Isaac Fanous (1919-2007)
By Jill Kamil
Icon of the icons
"I paint with my heart -- I know that God himself is in me."
Thus Isaac Fanous, Egypt's famous and beloved icon painter, who was buried on Monday, 15 January, 2007. Born in Cairo in 1919, Fanous was a dynamic and ambitious young man whose contemporary school of iconography came about as part of a general renaissance of Coptic culture during the patriarchate of Abba Kyrillos VI in the years following the 1952 Revolution. It was a time when wealthy patrons of the arts disappeared from Egypt's hitherto cosmopolitan art world, to be replaced by the state. That was when Fanous became most keenly aware of his Egyptian heritage; his career may be said to have taken off from the struggles and experiences of this time. But this was not as exceptional as it may sound. Every artist's life story is closely wrapped up in the period in which he or she lives. Fanous started his career in the free market of the monarchy as a secular, not a religious painter. He entered the faculty of the applied arts at Cairo University in 1937, showed aptitude in a variety of mediums -- painting, sculpture, mosaics and frescoes -- and subsequently studied in the Higher School of Applied Art in Cairo between 1938 and 1942, where his talent was recognised early on. He pursued his studies in the department of arts at the Institute of Education, graduating in 1946, and was one of the first students of the Institute of Coptic Studies founded in 1954; there, for years later, he obtained his doctorate.
While still a student examining the artefacts in the Egyptian Museum and the Coptic Museum, Fanous recognised strong elements of continuity in Egyptian culture, especially the techniques employed in the painting of icons on wooden panels, which had changed little over the millennia. These, as he was to subsequently point out to his own students, included encaustic on gesso -- which is to say molten beeswax made into an emulsion soluble in water -- developed to a high standard during the early Roman period, as is clear in the beautiful Fayoum portraits, which Fanous himself regarded as the immediate predecessors of the Christian icon. Fanous noted, too, that, in ancient Egyptian art, depictions of important people were always accompanied by their names, and that this practice was continued long after Christianity came to Egypt, when the names were sometimes written in Coptic, and later sometimes in Arabic; on occasion, indeed, it was written in both languages. The main figure was invariably shown larger than the others, whether in Pharaonic or in Coptic art.
Alert to a sense of continuity between ancient and modern, a window of opportunity was opened to Fanous when he was granted a two-year study period in the Louvre in the mid-1960s; it proved to be a turning point in his career. He took the opportunity, while in Paris, to study icon painting under Léonid Ouspensky, the Russian artist who established himself in France following the revolution in his country. In Ouspensky, Fanous found a brilliant artist who directed his work to a thorough reading of the mystery of the icon, and who raised such questions as: Can religious art allow certain representations of God and the Holy Trinity? Would be it dangerous to the faithful? For his own part Isaac Fanous posed no such questions. He saw the portrayal of religious figures as part of an ancient Egyptian tradition, and representations of Holy figures as aids to religious understanding. He was convinced of a direct link between ancient Egyptian and Coptic art. What he did develop under the patronage of Ouspensky, rather, was a passion as both artist and theologian, one that would lead, eventually, to him developing a new style -- the very face of modern Coptic iconography.
"We live in eternity and we have to dig into our heritage," he once said in an interview; when he returned to Egypt, indeed, he did just this: he founded his atelier in the church complex of Saint Mark at Abbasiya and trained a new generation of Coptic iconographers, not only in the techniques of icon painting but in theology as well. A turning point in Fanous's career came when his great fresco in the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo, depicting the martyrdom of the saint, was unveiled in 1971. It is a masterly creation, a combination of modern cubist and impressionistic trends. In the years that followed, Fanous was made a member of the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo where he began a period of remarkable production. He and his apprentices painted the major frescoes which adorn the church of St George at Heliopolis, the mosaics of the crypt of St Mark, and the stained glass windows of the church St Mina. His masterpieces can be seen in churches and monasteries in Egypt, and also in Coptic churches abroad -- in London, America (especially in Los Angeles), in Canada, and in the Vatican in Rome.
A modest man, friendly by nature, Fanous was a master of preparation, design, gilding and painting. The miracle of his brush strokes and his illumination through colour and light were, and will forever remain, trademarks of expertise. Thanks to his art -- simple icon and majestic wall painting alike -- Copts feel safe, free from the woes of the world and at peace within the confines of their church. They light candles or pray before the icon of a protective saint or the portrayal of a biblical event which is painted in a rigidity of style that is familiar to them.
The artistic legacy of Isaac Fanous will endure because his devoted apprentices, who strictly adhere to a canon of proportion and an artistic vocabulary he laid down, will uphold the cultural and spiritual Coptic heritage that he set in motion. He was the man who resurrected the sacred art of the Copts in the 20th century, and he will be sorely missed by his family, friends and apprentices -- some of whom are talented artists in their own right. I myself am proud to have known him.