Surprising Images of Christ

Saturday Book Pick: Icons through the eyes of a British TV nun.

We Christians in the West shake our heads when we hear of fanaticism such as Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, whereby anyone uttering a simple slight against the prophet Muhammad may find himself on the way to the chopping block.

“How medieval can you get?”

But Christ’s own Church has seen its own share of fanaticism.

In 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III published an edict declaring images — even religious ones — to be idols. Leo decreed that icons be destroyed. He tried to force Pope Gregory II (713-31) to destroy images in Rome and summon a general council to forbid their use. Pope Gregory answered by a long defense of icons, explaining the difference between them and idols.

At its height, the iconoclast heresy saw churches redecorated with pictures of flowers and birds — and monks who defended holy images were cruelly tortured and killed.

But the fanaticism couldn’t reach a place like St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Dessert — ironic, perhaps, because one of the reasons Leo gave to support his heresy was Exodus 20:4-5, the command in the Decalogue — given on Mount Sinai — prohibiting the making of “graven images.”

Sister Wendy Becket, famed British television nun and art critic, takes us inside St. Catherine’s in her book Real Presence: In Search of the First Icons. She recognizes that there was a significant and tragic gap in the production of icons during the 8th and 9th centuries — the time when the iconoclasts held sway. St. Catherine’s, thus, is a treasure trove of icons that were hidden during that “reign of terror.”

There, the most famous icon is Christ Pantacrator (Christ All Powerful), which dates from the 6th century and most likely was written by an iconographer from Constantinople. It is so beautiful and mesmerizing that it easily draws one into prayer. It is almost as if Christ himself, shown with one eye that is piercing in judgment and one that is soft with mercy, were standing before you.

It is the image used on the cover of this slim but very informative volume.

That is, after all, what icons are meant to do — present the Divine so that you may enter into prayerful conversation with the Lord. Icons, Sister Wendy points out, are another way of making Christ and the saints present to us.

Sister Wendy does not restrict herself to St. Catherine’s. On a quest to find the earliest existing icons in the world, including those of the Theotokos, she takes us to Kiev, Rome, London and various parts of Egypt.

She takes up the question of whether icons indeed depict the historical Jesus. We certainly can find many different iconic styles of Christ, but there are plenty that are very much the same. Was there an original icon that is true to an eyewitness description, from which faithful iconographers have passed down the true image? It’s an open question, but, ultimately, it is the deeper meaning in the icon that is important.

“Just as the Gospels are baffling to the modern mind, with their total indifference to Jesus’ appearance or temperament, so perhaps we must accept that the images have some deeper purpose,” she writes. “The Gospels are trying to make us aware of what Jesus was, what he meant. Perhaps the icons and the mosaics are the same?”

The contemplative nun finds another Pantacrator at Mount Sinai, for example, but this one is far from the strong Jesus depicted in the one with contrasting eyes. It is “Semitic,” she says, as opposed to the more famous “classical” one from Constantinople. Christ is seen as a weak, more human, personage, one who fits well into the prophetic vision of Isaiah’s suffering servant.

“It is clear that neither (Pantacrator) could have the sole prerogative of showing ‘what Jesus looked like,’” she writes. “Both are showing what Jesus is, and both accept that no human power can give visual expression to the Divine immensity of that meaning.”

One possible drawback about this book has to do with layout. Reproductions of icons are offered amid the pages on which Sister Wendy discusses them, but, without captions, it is difficult to tell sometimes to which icons she is referring. We find ourselves guessing which is which.

Then again, it may be a good way to get us to study them more closely, examining them to see if we can find the elements she describes and comparing them to icons on nearby pages that may describe something similar.

In that, she encourages us to meditate on the images more closely, inviting us into prayer.
Just like icons do.

Register news editor John Burger writes from Hamden, Connecticut.



In Search of the Earliest Icons

by Sister Wendy Beckett

Orbis, 2010

128 pages, $25

To order:

(800) 258-5838