Encounters with God, In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary
By Sister Wendy Beckett

A personal and moving book on iconography has emerged and should fascinate the ecumenical world. It is, as the author Sr. Wendy Beckett explains, a "pilgrimage" and investigative journey in search of the ancient icons of the Theotokos. Sr. Wendy is a Roman Catholic nun and well known art commentator. Her discovery of the world of early ancient icons of eastern Christianity is surprising to her and perhaps to all those in ecumenical dialogue.

Before she even started the quest, Sr. Wendy knew there was something that differentiated European portrayals of Mary, the mother of Christ, from those found in an early icon. She wrote, "Until I realized that I would never experience the true beauty of the icon, unless I regarded each icon as a means of entering more deeply into the experience of God, and that I should forget all about trying to integrate them into a history of art, I was somewhat, and foolishly, at a loss."

The ecumenical read on this book provides a window to an interesting factor--that the eye and heart of western art may not, at first, appreciate the language of an icon. In particular, Sr. Wendy searched for the eight icons of Mary, among the "roughly fifty-three pre-iconoclastic icons in existence." In other words, these are the images of Mary that are the only ones still available for eyes to see, icons that were written before the age of iconoclasm--a time when it was illegal to own and venerate such an image. In fact, most were destroyed with vengeance and violence. [Two periods of iconoclasm occurred in Christian history, 730 until 787, and again in 814-842.]

Traveling to view and consider the eight ancient icons resulted in profound appreciation of their spiritual value. Sr. Wendy wrote: "They are potentially revelations, encounters. Strangely, or perhaps (considering Iconoclasm) it is only to be expected, these images are few." She identifies the precious eight ancient icons of Mary that she "encountered." [In Rome: the Virgin and child, Santa Maria Maggiore (Salus Populi Romani); mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore-the Annunciation and the encounter with the Magi; Santa Maria in Trastevere; the Icon of Santa Maria ad Martyrs in an underground corridor of the Pantheon; the Virgin of Santa Maria Nova-Santa Francesca Romana; and the icon of San Sisto. In the Ukraine: the Icon of the Virgin of Kiev. On Mt. Sinai: the Icon of the Enthroned Virgin .

Sr. Wendy shares her own emotion in encountering the Virgin of Kiev. "Central, of course, is their great Virgin and Child, and I must confess to bursting into tears, to see it so honored and so beautiful. This is a unique vision of Mary, not tranquil or remote like her seven sisters [the other ancient icons of Mary], but passionate. She has snatched up the Child Jesus and holds him firmly, her eyes fixed with frightening force upon what would seem a danger that Mary alone can see. Of all the infant Christ, this is the most beautiful, a golden child, trustful and loving."

Tenderly and frankly, Sr. Wendy's tale of pilgrimage to encounter these icons weaves together extremely sensitive inter-denominational grief of history past: Orthodox-Catholic struggles over schism and power, iconoclasm of Catholic images in Reformation anger, Muslim misunderstanding of Christian tenets on the Incarnation of Christ, and current cultural differences in liturgy and prayer. Sr. Wendy briefly mentions that she discovered that the monks at St. Catherine's monastery on Mt. Sinai have provided an Islamic mosque within their confines in which local Bedouins, now their neighbors and friends, may pray.

As an Orthodox reader, I want to share with Sr. Wendy more of the mystery and depth of faith found in the iconographic tradition. For instance, she pondered the strange absence of the child Jesus in the ancient icon at San Sisto. This icon is perhaps not an "orans" as she claimed but more a "deesis"-the mother petitioning her Son for the needs of the faithful. Sr. Wendy's western artist's eye wanted to explore skin tones, facial expressions, and motherly relationships to the Son. The Byzantine scholar will say that the surrealistic style of iconography as it developed was on purpose to draw the eye to another world. But .... in the end, Sr. Wendy has identified that quality: "They are drawing us out of our worldly reality into their world, the true world, summoning us to leave behind all that is earthly and to breathe an air more pure than we can understand."

The ecumenical lesson here is for all to probe the ancient past and find the spiritual realities of God that we all share, as they are found in ancient icons. For this, Sr. Wendy put it succinctly: "Icons are for prayer." In praying together, it may be that diverse cultures of Christianity can find unity.

--Virginia M. Kimball.

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