The photograph does not do justice to the thing itself. It is lustrous. It is an “Exact copy of the strict Byzantine style created by Father ‘Pefkis’, qualified hagiographer of the Athoniados Ecclesiastical Academy in Agion Oros at Athos, with the genuine traditional colours with gold sheets on canvas on aged wood”. I got it at St John’s, at the west end of Princes St. They tell me they are at the mercy of their suppliers, they can sell only whatever the suppliers send. It is far more beautiful than the other pictures they have, which are prints.
Fr. Pefkis’s Christianity and mine appear very different. How do I approach this beautiful thing? First, by delighting in its beauty. The gold, the wood. Then, by considering it from a place of appreciation rather than denigration. Do people have haloes? Well, yes, some people have such force of character shining from them that they might appear to. Here is a mother, with her cheek pressed to the cheek of her child, an archetypal image which will move almost any human being. The child’s head is out of proportion, a baby’s is far bigger: this, for me, only serves to emphasise the vulnerable humanity of Jesus. I love the clear, limpid gaze. I want to know more. What is the symbolism of the colours in the clothes, covered in black for the mother, exposed in the child?
Tony Castle in his book “Gateway to the Trinity” tells of a Roman Catholic priest who commissioned an icon. He expected the Orthodox monastery to put it in the post, but instead they sent a nun to deliver it, who fasted while she was out of the monastery. I am not sure about showing such respect to an object: but I am convinced of the value of showing respect to something outside ones self. And the respect shows the belief in the object’s ability to mediate God to the person who sees it, if that person’s heart is open.
Roger Scruton writes in this month’s Prospect magazine, “icons stand at the border of forbidden things”. I do not know God. Contemplating this icon may allow my mind to roam free among the ideas of God my species has had, glimpsing reality.
Searches for “Pefkis Ikonen” and “Agion Oros monastic” have reached my blog. If anyone can provide a translation for the Greek, I would be grateful.