Wendy BECKETT, Encounters with God: In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009. 132 pages
Reviewed by Frances LEAP

Sr Wendy graces us with this new text because she “cannot bear to keep hidden” the encounters she has had in tracking down eight icons of Mary, Mother of God, which have survived from the sixth and seventh century. We can be grateful for her generosity. She has produced a small gem of a book.

In the first eight of twenty-four small chapters she sets the context of early Christianity and its developing art. We learn of the simplicity of the early centuries and the paucity of surviving images, encounter the Christological symbolism which the early church found in the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures as painted on the walls of catacombs or stamped into a clay lamp. But Mary, she reminds us, did not figure large in early Christian artistic imagination. It was not until the sixth and seventh centuries that interest in Mary intensified and the icons which are the focus of this text were created.

These eight icons of Mary are unique to have survived the era of Byzantine iconoclasm which by imperial edict destroyed the visual heritage of the Eastern Empire beginning in 726. They endured because five had been taken to Rome in the Western Empire, two were held deep in the desert in St Catherine’s monastery at Mt Sinai, and one, newly rediscovered in 2003 at a French auction house, was mysteriously and safely preserved after its likely creation in Egypt.

Sr Wendy is drawn into her search for these icons through her encounter with the recent rediscovery which is now housed in Temple Gallery, London, not far from her hermitage in Norfolk. She shares the most important insight of this encounter, a realization that she offers as advice to the reader as well: that unless one “regarded each icon as a means of entering more deeply into the experience of God,” and could “forget all about trying to integrate them into a history of art,” one “would never experience the true beauty of the icon.” For the remainder of the text Sr Wendy lures us ever more deeply into this insight as she draws our gaze through the subtle and symbolic beauty of each image and on to the spiritual world they so long to reveal to us. She is a master at mixing the essential elements of artistic and historical context with the insights of enduring spirituality, and stirring in the savor of her detective story pilgrimage in tracking the whereabouts of each icon along the way.

The 8.6 x7 format makes the text an appropriate small size for meditative reading; the generous number of graphics is well rendered on quality stock without glossy distortion. The Virgins themselves are distinctive and varied, each inviting from their readers a lingering gaze, a contemplative encounter, and a desire to return. Both the icons themselves and Sr Wendy’s prose are appreciated more deeply and revealed more beautifully with each additional reading. A text not meant for the classroom or for research, it is an exquisite grace of encounter helping us to look anew at our ancient faith.


Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books