OLM commissioned this icon of Saint Mark by the ethnic Egyptian artist, Fadi Mikhail, who lives in England and who paints in the traditional Coptic style. The icon shows a youthful Saint Mark, the disciple of Saint Peter, with his Gospel in hand, having landed upon the shores of northern Africa. The lion at his feet is a traditional symbol of Saint Mark (as well as a beast well known in Africa). The pyramids and Alexandria’s great lighthouse are visible in the background, and the water represents the fabled Nile. The text in the left hand corner says ‘PiApostolos’ in Coptic, the Ancient Egyptian language derived from the Greek. This translates as ‘The Apostle.’ By the figure, the text says ‘Markos.’ This traditional African icon honors the saint, but it also reminds us of the Church in Africa, which is ancient, thriving, and also suffering untold persecutions in our own age.
As we ponder this icon, we might reflect upon a number of things. First, consider how the story of the Hebrew people of old was connected with the story of the great Egyptian empire, that ancient cradle of civilization. Egypt was first a place of salvation, and then a place of slavery, but it was from out of Egypt that God would call Moses and the Hebrew people. Similarly, in the New Testament, the Holy Family spent time exiled in Africa, having found refuge from the mad King Herod. We might imagine our Lord, as a child, playing on the same shores from whence Moses was drawn from the waters by a princess of Egypt. But when Herod died, God once again called his Son forth from Egypt to return to the Holy Land.
Certainly we might reflect on the great metropolitan city of Alexandria, fabled for its wisdom and learning, where our Church flourished and blossomed until the Islamic invasions. We might recall the desert fathers, and how monasticism started in the sands of this continent. We might recall the awesome witness of the African martyrs, ancient and present, as we honor St. Mark, who founded the Church in Africa. We might also call to mind our many, many Catholic brothers and sisters throughout Africa, many of whom stand tall for Christ today in spite of the danger of ethnic cleansing and militant Islam.
This icon of Saint Mark connects us not just to a history of things past, but to the reality of the present – a vibrant and dynamic Church bounding and growing on that continent from whence, the anthropologists tell us, all human life began. Christian history in Africa started with the preaching of Saint Mark, who had learned his Faith as a scribe at the feet of the Fisherman, Peter of Galilee. Let us use this icon to connect us to all of that history, and to see in that history ourselves, for without Africa, our story would not exist.
Our icon of Saint Mark was donated to the parish by Mr. and Mrs. Bo Barylak, who are long time-parishioners. Bo and Carol met and fell in love in Africa, and we thank them for this treasured piece of art. The artist, Fadi Mikhail, was commissioned by Royal Mail to produce an Icon of the Madonna and Christ for a U.K. Christmas stamp, and also commissioned to produce two icons for HRH Prince Charles of Wales and future king of England. We commissioned Fadi to paint this Coptic style icon in 2014, and it was delivered and hallowed in A.D. 2015.