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On the icon trail with Marjorie

by
27 May 2009

An encounter with an early icon of the Virgin Mary at the Temple Gallery sent Sister Wendy Beckett on an unusual pilgrimage

Mystical power: right: the icon of the Virgin and Child, exhibited after clean­ing at the Temple Gallery, London, in 2005, sixth or seventh century DICK TEMPLE/TEMPLE GALLERY

Mystical power: right: the icon of the Virgin and Child, exhibited after clean­ing at the Temple Gallery, London, in 2005, sixth or seventh century ...

WHEN the Byzantine Empire flexed its muscles, it did so with great effect. The icono­clasm of the eighth and ninth cen­tur­ies destroyed every sacred image throughout Eastern Europe. All that survived were a pitiful few in places which the empire did not control.

Books of art history mention that seven early icons of the Virgin Mary still survive: five in Rome, one in Mount Sinai, and one in Kiev. And so the art world was astonished when, four years ago, the Temple Gallery in London unveiled an eighth icon.

There was no reason why I should have been astonished, since I was, at the time, rather dubious about icons — which are certainly paintings, and yet clearly are so much more than paintings. It was encountering this eighth icon, with its extraordinary mystical power, that made me realise the spiritual significance of these images.

The eight icons of the Virgin are icons before “icons” began. After icono­clasm ceased in 780, the Ortho­­dox Church laid down rules. There were stylistic conventions, all very beautiful, all deeply conducive to prayer, which is the function of the icon. But, as I could see in the icon at the Temple Gallery, these sixth- and seventh-century icons were quite dif­ferent. They come from the world of early Christianity, where there is a poetry and an imaginative passion that we have not seen since.

At first, I was content merely to gaze, gaze, and gaze again at the Temple icon. It presents us with the most extraordinary child-Jesus in the history of art, and in the history of icons: the two, remember, are different.

The gentle and serene child-Jesus that we see in Western art, or, for that matter, in post-iconoclastic Eastern art, is quite different from the child this sixth-century artist imagined. This Jesus has a head of rough, red curls, big dark eyes, a pale and anxious little face, fixing us with a plea to join with him in solving the “mystery”. He will not present us with answers, rather he calls us to seek with Him the answers. Mary turns her head to one side, abstracting her­self from the scene, so that all our attention can be fixed where it belongs — on her son.

Having seen this image, I was haunted by its beauty and its truth: it was a true encounter with God. Then I began to look at pictures of the other seven icons, equally early, equally in­di­vidual, and began to nourish a great hope of experiencing their power and sharing it with others.

Having seen this image, I was haunted by its beauty and its truth: it was a true encounter with God. Then I began to look at pictures of the other seven icons, equally early, equally in­di­vidual, and began to nourish a great hope of experiencing their power and sharing it with others.

I THOUGHT the five in Rome might not be difficult to find: it was getting to Rome that was the problem. I was lucky in that an Amer­ican Air Force chaplain and his priest friend offered to take me, and Annie Frankel, who is always ready to take me to mass when I’m in London, gladly volunteered to come, too.

There was no problem in finding the first two icons. Santa Maria Mag­giore, that great basilica, has a magni­ficent Renaissance chapel, all silver and gold marble splendours, dedi­cated entirely to the small, quiet icon.

Our Lady has a long contemplative face, while her child reaches out his hand in blessing. It has the title Salus Populi Romani, usually translated as “salvation of the Roman people”, making it clear, of course, that this is an icon of Jesus, who alone is our salvation.

His mother is there simply to present him to us. But “salus” can also be translated as “health”, and in the exuberant and costly elaboration of this beautiful chapel, the simplicity of the little icon reminds the Church that her health is in holiness.

The other great Basilica is Santa Maria in Trastevere, a much bigger icon, equally loved and revered by the parishioners. This shows us our Lady in majesty, as a queen, with a regal little Jesus enthroned on her lap. There is an angel on either side, with hands raised in wonder at God’s goodness in sending us his son. Very unusually, at our Lord’s feet, and almost obliterated by the ravages of time, is a diminutive figure of Pope John VII, who commissioned the icon at the beginning of the eighth century. Tiny though he is, he is there to plead for his people.

This icon also has a title, Our Lady of Clemency or Mercy, and I had the privilege of almost direct contact with it. The day I went to the Basilica was the eve of the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, and the icon was being taken down — with enormous care, and pos­sibly a little apprehension — so as to be carried in procession through the parish.

SO FAR, so good. But I met with an unexpected disappointment when I went to the Pantheon. This, of course, is a pagan building of great antiquity, subsequently given to the Church, and I searched diligently before accepting that there was no sign of their precious icon.

This was the time to draw upon my secret resource: when I had filmed in Rome, we were greatly helped by Mar­jorie Weeke of the Pontifical Coun­cil for Social Communications. This wonderful woman is even older than I am, and has technically retired, but there is nothing about Rome she does not know.

Marjorie got in touch with the par­ish priest of the Pantheon, and discov­­ered that the icon was kept under­neath the building. We were told that after mass we would be taken to see it.

This was one of the most romantic moments of my pilgrimage, going down into the depths of the secret passage, at the end of which, lovingly enshrined, is this small and rather battered icon.

The ecclesiastical name of the Pan­theon is Santa Maria ad Martyres, and this lovely, tranquil image some­how seems cogniscent of all those lives that would be freely sacrificed that the world might know the truth of Jesus. The little one looks out from his mother’s arms with both courage and sadness. They are here in the world for our sake, to sustain us, as they themselves were sustained by the Father.

