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Icon, Coptic Friendship Icon - VM - C. Matsinger

Coptic Friendship Icon

He Encourages Me

by Corjan Matsinger

The simplicity of this friendship icon touches me again and again. And I am not the only pilgrim who is enthusiastic about this picture painted on wood. The thousands of young pilgrims who travel to Taizé (France) can see a copy of the icon hanging there. Brother Roger, the founder and former prior of the community, was a keen devotee of this Coptic icon with its message of friendship, courage, and love.

Pictures often speak louder than words, also when it concerns faith. Through the years I have come to love various icons, yet cartoons and paintings are also included in my collection of religious images. This friendship icon is definitely important to me. The original hangs in the Louvre Museum, but in my living room is a small replica. With some regularity I take the icon in my hands and stare contemplatively at the painted scene.

Go and sit quietly for a while and look with me at this beautifully created icon, probably dating from the seventh century. You are gazing at the oldest Egyptian icon that we know to have survived. It is a pearl, when you consider that, apart from a few cracks, the restorers have been able to recover the icon in all its glory. You see two principal people in the picture. On the left you see Saint Menas. His name is written in Greek letters in the background. In his left hand Menas holds a scroll, with his right hand he makes a gesture of blessing.

Menas’s biography is interwoven with various stories and legends. The saint lived in Alexandria (AD 285-309). He only lived 24 years, but he became a celebrity in the early church. At age fourteen young Menas became a soldier and departed for Turkey. His career in the army proceeded well, until the young Menas heard about the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperors. The soldier decided to renounce the sword, become a hermit and devote himself completely to prayer.

Because of a heavenly vision Menas decided after five years to leave his mountain to proclaim the Gospel during a pagan festival. His sermons were not received with gratitude. Indeed, it immediately cost the brand-new evangelist his head. His body was returned to Egypt, the miracle stories grew and his grave became a popular place of pilgrimage.

Let us go back to the icon. At the right side of the icon we see Jesus. He receives the title ‘Saviour’ (soter) and in his left arm he carries in a large book the words of God. What strikes me in this picture of Jesus and Menas is the intimacy and love radiating from the icon. For me it is a kind of heavenly snapshot. Jesus is standing next to Menas and he puts his arm around the former soldier. According to some icon experts, Jesus is even pushing Menas towards the front! Jesus encourages Menas: ‘The floor is yours Menas, do your thing!’

Some see a connection between the scroll of Menas and the Bible carried by Jesus. The Son of God carries the Word, Menas a scroll. Whereas the one is responsible for the whole story of God’s dealings with humankind, the other only has to fulfil his own ‘role’. You could say that the biography of Menas is a new chapter. His story belongs to the big story of God’s dealings with people. Jesus pushes Menas lovingly to the foreground, but he does more. By standing next to Menas, he lovingly encourages me also to be a living letter, to write my story page by page. Because everyone has a story that is worth reading.


Reproduced with permission from Lazarus, translated by Alida Sewell.

Coptic Friendship Icon, 7th century, Egypt.

Corjan Matsinger is a Dutch religious trendwatcher at Young & holy, youth worker, theologian, speaker, trainer and author. He is married to Anneke and father of four children.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 30 December, 2018