|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Divine representationsPrecious pictures or coded myths: she reads the signs
Profile by Fayza Hassan
"The religion of the masses," writes Dr Otto F A Meinardus in Two thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (The American University in Cairo Press, 1999) "has expressed itself in many instances in sub-Christian forms, tenuously maintaining the cultus and the institutions of the past... With the advent of Christianity in the Nile Delta and valley, the masses soon replaced the cult of Pharaonic deities with historical or fictitious accounts of saints and martyrs. Historical and legendary personages and events, locally identified in either the Nile Valley or the Delta region, increasingly became objects of veneration and worship, thus, the vita of a saint, related to a certain community and pregnant with the miraculous, provided a significantly more tangible object of religious identification than the abstract dogma of the official religion. This practice was very widespread in the fifth and sixth centuries."
The Coptic icons of the period provide numerous examples confirming Meinardus's assertion. But what happens when an expert in this form of ancient art thinks she can observe the same tendency in an icon painted in the early 19th century? Zuzanna Skàlovà is such an expert. There are few of her kind around the world. Coptic icons are not exactly a popular subject of scholarship, she explains in her faintly accented English.
Born in Prague, she grew up under the communist regime and, since her parents were not party members, the "good" schools, and the Gymnasium in particular, where she could have acquired a solid classical education, were closed to her. She was lucky, however, for her mother finally managed to enroll her in an art school where students were introduced to the more practical basic applications of their artistic talents. Among other skills, Skàlovà learned journalistic layout and after graduation was selected to become the layout editor of a good Czech newspaper. She loved the job, which was both demanding and prestigious, but moving among the progressive intelligentsia of Prague, she was more sensitive than many to the malaise that was overtaking the country. Soon the events of 1968 proved her forebodings to be justified. The paper was closed and only luck again, she claims, landed her a scholarship to study at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. The separation from her family was very painful, but Skàlovà is not prepared to dwell on feelings. She dismisses incursions into that domain with a sweet smile and a wave of her delicate fingers. She is much more comfortable speaking about her professional achievements and projects.
Leaving Prague and her loved ones may have been difficult, but there she was in Amsterdam, a young woman alone in a new world, with insufficient academic training and a scant knowledge of languages, especially that of the country she was going to live in for the next few years. It was rather scary. But she had ambition, even if it was not clearly channelled yet, and was grateful for the chance to escape the turmoil that was overtaking her country. She intended to make good use of it.
When asked what she really wanted to do at the time, she had mentioned restoration, a subject that had attracted her since school, where she had had a glimpse of its artistic dimension. There was no restoration department at the University of Utrecht, however, and for lack of other interesting choices, she elected to study art history. The road was fraught with difficulties nevertheless. She had to learn Dutch, of course, and then English and the classical languages, Greek and Latin, that she had missed during her more practical training at school. "Translating from Latin to Dutch was something else, I tell you," she exclaims at one point, remembering.
A small scholarship allowed her to spend one summer in Rome, where she was introduced to the world famous Istituto per il Restauro, one of the very few restoration schools in existence. This is where she wanted to be, she knew at once, and this is where, again on a scholarship, she began to become interested in the restoration of old icons. Russian and Byzantine icons became the topic of her studies and the paramount interest in her life. She had to brush up on the Russian she knew, learn more Greek and travel to examine the respective icons in situ. She studied and studied and felt that she would never know enough. "Until the age of 40, I was a full- time student," she comments, as if this was the most natural thing in the world. Didn't she ever want a husband, children, the lifestyle other women usually strive to obtain? "I didn't particularly want children," she says pensively, "but I wouldn't have minded a husband..." And? "Well, all the good men were taken by the time I emerged, and I am definitely not cut out to be a husband-snatcher," she declares with a short laugh. Again, we have to leave it at that. Easygoing and open when she talks about her work, Skàlovà reminds me of a peach that changes into a prickly pear if more intimate subjects are broached.
She admits to a degree of paranoia where personal matters are concerned and is even more closed when it comes to political topics. We therefore return to her favourite subject. How did she live during her scholarly years? "Sparingly," she states. "On meager scholarships, sometimes supplemented by a restoration here and there, when I had the time."
above: the monks of St Anthony presenting the restored icons (Father Maximos is third from left); down: Icons are not necessarily small: this one belongs to the Church of Abu Seifein
photos: Mohamed Mos'ad
It is obvious from the way she lives, that she does not have many material requirements: Her home is now the top floor of a primitive two- storey building in Nazlet Al-Simman. Down below, the horses of the stable of Abu Basha are nuzzling their foals in the blazing sun, waiting for the day's tourists. Flies are buzzing below but don't usually rise to her perch. From her small terrace decorated with numerous flowering plants, she has a full view of the Pyramids and of an archaeological dig, abandoned now for the summer. She points at the entry to some tombs in the rock. "Isn't it extraordinary?" she says in awe; "they are discovering new ones every day." She is perfectly in tune with the desert surrounding her retreat and obviously doesn't mind the Spartan lifestyle. A place to sleep, a table to work at in the shade of a trellis and the photographs of her precious icons carefully protected in plastic folders: she does not want much more.
