Sister Wendy BECKETT, Real Presence: In Search of the Earliest Icons. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010. 138 pages. $25.00 hc. ISBN 978-1-57075-898-0.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes College, Sylvania, OH 43560

Sister Wendy Beckett, a member of the order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur since 1946, has published many fascinating books concerning Christian art and iconography. Her latest volume was inspired by her recent analysis of eight icons of the Virgin Mary, which have survived from the sixth century. Sister points out that these are the only surviving icons of Mary, because “in the eighth and ninth centuries the Byzantine emperors waged relentless war on icons, and these eight Virgins only escaped because they were beyond the emperor’s grasp” (p. 1). Sister Wendy also points out that these are not the only icons to survive from this early period. She found this treasure trove of early icons stored at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, and her detailed description of said precious gems becomes part catechesis, part Church history lesson, and part art lesson. Her passion is readily evident in her view of icons: “There is something moving about a sixth century wooden panel, on which there was once a sacred image, and that is still reverently preserved by the monastery, in its ghost form” (p. 4). Sister later defines an icon as “a sacred painting on wood, and is portable” (p. 5). It was the portability of the wooden icons—which could be transported with leather straps—that made them highly desirable to early Christians. Icons were later to become prevalent as paintings in churches, on the walls of monks’ cells in Coptic monasteries, and as tiled mosaics on church floors.

Sister’s latest work is comprised of an introduction, and two chapters: one dedicated to icons of Mary, and the other to the saints and angels. She includes wonderful images of the Apostle Peter, Saint Athanasius, and Saint Basil. However, the most moving image concerns Jesus as Christ Pantocrator, which Sister viewed during her earlier analysis of the Marion icons at Mount Sinai. She admits that the image of Jesus as both human and divine is “surely the most wonderful icon in the Monastery, perhaps the most wonderful icon anywhere” (p. 22). Here, we find what was to become the accepted image of Jesus: “dark-haired, with a light beard and moustache” (p. 25).

The ‘Pantocrator’ is further described as Christ Almighty, but as Sister Wendy admits, “that title was only given in the ninth century” (p. 24). The icon shows a Christ who blesses with one hand, while holding the Sacred Scriptures in the other. What stands out the most about the icon is the portrayal of Jesus’ humanity, which later became a problem for some. As Sister states, there were many Christians who thought that a visual representation of God should not be reproduced. They wondered, “How could there be a visual expression of Divinity” (p. 25)? Sister Wendy asserts that although we can not fully comprehend a human Jesus, His image assures us that He can fully comprehend humanity.

Sister Wendy’s latest publication is highly recommended, not only for her direct writing style, but for the numerous icons which are beautifully reproduced—many of the icons are well known, and many of them are uncommon. This book is perfect for groups of all ages, especially for students in a Religious Education setting, and those studying iconography.

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