and invaluable heritage of its ecclesiastical music to its conservative nature inherited from ancient times.’

Dr. Dryioton, a renowned Egyptologist, also writes, ‘The key to the mystery of Pharaonic music will then be found in a good edition of Coptic ecclesiastical music in use in our days’. The English scholar, Earnest Newlandsmith of Oxford and London Universities, who spent winters in Egypt (1927 – 1936), invited by Dr. Moftah, specially noted the Coptic hymns, said: ‘Coptic music is a great music and may be called one of the seven wonders of the world, and indeed, if a Caruso filled with the Spirit of God were trying to sing some of the Coptic themes in the form of a great oratorio, it would be enough to rekindle Christendom (spiritually). This music, which has been handed down from untold centuries within the Coptic Church, should be a bridge between East and West, and would place a new idiom at the disposal of the western musicians. It is lofty, noble and great, especially in the element of the infinite, which is lacking today. Western music has its origin in ancient Egypt’.