Painting the 21 Christian Coptic Martyrs
Anyone who has ever seen an icon of St Therese of Lisieux painting or John Paul II will know how difficult it is to paint an icon of a modern figure. There are two problems associated with them that I can think of:
Firstly, when the facial features are well known through photographs, there is a tendency to over naturalize the facial and the mismatch with the stylization of the rest of the figure and it ends up looking like an iconographic version of a head-in-the-hole picture
Second is dealing with contemporary clothes. While it seems to have been fine in the middle ages to paint the soldiers of their past in contemporary chainmail because the idea of awareness of what the biblical soldiers might actually have worn was different (here’s Samual anointing David and David slaying Goliath).
…I don’t think it would work today. We would use historical dress. When it comes to contemporary saints, such as the 21 Coptic Christian martyrs beheaded by ISIS, the iconographer can’t suddenly put them in historical clothing to give the aura of holiness but must aim to represent the clothes they wore in an iconographic way.
Here is an icon by a neo-Coptic iconographer of the 21 martyrs. Notice the sensitive way that the painter has handled the faces and the clothes, to create a contemporary icon very well, even portraying the bright orange jumpsuits that the prisoners wore.
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