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Eye on art

30 November, 1999

Sister Wendy Beckett writes about her visit to Rome to see five ancient icons of Our Lady which pre-date the iconoclasm of the 8th century.

One of the glories of art is that it is never-ending. Like the scribe in the gospels, it continually “brings forth its treasures old and new”. It may be new insights into an Old Master, as in the recent exhibition of later Caravaggios. We may come across a new artist like Greg Tricker and his mystical images of St Francis. Or, perhaps most fruitful of all, we may find a whole area of art we have not yet explored.

Like most art historians (though I doubt if I deserve so dignified a title) I have long been uncomfortable about icons. The National Gallery, writing to the British Museum, speaks of “the icon problem: where do they fit into art history?” Clearly these are paintings, but they are essentially different from all other art. Entering into the difference, that hidden and holy beauty, has been a deeply rewarding experience.

The discovery last year of an icon of Our Lady that predates the Iconoclasm of the 8th century, an icon of immense power, made me long to see the other survivors, her seven sisters, as it were. There are only these seven, the London icon making eight, and two of these are relatively inaccessible. Both were in the Monastery of St Catherine, remote in the Sinai desert, though one is now in Kiev. The other five, however, are all in Rome, where Iconoclasm never reached, and a generous friend offered to take me there on pilgrimage.

I tried to prepare, but could find very little written material. Dick Temple, the scholar who runs the Temple Gallery in London warned me that most of these 6th or 7th century paintings of the Madonna were not on display: one needed special permission. Here I had a secret weapon. When we filmed in Rome, the great Marjorie Weeke, who worked in the Vatican Film & TV department, had been of the greatest help. She seemed to know everyone and every place in Rome. With her guidance I was hopeful.

We began with the two icons that are displayed. One is in the great Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore. When the Council of Ephesus declared in 431 that Mary was the Mother of God, Theotokos, Pope Sixtus III (432-440) set himself to glorify her by building a vast Basilica on the Esquiline Hill. Much about this church is misty with legend, but at some early stage it acquired the icon venerated here still and known as the Madonna ‘Salus Populi Romani’, the salvation (health) of the Roman people.

She was carried in procession in time of fear, plague or war, and the grateful people have enshrined her in splendour. She has the great Pauline chapel to herself, with a massive altar of marble columns. The small icon rests humbly in the midst of a starburst of golden angels and general magnificence. But I found it hard actually to see her. The icon is high and distant, and the chapel heaving with tourists.

Our Lady has a long intelligent face, and both she and her child, whom she clasps firmly, are serious. As you look at the icon, the little Jesus looks to the left, and her eyes follow Him. He holds out a hand in blessing, and seems on the point of speech.

The other icon is in a church almost as great, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and it too has its own chapel, to the left of the high altar. The Madonna is clad in Byzantine richness, a crown dripping with pearls on her head, pearl-embroidered garments. (Our Lady of S. Maria Maggiore is very simply dressed). She sits on a throne and has attendants, two blue and cream angels who lean out towards us with a gesture demanding reverence.

The Christ Child is as expressionless as the Mother. This is a public occasion, we feel, and all intimacies, as is proper in a court, are for private. The icon is in a poor state of repair, and since it is traditionally held to be painted by St Luke himself, restorers may feel wary of working on it. When we got there it was being lifted down from the altar in preparation for Our Lady of Mercy’s feast, this being her official title. We could only glimpse her through a busy hubbub of workmen. But this is an image that needs time before it reveals itself to our prayer.

The third image, also tenaciously held to be painted by St Luke, is in an even more famous church, the Pantheon. This huge Roman temple, built before Our Lord’s birth, is an architectural wonder, the greatest unsupported space in the world until the last century. Its ecclesiastical name is Sancta Maria ad Martyres, since it was consecrated by lining altar and floors with cartloads from the cemetery of the Martyrs.

We walked all round, peering at the walls, squinting at a likely image here or there, but could not find the icon. There is a small kiosk at the entrance, where we were told that she is in the sacristy, and a security camera gave us a rapid black and white picture of her secret chapel. But to get in we would need special permission – in other words – Marjorie.

This indefatigable woman had already tracked down the small church that sheltered the fourth icon. I would never have found it on my own. S. Maria Nova, now called S. Francesca Romana, is a very ancient (though much rebuilt) church standing on the edge of the Forum. To reach it, one climbs over winding paths of cobbled stones and comes to a green and leafy solitude. The church is only open on Sundays, but it is now adjacent to a small monastery of Benedictine monks and it is they who guard the icon.

The monk who let us in and took us to their small chapel is a theology lecturer at the university. It was his day for cleaning the house, and he wore a white overall, which seemed very apt for the simple image. She stands on a plain altar, her Child almost obliterated by time, half-smiling to herself as she broods upon God’s goodness. The artist here is less skilled, but it is an image of astonishing beauty, just in its prayerful simplicity. It was hard to leave.

Our Lady ad Rosarias caused Marjorie the most detective work. She knew the church well: there was no icon there. Eventually she traced it to a remote monastery of enclosed Dominican nuns, Monastero del S. Rosario in the hills surrounding Rome. If we were there at 7am, we could see her, and then share the 7.30 Mass. It is a considerable journey. But this is an idyllic setting, quiet and lovely, with the community completely hidden by only a small communion grille that can be opened.

The icon faces into their choir, but it is on a swivel, so for a good half hour I could contemplate this astonishing image. It was the icon that reproductions had made me think I would like least. The first sight was a shock, because the dear sisters had covered the hands of Our Lady with silver glove shapes, very highly adorned with jewels and rings. She has no Child, or, if once she had, He has crumbled away. But of all the icons, this one held me most in its power. It is a very beautiful face, rosy cheeks and lips but big sad eyes. It is the face of one who loves totally and grieves for the poor world.

The pilgrimage ended with Mass at the Pantheon and a journey down below it to the depths of the sacristy. It was a fitting ending. Sancta Maria ad Martyres has barely survived the 1400 years of her existence. She holds the little Jesus on high, both of them tense and apprehensive. But she utters the “Yes that was always in Him” (2 Cor 1.20, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him”.) and presents herself and the Child with enormous dignity.

St Luke, of course, is acclaimed as the painter, and we could almost imagine that an image so hierarchic in its majesty, so clearly reverenced from the heart, is much as we could visualise the apostle and evangelist regarding Our Lady.

After iconoclasm, when icon painting revived, there grew up an almost ‘set’ manner of depicting the Madonna. This is the type of icon with which we are happily familiar. But in the early days, each painter looked in his own praying heart and painted from within, so they are marvellously different. To see each was a profound grace.

This article first appeared in The Word (March 2007), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.