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Encounters with God: In Quest of Ancient Icons of Mary
by Sr. Wendy Beckett
Orbis Books, 132 pages, $22

Any study of art history at the graduate level will lead to the inevitable and not terribly surprising conclusion: Art history is in chaos. An entire generation of scholars has arisen”so long ago that some are now approaching retirement”whose sole aim was to undo the neat historical narrative that rolled out like a red carpet from the galleries of midcentury Manhattan.

Along the way, the origin of art history as a discipline was endlessly scrutinized, to reveal essentialist fantasies and national agendas that few are eager to perpetuate. Shelves of books that expose the concealed imperialism of Western art history are on offer, books that ridicule the assumption that artifacts from all cultures can be assessed by supposedly universal aesthetic criteria. “So-called art history,” writes the eminent German scholar Hans Belting, is a “discourse with a limited use and for a limited idea of art.” In non-Western cultures, what we designate “art” in fact “served other purposes like religion or social ritual, which may be more significant than creating art as we understand it.”

One might think that dear old Sr. Wendy, that paradoxically cloistered celebrity, the popularizing art-historian nun who had never seen television before she was on it, would be blind to this cutting-edge scholarly perplexity. As academic art historians ponder the deflating reality that even the most successful of them can hope to enjoy but a fraction of Sr. Wendy’s international audience, comfort perhaps arises from assuming she must be naive. Surely, the guileless Wendy Beckett is unaware of the heady academic discussions regarding art history’s crisis of ­purpose.

As it happens, she is far closer to intuiting this dilemma than scholars might think. One can work through the advanced art-history syllabi, arriving at perplexing conclusions through paths dimly lit and winding, or one can allow Sr. Wendy to do the work in four simple words, words that both shatter the conceit of art and open the discipline of art history to truths that its old wineskins could not contain: “Icons,” notes Sr. Wendy with disarming accuracy, “are for prayer.”

Those words are from Sr. Wendy’s latest book, Encounters with God: In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary , which reports her pilgrimage to see the eight surviving pre-iconoclastic (that is, the earliest) icons of Mary. In examining these icons, Sr. Wendy encounters what awaits most people conditioned by the older, Renaissance-centered art-historical paradigm. First, fascination: “These early icons of Mary had a spiritual power that I had never seen equaled.” And then this: “Until I realized that I would never experience the true beauty of the icon, unless I regarded each icon as a means of entering more deeply into the experience of God, and that I should forget all about trying to integrate them into a history of art, I was somewhat, and foolishly, at a loss.”

Sr. Wendy begins her account by descending from these more abstract considerations into an informed general preface on the earliest Christian art. Therein, she pulverizes the veracity of the Gnostic gospels, as if to assure her readers that surveying early Christianity with her will require leaving Dan Brown behind. Her admiration for the early Christians is evident, but not sentimental. “It is as if they held to their hearts the acorn, whereas we live under the shade of the oak tree.”

The first of the eight Marian icons visited by Sr. Wendy was relatively near her Norfolk convent at the prominent Temple Gallery in London. The image, which may date to the sixth or seventh century, was found in an Avignon attic in 2003. The recent nature of this discovery makes Sr. Wendy’s book, to my knowledge, the only published discussion of the image. Viewing the icon”and contemplating it in the full-scale replica that she hung in her cell”prompted in Sr. Wendy the desire to see the other seven Virgins. For a woman who has battled illness all her life, this is no pleasure trip, but a pilgrimage.

Her next stop was Rome, home to five of the eight early Marian icons. Rome was not subject to Byzantine iconoclasm, which explains this relative abundance. The possibly sixth-century “Salus Populi Romani” icon is easy to find, occupying a prominent place in the papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Sr. Wendy’s commentary is wry. She describes how the final commission of the sculptor Camillo Mariani involved carving a “glory” of golden angels surrounding the image, but “the icon, it would seem to me, needs no external glow.”

The second icon she visits in Rome is the “Madonna della Clemenza” in Santa Maria in Trastevere , also on permanent display. This “most hieratic,” downright imperial Mary, “dripping with diamonds,” dates to the early eighth century.

Next on her Roman itinerary is the Pantheon, once home to innumerable statues of pagan deities, and now home to an image of Christ and the Virgin dating to 609. Sr. Wendy mixes an informed introduction to the building with her personification of the icon: “I was eager to see her,” she writes. When encountering an icon-less Pantheon she panics, but a Vatican-connected Roman friend secures her an escort to the crypt where the image normally resides. Sr. Wendy fails to point out an important caveat helpful to those who would follow her footsteps: If one visits the Pantheon on a feast day, high-profile connections are not necessary to see the image; what is required is only the willingness to attend Mass.

Sr. Wendy discovers her next Roman icon at Santa Francesca Romana, a Benedictine monastery overlooking the Roman Forum. She makes viewing it seem more simple than it is; visitors hoping to do so should know it may require some doorbell ringing and a good bit of asking around. But once an escort is secured, it can be seen in a private chapel attached to the church. Restorers uncovered this seventh-century icon by removing numerous layers of paint from various periods. For Sr. Wendy, and many others, it is “perhaps the most exquisite of all images ever painted of Mary.”

The last Roman image, the “Madonna of San Sisto,” involves a trip to the Monte Mario convent on the outskirts of Rome. Sr. Wendy laments that “After iconoclasm, no one could paint so living and breathing a young woman, and know her as being Christ’s mother.”

The two remaining Marian icons are the most difficult to access. They were both venerated in St. Catherine’s monastery at Mt. Sinai, but the nineteenth century scholar-bishop Porfirii Uspenskii was given one as a gift, which he brought back with him to Kiev. This image might have been destroyed under Soviet rule, but its mock-exhibition in the Museum of Atheism ensured its survival. In its current museum, conscientious curators have altered their strategy significantly, building for the icon a tiny chapel.

“I must confess to bursting into tears, to see it so honored and so beautiful,” Sr. Wendy writes. This is a Mary “not tranquil or remote like her seven sisters, but passionate.” Sr. Wendy spent so much time before the sixth-century Virgin of Kiev that museum staff had to find her a chair, and the fruits of her contemplation are anything but saccharine. Mary is passionate because “We will destroy him . . . . Mary is urgent with the need, not to protect us, but to protect Jesus from us, to show us our own inner destructiveness.”

The eightfold pilgrimage concludes with a grueling journey to Sinai. Sr. Wendy names the absorbing seventh-century Enthroned Virgin there the “most complex” of the eight. The earliest Marian icons are “‘art’, yes, but infinitely more,” conveying “an air more pure than we can understand.”

Sr. Wendy is well aware that this will be difficult for an art-conditioned audience to receive, as it was difficult for her to receive, accustomed as she was to a Western art-historical norm. Accordingly, she has mercy on the scholars whose job it is to understand these images. Following her realization that “icons are for prayer,” she does not hammer the point. Instead, she sympathizes: “Ah, the poor art historian! How is he or she to deal with this? Always we are straddling a difficult line, between our response to the image as a thing of beauty and our response to the image as a means of communion with God. I cannot attempt to resolve this dilemma. I can only say that even non-believers who open themselves to the power of these icons cannot but encounter the ineffable.”

Encounters with God makes no claim to be an exhaustive treatment of these icons. For that, one must consult lengthier accounts.

But for needed reprieve from the tortured self-consciousness of so much contemporary art history, coupled with insights capable of affecting that discipline’s renewal, consult the woman in the black habit.

Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D candidate in art history at Princeton University.