I’m a huge fan of Sister Wendy. I like her books on art and I like her books on prayer. During Lent you may remember I give up reading fiction and do some serious reading for a change. (I don’t do enough reading of theology and promise every year that I will diary in reading weeks but somehow it just never happens.) So this Lent, among other things, I’ve just finished Sister Wendy’s Real Presence : In search of the earliest icons.
To be honest, it has been a bit of a disappointment. It is not a big book and the print is huge – I didn’t need my reading specs. There are colour pictures of all the icons she discusses but unfortunately they are not named or numbered until the very end of the book which you don’t find until it is too late. And the quality of the paper is not the best so you can see some through the pages. This book is a follow-up to Encounters with God which I haven’t read, and is all about the earliest icons of Mary. In Real Presence she continues the journey to see icons of Jesus, Mary and the Saints. These are the icons which survived the iconoclasm of the early eighth century. Many of them are indeed damaged and missing bits here and there. In fact there are not so many of Jesus.
But the reason it was disappointing was that there just wasn’t very much in the way of content. I just didn’t feel there was the same enthusiasm for the icons as there is for the art she appreciates. And most of the icons were frankly quite primitive. Yes, I know they are very, very old! But I did find some lovely icons to adore.
This is a really unusual icon in that it shows Mary alone. I love the sadness and sorrow of her expression, although Sister Wendy thinks it could have been Mary before the birth of Christ, a doe-eyed village maiden. Although there is no babe in her arms they are stretched out in prayer and this icon has been venerated for centuries as an icon of healing. The hands are sometimes covered with bejewelled gloves, which seems rather a pity but there you are.
This incomplete Crucifixion scene from Mount Sinai is probably too small to really see but I have fallen in love with Jesus’ face here. His eyes are closed and he seems dead but he is so handsome and a man I would have followed to the ends of the earth to hear his stories. Such compassion, such love, such weakness and such strength. There are three stars in his hair which signify the crown of thorns, and from his side gushes water and blood. Mary holds a long hankie to suggest grief and the executioners are small dwarfish characters.
Sister Wendy notices that the bad thief is female with long hair and bosoms. And rather large feet it has to be said. I’m not convinced it is a woman but merely a rather overweight man. What do you think?
If you are a huge fan of icons I suspect there are better books out there which will give you more of the history and description. If you are an amateur perhaps this will whet your appetite to learn more. I’d spend your money on something a bit better.