Christianity followed a different path in Egypt after a 5th century theological dispute with the Byzantine Orthodox Church, developing its own sacred art forms. One of the most interesting contemporary Coptic Orthodox icon-makers happens to live in County Clare, Ireland. A native of Egypt, Rania Kuhn came to the Emerald Isle with her German-born husband to set up a family-run piano business in the county town of Ennis in 2004, bringing along with her a knowledge of the art-making traditions of this ancient North African Christian culture.
Raised as a Coptic Christian, Kuhn was interested in arts and crafts from an early age and received a degree in Art Education from Cairo’s Helwan University in 2000. A fellow student invited her to come to the icon workshop of the city’s Coptic Institute, where she experienced what she describes as “the power of iconography.” As Kuhn recalls: “I knew immediately this was what I wanted to do. Every return visit only deepened my desire to be an iconographer.”
Kuhn believes what sets Coptic images apart from other Orthodox icons is their simplicity. She paints in egg tempera on gessoed wood with traditional guidelines in mind. “The faces should look as happy as possible,” explains Kuhn. “The ears should be small as a symbol of not hearing the devil. The eyes should be the shape of almonds and large, open to find faith. The mouth should be small so we don't talk much and insult others. And Jesus should be always painted with light on his face, especially under his eyes. Coptic icons should be filled with peace.”
In Kuhn’s Cairo student days, she donated icons to Coptic communities that could not afford them. It has been years since Kuhn visited her homeland, and she has now added Patrick and Brigid of Kildare to her iconographic roster, but she still honors her Coptic heritage. Kuhn has taught summer courses in Coptic icon-making to Roman Catholic children in Germany and made papier mache hand puppets and a puppet theater for the children of Coptic immigrants in Ireland.
Kuhn recently completed a commission for the Sacred Art Pilgrim collection on a subject close to Egyptian Coptic hearts, the biblical narrative of the Flight into Egypt, elaborated down the ages with local tales of the sojourn of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the banks of the Nile. Kuhn depicts one such story in her icon of the Miracle of the Melon Field.
Pursued by soldiers of King Herod, the Holy Family, accompanied by the Virgin Mary's attendant, St. Salome, stop to rest by a field, where a farmer is planting melons. The good man welcomes them and gives them water to drink. Mary tells him, if he should be questioned by soldiers, to say the strangers passed by when he was sowing his seeds. Overnight, a rich crop of full grown melons appears, leading the Holy Family's persecutors to believe they are long gone.
In Kuhn’s iconographic illustration of the story, the two events are drawn together by the central road into a continuous image. She has created a modern iconographic prototype for an ancient story of faith. It is a good example of the way centuries-old sacred art forms can constantly renew themselves.