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Saturday Coptic Art: Portrait of Christ and Abbot Mena

Christ and the Abbot Mena

This portrait of Christ and Abbot Mena dates to the late 6th or early 7th century. It hangs at the Louvre, in an area devoted to Coptic Christian art.

According to the curator, this is the oldest known Coptic icon. There are two figures, Christ on the right and the Abbot Mena on the left. Christ is identified by the cross in his halo. He is richly dressed, and holds a book of the Gospels, decorated with pearls, and geometric signs. His right arm is on the shoulder of the Abbot. The curators say we know the Abbot’s name because it appears to the left of his halo. He is simply dressed, and holds a scroll in his left hand. His right hand is raised in a blessing.

Both figures stand on grass, and the background is a landscape, stretching to hills in the distance. There is a good bit of orange in the sky, suggesting a sunset.

Their eyes are not realistic, but their faces seem quite particular. Christ has a full head of brown/black hair, a plump face with full lips, a short trimmed beard, and a mildly pleasant expression. The Abbot has a short gray hair, a lean face, a longer untrimmed gray beard, and a tiny mouth. His expression is flat to my eye.

Christianity has a long tradition in Egypt. The early church was founded by St. Mark, according to Wikipedia. Egypt produced a number of the early Church Fathers, including St. Athananasius and St. Clement. It was also the birthplace of the monastic life. . . .

The Coptic Church split off from the Church of Rome in the Fifth Century, over a theological dispute about the nature of Christ as both human and divine. From Wikipedia:

In terms of Christology, the Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) understanding is that Christ is “One Nature–the Logos Incarnate,” of the full humanity and full divinity. The Chalcedonians’ understanding is that Christ is in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. Just as humans are of their mothers and fathers and not in their mothers and fathers, so too is the nature of Christ according to Oriental Orthodoxy. If Christ is in full humanity and in full divinity, then He is separate in two persons as the Nestorians teach. This is the doctrinal perception that makes the apparent difference which separated the Oriental Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox.

I don’t understand the point of this distinction, but it is a matter of intense interest, as indicated by the history page in Wikipedia. This entry has been modified a number of times, as recently as January 21, as people try to get it right.

Coptic Christians make up about 10% of the population of Egypt. It’s members have been the subject of many attacks, most of which are blamed on al-Qaeda. Last Christmas Eve, there was an attack on a Coptic Church in Naga Hamady, about 40 miles from Luxor on the Nile River. That was followed by a suicide bomb attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Years Eve, which killed 23 and wounded 70. This led to the first street protests by Copts in decades, claiming that the government does not protect this huge minority. This report by Al-Masry says that young Copts took to the streets, mobilized by social media. It may have been a harbinger of today’s protests.

This site reprints a story from Al-Ahram, an Egyptian news service, which is not coming up today. Al-Ahram reported that thousands of Muslims accompanied Coptic Christians to Church following the massacres.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

I hope Abbot Mena would be pleased that all people in this ancient civilization are coming together in these trying times, even people whose religious beliefs are farther apart than the Roman Church and Abbot Mena’s Coptic Church.

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