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Holy faces in ancient art

24 November 2010

This collection of icon reflections is a gift, says Douglas Dales

Real Presence: In search of the earliest icons
Sister Wendy Beckett
Continuum £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

SISTER WENDY BECKETT has done a great service by drawing popular attention to these most important early icons, and by presenting them in so lucid and thoughtful a manner.

This book records a personal pilgrimage to see many of the icons on location, in Kiev, Sinai, Rome, and elsewhere. They are fragments of the earliest strata of Christian art, as they survived the iconoclastic period in the Byzantine empire in the eighth century, and they give important clues to how early icons emerged from the Egyptian habit of painting portraits on coffins. Mostly they are encaustic: the colour is applied within a waxy substance, and this gives them a subtle beauty and distinctive character.

The greatest collection is at the ancient monastery of St Catherine, beneath Mount Sinai, in Egypt. This is the oldest continuous monastery in the Christian world, and its fortress and principal church were constructed by the Emperor Jus­tinian in the first half of the sixth century. When Islam swept over the area, the monastery was given special protection by the Prophet, and to this day its life and work are supported by the local Bedouin population; there is a small mosque within the monastic en­closure.

The icon collection in the mon­astery has been much studied, and is quite remarkable, not least for the finesse of presentation of Christ and of our Lady. The most famous icon of Christ has a striking duality of visage: one side of the face is lordly and serene, but the other bears the marks of deep suffering and stress, presenting something that looks very much like Bell’s palsy.

Other early icons were preserved in Rome, which stood fast against iconoclasm, creating and decorating remarkable churches such as St Maria Antiqua in the Forum, with which one of the earliest portrayals of the Virgin is associated. Wisely, Sister Wendy includes some of the earliest Coptic art as well, which gives to this book a particular value and sense of context.

The book is not well referenced, however, and the bibliography is meagre. This book is descriptive and devotional rather than deeply in­formed. But to have the whole range of these icons considered in one place is a gift indeed.

The Revd Douglas Dales is Chaplain of Marlborough College.

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