"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Monday, November 22, 2010

In Search of the Earliest Icons

Books about icons continue to pour fourth from a variety of presses, secular and ecclesial; and Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. Orbis Books, whose other recent and generally delightful publication about Marian icons I noted previously, has just put into my hands its latest book:

Sister Wendy Beckett, Real Presence: in Search of the Earliest Icons (Orbis, 2010), 138pp.

As I have noted previously, good, reliable studies, in English, of Coptic iconography are not very numerous--especially when compared to the myriad of books on Byzantine icons. Several earlier books exist in French, but these are not accessible to my students; others seem content to downplay or ignore the theological significance of Coptic art precisely as Christian and iconographic. So it is a happy development to have Real Presence devoted to pre-Iconoclastic icons at the famous St. Catherine's of Mount Sinai Monastery. It confines itself to icons largely before the eighth century (her cut-off is AD 726), but it will nonetheless be useful in giving the general reader and undergraduate a very good introduction to pre-Iconoclastic and proto-Coptic iconography.

It will also be useful, I hope, in overcoming some of the "Byzantine snobbery" I've heard from people who condescendingly dismiss Coptic icons as being but "cartoons" compared to the ineffable splendors of Byzantium. Yes, certain developments did not take place in Egypt, and yes Egypt never produced a Rublev or Theophanes, but such criticism of Coptic art ignores, inter alia, the fact that after the 640s Egypt was ruled by an increasingly hostile power, and Islam of course was then and certainly is now deeply iconoclastic. The Byzantines were unmolested for another 800 years and so could continue to develop their iconographical techniques, which they bequeathed to the East-Slavs, who continued to develop them after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.(I should perhaps confess, as is the fashion today, a certain "bias" insofar as the very first icon I was ever given was a beautiful Coptic icon of the Virgin enthroned, which was sent to me while in hospital by the Coptic priest Fr. Marcos A. Marcos, who almost single-handedly did so much to establish a Coptic presence in Canada and the United States. That icon provided much consolation to me during a long convalescence after a city bus tried to kill me, and I have continued to regard it as my favourite of all the Marian icons I have.)

Sr. Wendy notes that "the Egyptian Christ has not the classic stateliness that was to become the norm in the Byzantine Empire. He is stately, but the countenance is long and often thin, much more semitic [sic] in its poignancy" (35). A little later she notes that "many...Coptic images have an intimacy that clutches at the heart-strings" (40) and she illustrates this with an icon of Christ resting his hand on the shoulder of the Abbot Menas (not St. Menas, she says, but a later monk):

 
Sr. Wendy is no stranger to works on Christian art in general, and iconography in particular, having written an earlier volume on Marian icons from Mt. Sinai: Encounters With God: In Quest of Ancient Icons of Mary 

Real Presence has a winsome narrative describing her visits to Mt. Sinai (as well as Rome and Kiev, where some of the monastery's icons may today be found) and experience of its history, its collections, and its monks. Sr. Wendy writes with a commendably simple, accessible style, making this a fine introduction for those with little background in iconography.

She begins with a brief comment on her title "Real Presence," noting its felicitous reminder of the more common connotations of that phrase to denote Christ in the Eucharist. Both icons and the Eucharist, she rightly notes, make Christ accessible to us. Icons are sacramental--though, of course, in different ways than the Eucharist and other sacraments. (One should recall here that the septinarium is a Western achievement dogmatized at Trent, but lacking comparable authority in the East--which means that there is nothing "official" to prevent icons from being considered in sacramental terms equal to and numbered alongside the Eucharist, inter alia.)

After this, she offers an overview of how she came to be aware of these icons, and of their history. She also narrates, again very briefly, the history of St. Catherine's Monastery, the "oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the Christian world" (12), a monastery that "has become the resting-place of some of the oldest Biblical texts in existence and of the extraordinary collection of pre-iconoclastic icons" (13). That collection, she notes earlier, numbers "over three thousand" (2), and is unique in the entire world in preserving so many icons from the "thorough job of destruction" carried out by Emperor Leo III and others (3). As I am forever telling my students, you cannot understand much of history, religious history especially, until you first understand the geography. These icons were saved largely because they were beyond the reach of the imperial agents of destruction, who seem to have been unwilling to enter deep into a country that had been considered "enemy territory" after Chalcedon, and was, by the time of Iconoclasm, increasingly Muslim in nature. Even if the Iconoclastic agents had gotten as far at Mt. Sinai, there is no guarantee they would have gotten their hands on the icons for they would have been confronted with one of Justinian's architectural wonders: a "fortress monastery, one that could resist hostile attacks...built...so superbly that it stands majestically to this day" (11).

Part of the importance of this collection is that it gives us access to "the earliest icons that we actually have...from the sixth century" (13). Sr. Wendy then gives us a tour through many of the most prominent of these icons, which are reproduced in color and black-and-white plates. She offers commentary on their features, most of which is very illuminating, but in a few places it is trickier to see some of what she sees. And she recognizes this at the end, saying that readers should "look at the pictures of the icons and what I have said about them, and decide whether my comments have been of any use to you" (131).

There are three small infelicities in the text: her one-sentence summary of Arianism is very confused (18); she says the first Council of Nicaea was held "in 383" (18) when of course it was 325; and one icon, whose face has been removed, is, she says, of a monk and not a bishop even though the figure has on an omophor--or so it seems from what we can glimpse of what remains of the icon (105-06). Apart from these, however, this is a lovely and important little book, and we can be very grateful Orbis has brought it out in such charming form and for so affordable a price.

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