07 November 2011

Saint Menas of Egypt

Saint Menas (also Minas, Mina, Mena, Mennas) (285 – c. 309), the Martyr and Wonder-worker, is one of the most well-known Egyptian saints in the East and the West, due to the many miracles that are attributed to his intercession and prayers. His feast day is celebrated every year on 15 Hathor (November 24) in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and on November 11 in the West and East.

Mēna was his original name, according to the story his mother called him Mēna because she heard voice saying amēn. Mēnas [Μηνας] is a Greek variation of the name, while in Arabic he is known as "Mīna" [مينا‎‎].

Menas was born in Egypt in 285 AD, in the city of Niceous (Nakiyos or Nikiu), which lies in the vicinity of Memphis. His parents were ascetic Christians but did not have any children for a long time. His father's name was Eudoxios and his mother's name was Euphemia. On the feast of the Virgin Mary, Euphemia was praying in front of an icon of Saint Mary with tears that God may give her a blessed son. A sound came from the icon saying "Amen". A few months later, Euphemia gave birth to a boy and named him Menas.

Eudoxios, a ruler of one of the administrative divisions of Egypt, died when Menas was fourteen years old. At the age of fifteen Menas joined the Roman army, and was given a high rank due to his father's reputation. His appointment was in Algeria. Three years later he left the army longing to devote his whole life to Christ. He headed towards the desert to live a different kind of life.

After spending five years as a hermit, Menas saw in a revelation the angels crowning the martyrs with glamorous crowns, and longed to join those martyrs. While he was thinking about it, he heard a voice saying: "Blessed are you Menas because you have been called to the pious life from your childhood. You shall be granted three immortal crowns; one for your celibacy, another for your asceticism, and a third for your martyrdom." Menas subsequently hurried to the ruler, declaring his Christian faith. His endless sufferings and the tortures that he went through, have attracted many of the pagans, not only to Christianity, but also to martyrdom.

The soldiers who executed Menas set his body to fire for three days but the body remained unharmed. Menas' sister then bribed the soldiers and managed to carry the body away. She embarked on a ship heading to Alexandria, where she placed the saint's body in a church.

When the time of persecution ended, during the papacy of Pope Athanasius of Alexandria, an angel appeared to the Pope and ordered him to load Menas' body on a camel and head towards the Western Desert. At a certain spot near a water well at the end of Lake Mariout, not far from Alexandria, the camel stopped and wouldn't move. The Christians took this a sign from God and buried Menas' body there.

Berbers of Pentapolis rose against the cities around Alexandria. As the people were getting ready to face the Berbers, the Roman governor decided to secretly take the body of Saint Menas with him to be his deliverer and his strong protector. Through the saint's blessings, the governor overcame the Berbers and returned victorious. However, he decided not to return the body to its original place and wanted to take it to Alexandria. On the way back, as they passed by Lake Mariout at the same spot where the body was originally buried, the camel carrying the body knelt down and would not move. People moved the body to another camel, but the second camel would not move either. The governor finally realized that this was God's command. He made a coffin from decay-resistant wood and placed the silver coffin in it.

During the early fifth century, the body's location was forgotten. Years later, a shepherd was feeding his sheep in that location, and a sick lamb fell on the ground. As it struggled to get on its feet again, its scab was cured. The story spread quickly and the sick who came to this spot recovered from whatever illnesses they had just by lying on the ground. During that time, the legendary daughter of Emperor Zeno was leprous. His advisers suggested that she should try that place, and she did. At night Saint Minas appeared to the girl and informed her that his body was buried in that place. The following morning, Zeno's daughter was cured, and she related her vision about the saint to her servants.

Zeno immediately ordered Menas' body to be dug out, and a cathedral to be built there. A large city was also built there and named after the saint. Sick people from all over the Christian world used to visit that city and were healed through the intercessions of Saint Menas, who became known as the Wonders' Maker. Today, numerous little clay Menas flasks, or bottles for holy water or oil on which the saint's name and picture are stamped, are found by archeologists in diverse countries around the Mediterranean world, such as Heidelberg in Germany, Milan in Italy, Dalmatia in Croatia, Marseille in France, Dongola in Sudan, Meols (Cheshire) in England, and the holy city of Jerusalem, as well as modern Turkey and Eritrea. Pilgrims would buy these bottles and take them back to their relatives.

As soon as Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria became Pope and Patriarch on Saint Mark's Throne, he began to put the foundations for a great monastery close to the remains of the old city. Today, the Monastery of Saint Mina is one of the most famous monasteries in Egypt. The relics of Saint Menas, as well as that of Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria lie in this monastery. The cathedral of Saint Menas was destroyed during the Arab invasions of the 8th century.

Menas is sometimes called Menas the Soldier also called the "Wonder worker" in the West, where he is venerated as a military saint.

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04 November 2011

Icons: A Lesson in Humility

The painting of Orthodox icons is an exercise in humility, says artist Lino Wong Wing-kuen, and one rooted in an artist’s spirituality. One does not earn fame for such work, nor even public recognition. The rewards are private, but no less compelling.

Wong, 43, is one of the few Chinese iconographers in the field.

“One cannot sign any signature on Orthodox icons. Unless you are a master recognized by the Church, you can only imitate predecessors, which runs contrary to an artist’s mandate to be creative.”

Calling himself an “instrument of God,” Wong says he does not feel proud to be an iconographer but thinks it is “more meaningful to be humble” after he learned about the Orthodox icon’s high status in Christianity as an object before which people worship and pray.

The Hong Kong-born artist began painting as a child, inspired to pursue the art after receiving his first sketch book as a gift from his sister on his 10th birthday.

As a student of architecture at university, he had his first contact with Italian art. Later he decided to pursue his studies in Italy to better understand Western civilization.

Wong studied at an art academy in Florence, where he was invited to paint icons by the nuns in a Church where he was housed. This invitation began his quest for faith and he was baptized in 1994.

His teachers in iconography included a Greek monk.

“I learned traditional techniques from him. After about 20 days, he told me, ‘You are not an Orthodox Christian. You can never draw a good Orthodox icon.’”

Wong said the monk’s words surprised him at the time but that he has since learned their true meaning.

“The icon is their traditional art. There is an in-born feeling to it. If you do not belong to that religion, you can hardly understand why the icons are so important to them.”

Wong says Chinese artists actually have an advantage in iconography because they pay more attention to details.

He says, nonetheless, that he has yet to be satisfied because even painting on the same theme repeatedly, he finds something different each time.

“It may be something that I could not do before but this time I could do it. I feel miraculous. It seems that God is painting together with me.”

Now an immigrant to Italy, Wong feels that he has a mission to help the Chinese better understand iconography.

He concluded an exhibition in Hong Kong late last month, where he displayed 26 icons that he painted since 2004.

“There is no specific spirituality for icons. The audience only needs to be attentive to what they see. Nothing then will obstruct them from getting close to faith.”

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