Real Presence: In Search of the Earliest Icons (2010)

Sr. Wendy Beckett’s Real Presence places readers in the world of early Christian iconography.

Sr. Wendy points out that functionally, “icons do not appeal to the imagination, they appeal to the spirit. They are for prayer . . . and like a pen or a bicycle, [icons] only work when put to personal use” (131). Or, stated differently,

Icons are in a peculiar position. Incontrovertibly, they form part of the body of art history. Historians can look at them and make stylistic deductions and appreciate beauty of technique. Yet this seems to me a sort of by-product, not their day job, as it were. That day job, their real meaning, is the same today as it was in the sixth century: they draw us from the limitation of our own pressured world into the Kingdom of God (21, emphasis added).

Or, again, stated directly, “Our human vocabulary falls short here. This is precisely what an icon strives to be, an intimation of the truth of heaven into which we are drawn as we contemplate” (72).

The book is broken down into three parts: the earliest icons of Jesus, the earliest icons of Mary, and the earliest icons of saints.

MenasThe icon of Jesus that most struck me was the icon of Christ and the Abbott Menas. Sr. Wendy reflects, saying that “the image is a touching and beautiful one.” She continues, “[Menas’] face, gazing rigidly ahead, has the shy wonder that we must all feel at the certainty that we are being held by Christ. He does not look at Jesus. In fact there is no visible proof that he is conscious of that protecting arm. We can only infer his confidence from that wondering expression, and the fact that since Jesus cannot raise His hind in blessing, since he is holding Menas, it is for Menas to make the gesture of benediction. Again this is a perfect illustration of what it means to be a priest, or to be holy” (42).

The next section of the book reflects on the eight early icons of the Virgin Mary. Sr. Wendy helpfully speculates,

Too late I realized that I perhaps misread these icons. Did the early Christians . . . see not an image of Madonna and Child, but rather an image of the Child, held in place by His mother? Might these icons be primarily images of Jesus, in the form in which He is seen at His most lovable? (56).

I like the shift in focus from Mary to the infant Jesus here. Additionally, Sr. Wendy suggests that Mary is holy not primarily because of her “yes,” though that certainly is part of her holiness, but because of her proximity to Jesus.

santa-maria-antiqua-icon-epix-735x1024Discussing “Mother and Child from Santa Francesca Romana,” Sr. Wendy states that, “[s]ignificantly, it is not us [Jesus] is blessing, but His mother. Jesus is the source of all grace, and however holy His mother is, she is only holy because of her closeness to Jesus. In the icon, one long, slender hand points to Jesus as He blesses her, as if to say without explanation that she is what she is because of her Son” (73).

Also important is Sr. Wendy’s emphasis on the loving nature of the child Jesus. She says of the Mt. Sinai icons that the depictions of Jesus there pull “the heart so strongly that we can understand why this was a depiction of the Lord that enabled believers to believe they were loved.” She continues, saying,

All babies are by definition helpless. Without their parents they cannot survive. When we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating this aspect of Christ’s Humanity, His willingness to live our life to the full, including the physical powerlessness of its beginning (62–63).

Mary and JesusIt is also interesting to read Sr. Wendy’s comments on the words contained in and around the icons. For example, one of the icons, “Madonna Della Clemenza,” is framed by a fragmented inscription that suggests “not just that God has become man but that ‘ipse factus est,’ that He made Himself man” (65). That most interesting for reflection.

The third part of the book is about saints “and the occasional angel.” She begins by stating the fundamental character of the saints, that of bearing witness. She writes, “Only occasionally does [bearing witness] demand talking about our faith. Normally, it is the responsibility to show in our lives how our faith has transformed us.” Going on, she identifies markers of transformation, “Truthfulness, kindness, lack of self-importance, acceptance of responsibility: these are meant to show the non-Christian the freedom and happiness of belief” (87).

Such witness saints bear to us.

stkatherinesmtsinaisergius-bacchus-oct-7Two sets of saints caught my attention. First, the saints Sergius and Bacchus, who Sr. Wendy describes as “officers in the army of Maximian who ruled from 286 to 305.” However, “The icon shows them in their official court attire and not in their military uniform . . . to signify status.” Both were martyred for their faith, and Sr. Wendy notes that “[w]e can see that each is aware of and supported by his friend” because they are ever-so-slightly turned in toward one another (95).

St Platon and CompanionThe second set of saints that caught my eye were described by Sr. Wendy as “St. Platon and Companion,” saints completely unknown to us today. We only know Platon because his name is included on the icon, and Sr. Wendy speculates that he might have been “a martyr whose inspiration lit up the East for centuries after his death.” On the other hand, “Without a story, without even a name,” writes Sr. Wendy, “we cannot identify his female companion.” The painting itself is “crude,” but nevertheless, “[t]hey may be examples of the kind of simple images that the faithful clung to in their hours of silent prayer, not painted by great artists, yet commemoration lives of holy dedication.” Sr. Wendy concludes, “What strikes me about St Platon and his companion is their ordinariness and their happiness. These are not great heroes: these are us, plain and unimpressive, but called to bear witness to God’s love” (98). Indeed, it’s a great gift to me that Platon and his companion bear a resemblance to myself and to my wife.

St. Platon and Companion pray for us.

Sr. Wendy’s book is a great gift as well, despite the fact that she says she is “disappointed” with what she has written. “You can judge for yourself . . . whether my comments have been of any use to you” (131). And so I feel it important to judge in the affirmative; Sr. Wendy’s words have been very helpful both for helping me get an understanding of what an icon is as well as for drawing me into the reality the icon reveals, a real presence.

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