Her Egyptian adventure with the Coptic icons did not start this way, though.
In 1988, the head of the monastery of St Anthony approached the embassy of the Netherlands: they needed an evaluation and consultancy on the monastery's ancient icons. Skàlovà, known in Amsterdam for her scholarship in the subject, was called upon to give an opinion. On her arrival in Egypt, she was reunited with Paolo and Laura Mora, who had been her professors at the Istituto and whom she admires very much. "They did wonderful work on the restoration of the tomb of Nefertari," she points out, "and they are wonderful people, so knowledgeable and dedicated."
Hers was only a small embassy project, intended to last a few months -- seven at most. It turned into a fascinating voyage with an entirely new dimension. Still sponsored by the embassy of the Netherlands, it lasted almost seven years. The examination of St Anthony's icons revealed a need for urgent and extensive attention. But they were not the only ones. Other icons in churches around Cairo, as well as in the Coptic Museum, had suffered from decay and called for professional care. "In accordance," reads the pamphlet of the Foundation for the Conservation of Icons in the Middle East of which Skàlovà is the founder, "activities were initiated in Egypt by the Netherlands government in 1989. These activities, carried out in cooperation with the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation [now the Supreme Council for Antiquities], were launched as a Conservation of Coptic Icons Training Project (1989-1995)."
Before attacking the daunting task, Skàlovà had to study the techniques used by the Egyptian icon painters. She soon discovered that they were totally different from those she had encountered in Russian and Byzantine devotional art, representing instead a continuation of Ancient Egyptian methods.
Completely fascinated by now, Skàlovà, began to explore these uncharted tracks. Every day brought its crop of new and fascinating discoveries. Finally, secure in the belief that she had cracked the secret techniques of the ancient artists, she began to work on the icons of St Anthony, teaching the monks there the delicate art of preserving their precious pictorial religious heritage. She speaks with affection and admiration of Father Maximos, who was already an accomplished carpenter and eventually took on the direction of the project. Her expertise was in great demand, and she had up to four workshops running at the same time. "It was crazy, I was completely exhausted," she remembers. She lived in luxury, though, in a splendid apartment in Garden City, with a chauffeured car and a helpful maid, all courtesy of the government of the Netherlands. "I loved the work and maybe the pampering as well, but it all came to an abrupt halt when the project was completed," she says. "I had to move to a cheaper apartment and my change of status was immediately reflected in the maid's attitude. Of course, I had to part with her too."
Skàlovà laughs at the memory. More important things than material comfort were already beckoning. Besides, city life did not agree with her, and pollution had affected her lungs during the Garden City period. "Get out of the country, or go to the desert," the doctor she had consulted had advised. She chose the latter and looked for a place near the Pyramids. She had no intention of leaving Egypt, since the subject of her PhD dissertation had by then imposed itself. She secured a Greek supervisor for her thesis at the University of Leiden, and was back with her companion, Mabrouka the Pekinese, to the solitude of the desert and the demanding work schedule she has imposed on herself.
Now that she is free of any professional obligation, she can return to the life she prefers, that of a passionate student. She can happily mull for hours over the meaning of a rare icon showing Salome bearing an empty plate, while the head of John the Baptist looks down from on high. "Have you ever seen such a representation?" she asks, pointing to the scene on a faded photograph. "Salome always has the head of John the Baptist on her plate, always... Could the monk who painted this icon have been inspired by the legend of Horus? Look at Salome, her movements are positively Pharaonic... But this particular icon dates from the 1800s. Could they have kept the legends going until this late date, or was the interpretation prompted by the French who visited the monasteries and mentioned the legend of Horus?" She does not expect an answer to her question. She is launched on the path of finding it herself. It is like detective work, she says, her blue eyes shining suddenly.
For a moment Skàlovà has forgotten us. She is no longer fretting about the way she will look in the photograph ("don't make me look fat," she urges photographer Mohamed Mos'ad); she is not even worrying about her sight, damaged by the minute work she has been doing. She can no longer open her eyes when the light is bright, but she can still pore for hours over photographs and ancient texts and this is all that counts. Doesn't she feel this exclusive focus on her work has come at the expense of other joys: opportunities missed in her life, lack of companionship? She abandons the photograph she has been scrutinising and looks up. She tries to think about things she misses. "I travel every summer, I go to Prague to see my mother and brother (her mother came to Egypt, but could not be wooed to the charms of life in the desert); I take Mabrouka with me, needless to say; she dislikes the hot weather but when it turns cold in Prague I know she wants to come back and I think that on the whole, I have been incredibly lucky." Doesn't she have any regrets? "Oh yes," she does, "I have been able to master six languages, but Arabic is one frontier I have not been able to conquer. As you understand, it is a hindrance to my work, and I have to rely on helpful scholars to decipher the Arabic inscriptions on the icons."
Recommend this page© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time