The 3D-printed Coptic Prosphora Stamp Project

I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not Coptic. I’m not even Orthodox. I’m a salty misotheistic graduate student who teeter-totters on the verge of Christianity and unbelief. But I also have an obsession with the Christian mythos and logos. I look upon the vast treasures of the Christian past and see the potential to revitalize the sick and withering religion of the West. Like so many Christians (and Muslims, and Jews), I have come to face east if and when I pray.

I last blogged about my experiences with making prosphora (Greek: offering), the bread used by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians in their Eucharists on my other blog, here, here, here, and here. At the time, Fr. George Aquaro of prosphora.org ran a website and sold rare prosophora seals which he hand made in an amazing way. A couple years ago I bought one of his Coptic stamps and  had limited success with trying to bake hamal, or Coptic prosphora. At the time, noticed that Fr. George’s design could probably be improved (above all by being made bigger), but realized that it would be difficult to recast the mold he probably was using. (Plus – I’m not a priest, I know nothing of canonical breads, I’m just a grad student etc, etc, etc).

But I never did give up on the idea of improving the Coptic bread seal, not least because they are extremely rare in the United States (in that you can hardly find them online, let alone for sale). So a thought occurred to me as a godless millennial youth – why couldn’t you just 3D print one of these stamp things? You could make it however  you wanted. You wouldn’t have to carve any wood or pour any boiling resin into earthen molds etc. Why not? Indeed, why not?

I had been so preoccupied with my graduate studies, spiritual loneliness and calamity, I finally needed a break. When I returned home from school for vacation, my brother had bought a small 3D printer, and all my lust for the Christian past rushed to the forefront. I quickly set about designing a stamp image with the GIMP which you can see below.

Coptic Prosphora Seal Demo 2
A prototype seal – admittedly incomplete

I just wanted to see if it would work. I’m no artist. I just found a suitable Coptic cross resembling that on Fr. George’s seal (a cross crosslet) from Open Clipart and found a Coptic font for the lettering. My brother designed a simple cylindrical stamp prototype. We just wanted to see if it would work – i.e. if it would make any impression at all on a lump of bread dough. Below are some pictures of the process.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (2)
The first layers of the stamp (you can see the cutout crosses) being printed
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More development as the layers continues
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The final layers being added to the top

The final product is somewhat stunning for me – not because it is so great but because I know now that I was right and that something as strange as a prosphora seal could be 3D printed.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (9)
One immediate error to notice is that the lettering should be “backward.”

The stamp we printed is incredibly primitive – no handle, etc. But it just so happens to be the same size as Fr. George’s stamp.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (5)
The “original” prosphora.org stamp next to mine for size comparison
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The two stamps side by side for comparison. Clearly, mine has a ways to go.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (6)

So anyway, does it work? Well, almost. I whipped up a batch of prosphora dough this morning (once again, I don’t know what I’m doing: I used a Greek recipe for a Coptic stamp, so sue me). One thing is obvious – the crosses are a lot more distinct. I can make them as big as I want. But the lettering needs to be a lot bigger so that it comes out, and it needs to fact the right direction – both of which should be easy to achieve on the next attempt.

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Some dough stamped with my seal
Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (8)
A finished loaf. The letters barely came out at all. The crosses got kinda scrunched

As you will see from the pictures – not a miracle. But proof enough that the concept will work. All it needs is a bit more design and editing and I see no reason why Coptic bread stamps could not be made bigger, more elaborate, and extremely cheaply, using food-safe plastic.

Unfortunately, Fr. George no longer runs his shop. I suspect that means that a lot of eastern Christians for whom his project might have been the only access to their rare liturgical bread stamps in the West will suffer (even if that only means continuing to make use of their limited perhaps unique stamps). That’s unfortunate, but understandable. The clergy of Orthodoxy cannot be the only guardians or producers of the tradition. For this, other, awkward, even liminally unbelieving laypeople, with strange interests and questionable computer skills, need to contribute. I want to contribute, although I have no requirement to. I stand to gain no props, nor accolades. Not even the sacrament itself. But I simply noticed that there was a need, and it irritated me that it seemed so hard to fill.

The purpose of this blog post is to simply let the Orthodox, particularly the overlooked and under- and poorly-represented Oriental Orthodox, world, know that my previous idea from years ago – that one can successfully 3D print liturgical bread seals, is possible and potentially fruitful way to make them accessible in the West (who knows, maybe even the East). I intend to perfect the design of the stamp until it is an acceptable and usable stamp. I intend to release the design. And I also intend to make the printed stamps available if need be.

Therefore, for whatever it is worth, I am completely open to ideas, suggestions, corrections, and, perhaps most importantly of all, prayers.

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