Just over two weeks ago, my friend, Carla, and I partook in a tour of the collection of the Coptic Museum associated with St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in the northeastern part of Toronto. If you take Highway 404 north and take the Steele exit, then go east, you will quickly come across a massive building on the north side of the road, which is the newly built cathedral of the church. It is impressive and the building was aligned with the east-to-west axis, as if it was to be an ancient Egyptian temple. Nevertheless, the collection is housed in the older building of the church, which is located only a few blocks to the south.
St. Mark’s Coptic Church
The original building, the “mother” church, was built in 1987 and it was actually the first Coptic orthodox church to be constructed in all of North America. The Coptic faith, as we know it today, emerged over 2,000 years ago.
Coptic, in fact, is the last derivative of the ancient Egyptian language and today the chants of the church are the last remnants of ancient Egyptian. The script itself is based on ancient Greek, though spots over several additional signs. Today, the Coptic faith makes up nearly 12 % of Egypt’s population and the faith has their own pope: Pope Tawadros II. He, in fact, visited Toronto in 2014 to commemorate the opening of the cathedral and also paid a visit to the museum.
The faith itself has an important history as it has survived the many different historical periods of Egypt from living under Roman rule to preserving their traditions under the Mamluks and, of course, in the world of modern Egypt today. Nevertheless, the collection as housed in the Museum is a testament to the more than 2,000 years of its history.
The Museum’s Collection: some Highlights
Today, the museum is housed in a part of the building, which was added in 1989, and is located on the second floor. Helene Moussa came on board to curate the collection of the museum in the early 2,000s, when it counted only around 100 objects. Since then, the collection has grown to include more than 1,000 artifacts and these are displayed in a thematic manner.
The delicate Egyptian workmanship
When you enter the room, there is a large display case toward the left corner, which contains several examples of Egyptian jewellery and other personal items. Several of the examples stem from the New Kingdom, especially the 18th Dynasty, and show the various tastes of the Egyptian elite.
Many smaller items, such as brooches, date the Ptolemaic-Roman period and feature various designs from geometric patterns to profiles of rulers. Among my favourite items is an amulet of the goddess Isis suckling Horus. Made from faience, it was set within a modern golden frame, turning the amulet into a pendant. This is again a reminder of the many uses an artifact can attract since its first creation.
From reimagined Coptic paintings to ancient coins
Several paintings by prominent Coptic artist Marguerite Nakhla (1908-1977) featured along the walls in the room. Their style were meant to place the ancient Coptic art within a modern context and featured well-known Coptic motifs. In the other corner, there is a sizable collection of coins, which are arranged in chronological order. From smaller coins from the reign of Ptolemy I (e.g. 2008.1.2), we can also see coins of all sizes from the Roman period (e.g. 2008.1.13). Coins, in this way, are not only a very helpful dating tool, but also tell us a lot about the economic and social background of the times. In one example from the mid 20th century, the coin commemorates the building of the Aswan Dam and shows the sun on the horizon (2009.11.3).
Coptic Art today: Engaging with its Long History
A recurring theme of the collection revolves around the engagement of the Coptic culture with its past and history. Among the many icons featuring Coptic motifs is the depiction of St. Thudros, who is riding on a horse with a long, red cape. St. Thudros is depicted in much larger fashion and in reality the horse would crack beneath his weight. Just like in ancient Egyptian fashion of depicting a very important individual much larger (think of Ramesses II riding into battle), so here is he depicted in grand fashion.
An emphasis was also laid on the interaction of modern artists with the traditional motifs. Victor Fakhoury is an iconographer, whose designs incorporate traditional icons, but place them within a modern context. In his Martyrs of Maspero, he commemorates the death of over 20 Copts from 2011 and shows them in a ship sailing toward heaven. Within the scene, several important elements from ancient Egyptian iconography are integrated: the boat with its lotus-shaped ends, the pyramid in the background, and then the sun-disk with its outspread wings.
Future of Coptic Culture in Toronto
Nowadays, more than 50,000 Copts make Canada their home with 80 % of them settled in Ontario alone. With the construction of this new cathedral among with the more than 30 Coptic churches currently in the province, Coptic culture has recently also made its presence felt in the community of the University of Toronto with the foundation of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies in 2008. Every year, the society hosts topics on all things Coptic and just recently organized a wonderful symposium on the long, long history of the Egyptian language. Two years earlier, the museum in conjunction with the church funded two courses in Coptic Studies at the University of Toronto. Finally, in 2012, the university, in conjunction with the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations, launched the Coptic Studies Endowment Fund in support of a Coptic Studies programme, which students at the university now have the opportunity to take courses in.
St. Mark’s Coptic Museum
41 Glendinning Drive
This coming fall, the museum will be hosting an exhibit on Neo-Coptic icons in conjunction with the St. Vladimir Institute of Toronto – details forthcoming.
The museum has also recently produced a small booklet, Explore St. Mark’s Coptic Museum: an Illustrated Introduction, with a good overview of the major objects in the collection and edited by Helene Moussa. It is available through the Museum website and retails for C$ 20 – available here.
- For a video of the inauguration of the church by then Pope Shenouda III in 1996, click here.
Many thanks to Helene Moussa and the St Mark’s Coptic Museum for the permission to use photographs from the collection for this blog. Thank you to Carla Mesa Guzzo for some editing.