The word icon derives from the Greek eikon, meaning “image,” “portrait,” or “likeness.” Generally, Coptic icons are made of panels of wood painted mostly in tempera. Encaustic (hot wax) was also used, and the panels may be covered with a layer of gesso. The greater majority of Coptic icons represent portraits such as images of Christ, the Holy Virgin Mary, and the Apostles. Narrative icons that depict events of their lives are less frequent.
All Coptic monasteries and churches, ancient and modern, are decorated with icons. The vast majority of the Coptic icons date from the 18th and 19th centuries. A considerable number of important medieval icons dating from the 13th and 14th centuries were conserved and published beginning in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. It is generally accepted that the oldest Coptic icons derive from pagan mummy portraits that incorrectly were known as the “Fayoum Portraits.” These portraits, usually encaustic, sometimes tempera, show the deceased’s head and shoulders on a thin wooden board that is placed on the mummy with bandages.
They date between the first and the fourth centuries. According to the Arab historian al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), Patriarch Cyril I (412-444) hung icons in the churches of Alexandria and in the land of Egypt. Bishop John of Ephesus (ca. 516-585) stated that portraits of new bishops were hung in the churches of their dioceses. Unfortunately, only one of the portraits of Coptic bishops survived, which is preserved in the Museum of Byzantine Art of the National Museums in Berlin.
It shows Bishop Abraham and dates from the late sixth century. The monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai preserves some of the oldest and most valuable icons of the Byzantine Period, dating from the sixth and seventh centuries, which were not affected by the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries as Sinai came under Islamic rule about 640.
Icons are objects of veneration rather than displayed for their aesthetic values. They are an indispensable part of the liturgy of the Coptic Church. Shrines are built to house icons, where candles and incense are burned. There is usually an icon of Christ to the right of the door of the principal sanctuary of the church, the Royal Door, and an icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child to the left of the door. Icons of the 12 Apostles flank the scene of the Last Supper atop the wooden sanctuary screen above the Royal Door.
Icons from the Christological cycle, as well as icons of saints, decorate the walls of the church. The consecration of the icon is usually performed by a bishop, who anoints it with the chrism “holy oil,” saying three times: ‘Receive the Spirit.’ During the evening and morning offering of incense, the priest censes the icons of the Holy Virgin Mary and of John the Baptist.
Icons play an important role in the celebrations during festival days and pilgrimages. They are carried in the procession of the feasts of the Holy Cross, Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. On Good Friday the priest envelops the icon of the Crucifixion in a white veil of linen and places it on the altar. In the service on Holy Saturday, the icon of the Resurrection is carried in a procession around the altar and the church seven times while priests and deacons carry crosses, gospels, censers, and candles.
During pilgrimages, especially to sites believed to be blessed by the Holy Family, thousands of Copts venerate an icon of the Virgin by singing a song of praise. Upon entering a church, a devote Copt goes directly to the principal sanctuary and touches its curtain while prostrating himself to pray. Then he touches one of the icons and kisses his fingers afterward. A number of Coptic icons became famous in medieval times for their miracles.
There is no evidence that the Coptic Church suffered iconoclasm (destruction of icons), a movement that was initiated by Emperor Leo III (717-741), who issued the first edict against the use of images in 726. The controversy over the nature and function of the icons agitated the Church within the Byzantine Empire from 731 to 843, during which time religious art greatly suffered.
However, Coptic icons must have suffered the many waves of persecutions in medieval times when Muslim mobs attacked the churches and plundered them. Coptic monasteries and churches are also decorated with wall paintings. The Coptic liturgy influenced the mural decorations in medieval times; for example, the sacrifice of Abraham was chosen to decorate the sanctuary because of its reference to the Eucharist.