IKNEW THE names of the churches where the other two icons were kept, but there were difficulties. Santa Maria Antiqua was rebuilt in the Middle Ages and became Santa Maria Nova, and is now Santa Francesca Romana. But there was no icon in the church there, either.

Marjorie discovered that, for pro­tection, it was kept in the small Bene­dictine Monastery next to the church. It is a lyrical setting, on the very edge of the Forum. One leaves a busy Ro­man street and climbs up a cobbled pathway, with trees and butterflies and flowers. It is a very silent place.

A Benedictine father let us in, (wearing overalls: it was his day to do the cleaning), and we stood speechless in their very small chapel, before this large and supremely beautiful image.

A Benedictine father let us in, (wearing overalls: it was his day to do the cleaning), and we stood speechless in their very small chapel, before this large and supremely beautiful image.

It has been painted over and re­stored and not much of the Holy Child is left, but Mary is seen as no other artist has ever depicted her. If one was to see only one of these Virgins, per­haps this is the one that is most transparent to the light of the God­head: she radiates prayer, she com­muni­cates the sweetness and bright­ness of her maker; she points to her child, but does not need to look at him because, in her heart, she is so visibly one with him. St Paul’s “to me to live is Christ” is, here, almost palpable.

I THINK the same is true, though in a very different way, with the last of the Roman icons, that at Santa Maria del Rosario. Only Marjorie, sublime detective, could have discovered where this icon had finally come to rest (strangely, in all its Roman peregrinations, it has always been looked after by nuns).

It is now housed in the contem­plat­ive convent of the Dominicans on the outskirts of Rome, facing into their enclosed chapel, but on a swivel. After mass, the sisters turned it around for us, and we gasped at its power and delicacy.

This is the only one of the eight in which Mary does not hold her son — at least, not visibly. She is seen in the act of prayer holding out beseeching hands, the whole icon gleaming with gold, except for those hands, and her flushed and beautiful face. In one way, this is almost a sensual Mary, or, at least, one very obviously human. It is equally clear to us that it is a woman totally possessed by the love of God.

I RETURNED home, exultant, but also distressed: nobody seemed to know about these icons, the sight of which was replete with grace. Yet, if I were to write a book, I would need to have seen all eight.

My noble friends generously agreed to take me to Kiev. Perhaps it was the long journey, the driving snow, and the difficulty of communicating, but when we finally found the icon, in its small museum, I wept with joy and relief.

It was deeply touching, too, to see how the Ukranians, with little spare money for culture, had actually built a small chapel-like room in which the icon was enshrined.

The curators brought me a chair and left me to contemplate this little, yet amazing, invention of some dis­tant Christian artist. This Mary is completely different from all the others, a passionate Mary clutching her son anxiously to her breast, her eyes pleading with us.

We can see why she pleads. This little Jesus is the most beautiful of them all, the golden child, stretching out his hands in open-hearted love to the world. His mother knows the world; she knows what we are like. She begs us not to abuse his total gift of what he is. We do abuse it; yet she knows nothing will stop him from giving.

This icon was in the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy this year. Until I was reunited with it, in the far vaster and more secular space where it temporarily hung, I had not fully realised how small it was. In Kiev, it seems to fill its little chapel-room. In London, there are many competing spiritual images; yet no­thing, to me, could equal the glowing intensity of this small icon.

THERE REMAINED only St Catherine’s Monastery, under the shadow of Mount Sinai in the Egyptian desert. It is the greatest repository of icons in the world, and nearly all of the 40-or-so icons saved from iconoclasm are here. The Emperor Justinian built the basilica and monastery for the monks; it is the oldest continually inhabited monastery in Christendom.

This was also a long, difficult journey, not because of the snow, but for the hours spent travelling through the desert. I would have loved to spend days at the monastery: for me, there was too much to see. I regret, now, that I did not see more, even though we had the invaluable assist­ance of the librarian, Fr Justin. But I had come to see the icon of our Lady, and that is what I concentrated on.

Aesthetically, I suppose, this might be considered the greatest of the eight: a Mary enthroned, a small but regal Jesus, a majestic saint on either side of her, and, behind, two resplen­dent angels looking up to heaven from where descends the hand of God.

Scholars consider that the quality of this icon might suggest that this, too, was a gift from the Emperor. It is rich and complex, more so than its seven sisters, and yet each of them has an individual grace that opens up to the viewer and draws us into prayer.

Scholars consider that the quality of this icon might suggest that this, too, was a gift from the Emperor. It is rich and complex, more so than its seven sisters, and yet each of them has an individual grace that opens up to the viewer and draws us into prayer.

At one time or another, I have fixed on every icon as my favourite. I now realise that one cannot compare. Encounters with God, by their very nature, must each be so overwhelm­ing and personal that they obliterate, for the moment, all memories.

I hope with all my heart that I have been able to do justice to these rare and wonderful images of the praying heart of the early Church. Every moment of this pilgrimage was well spent.

Encounters with God: In quest of the ancient icons of Mary by Sister Wendy Beckett (Continuum, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-826-44178-2).

Order this book via CT Bookshop

Encounters with God: In quest of the ancient icons of Mary by Sister Wendy Beckett (Continuum, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-826-44178-2).

Order this book via CT Bookshop

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