Life of Jesus in Icons
From the “Bible of Tbilisi”
Commentary by Francis J.
Liturgical Press, 2008
141 pages, $34.95
To order: litpress.org
Along with the word “love,” “icon” may be one of the most misused words in the English language. We speak of “sports icons,” “Hollywood icons” and “political icons.”
For Christians, especially Eastern Christians, an icon is a way to see God and a means of prayer.
It is also a way to “read” Scripture, as we learn in Life of Jesus in Icons: From the “Bible of Tbilisi.”
“In all times and places the Church has opened the Bible and proclaimed it, publicly in the liturgy and privately in homes where reading the Bible takes place,” explains Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto in the introduction. “However, especially in Eastern Christianity, the Church has opened the Bible for proclamation in another equally beautiful and understandable form, in public and private, through the eloquent language of the icon.”
Bishop Pasotto is apostolic administrator of the Caucusus for the Latins, and it is from the Caucusus that the icons represented in this book come. Life of Jesus in Icons presents 30 of the 130 icons that line the walls of the Cathedral Church of Mary of the Assumption in Tbilisi, Georgia. There are scenes of the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Ascension, accompanied by relevant Gospel passages; commentaries by Salesian Father Francis Moloney, an Australian Scripture scholar, and writings of the Church Fathers that shed further light on the Gospel passages.
One finds oneself turning from an explanation back to the icon on the previous page. Back and forth one goes, looking again and again at the icon described and finding new things in it.
The reader can look, for example, at the icon of the Annunciation and learn from Father Moloney that the deep red robe Mary wears is the same color as the veil of the Holy of Holies in the Temple — a reference to Mary being the Ark of the New Covenant.
By the time we get to, say, “Jesus Among the Teachers of the Law,” we have read so many of Father Moloney’s fine explanations that we begin looking for symbolism in the icons ourselves: Jesus sits in the midst of six teachers. Why six? Is it because that is half the number of the tribes of Israel (and the apostles), or because of the incompleteness of the number six? Jesus makes it seven, the number that is symbolic of perfection: Without Christ the Law is incomplete.
“The icon captures the centrality of Jesus in the scene, inside and at the center of a smaller semi-circle that is set within the wider semi-circle of the Temple itself,” Father Moloney writes. “The teachers are at his feet, and he is the one holding the scroll of the Law. But his mother and father are ‘outside’ the semi-circle dominated by Jesus and the teachers. They are intruders, unable to understand what they have found. But Mary ‘treasures all these things in her heart.’”
Still, it’s valuable to have a guide for the rest of the icons, and Father Moloney continues to present surprising insights. In the parable of the “Prayer in the Temple,” we don’t see at first that the Pharisee, who boasts about how he fasts and tithes, “unlike this tax collector,” has one foot hovering over the abyss into which his pride is leading him.
By the time I got to the icon of the Last Supper, after reading so many of Father Moloney’s explanations and the meditations of the Church Fathers, I found myself better able to contemplate the scene presented: how Judas was portrayed slightly lower than Christ, across the table, bowing as he dips his hand into the bowl; how all present are depicted with faces of consternation and wondering, except for Judas, with his face of mad determination; Christ, with his countenance of calm resignation and sadness for the betrayer; and “the beloved disciple,” leaning against the chest of the Lord, sad and reflective.
In fact, St. John, like Judas, is bowing toward the Master. But his arms are crossed in humility, while Judas’ are in a grabbing position as he crouches upon the table. John reminds one of Mary at the Annunciation, Judas of the prowling serpent in Eden.
It would be nice to have an explanation of how Christians of old — illiterate and perhaps not well formed — would look at icons. What would people make of the icon of the pharisee and the tax collector, for example? The story it tells, as explained in this book, would not be so evident.
But Father Moloney is careful to present excerpts from Church Fathers that reflect the kinds of thoughts and feelings one might have when praying before these icons. And his discussion of how an iconographer must approach his work is a wonderful insight into the relationship of the word of God and the Word made flesh and how icon “writing” is a form of preaching, requiring the face of the Lord to be “written inside the iconographer’s being” before it becomes “printed on a piece of wood.”
With this book, the Christian new to icons is surely to gain a new way of seeing the word of God.
John Burger is the
Register’s news editor.