Saint Anna

Here are some more icons.

From Mount Athos: John the Evangelist, from the 11th century. The gospel writer’s body is turned towards his scribe, but his eyes are towards Heaven, which is dictating to him. I could say that textual criticism shows a link between certain chapters, showing that other chapters have been interpolated later; and I still think that the idea of taking dictation from God directly is beautiful.

From Patmos: The Mother of God enthroned, 15th century.

From Bulgaria: Saint Anna. So the child on the lap is female, rather than male: Mary is with her mother.


Here is St Anna again, with her daughter and the Christ child. I found the three together fascinating.

Le Puy en Velay

Le Puy en Velay is holy and beautiful.

The Chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe. I was walking around trying to find a good angle for a photograph rather than just appreciating the beauty, and so I blocked out the serenity. I had to make the decision to put my camera away, so that I could enjoy the sight of it, rather than the challenge of contructing an image.

St Michel d'Aiguilhe- Christ in MajestyThe chapel, and Notre Dame de France:

Chapel St Michel d'Aiguilhe et Notre Dame de France

Our Lady blesses the Cathedral:

Our Lady of France blesses the Cathedral, Le Puy en Velay

Kneeling at her feet is Monsignor Joseph de Morlhon, the bishop who arranged her construction.

One may climb up inside her, and indeed see her face from inside.

The face of Our Lady of France from within

And- here is the ferry: the lines, angles, shadows, colour I like, though to have someone sitting behind that block, just the legs visible, would have been the detail to make it. The one that got away…


When I went with a friend to Florence, I was the one who wanted to look at the “boring old churches”. We also went to the Uffizi, or “offices”, and passed dozens of Annunciations. Some of the symbolism- the lilies for purity, the dove for the Holy Spirit- may need explanation, but the relationship between the two figures is immediately apparent. Start with one I find difficult:

Philippe de Champaigne. Yes, I know he was French school, but he illustrates all I dislike about the treatment. Gabriel is clearly supernatural, floating above, wings out. Mary is- sitting at a desk! Reading! A peasant- a peasant girl– reading. Would she be surprised to see an angel floating in the air? For this artist, it seems, no.

For me, the Gospel has value for human beings if it is a human story. In de Champaigne’s work, God is taking care of everything, and the human involved is the blessed of God, born without original sin.

Often she is reading. By traditional iconography, she reads Isaiah 7:14

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a maiden shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

I change “virgin” to “maiden” because I understand it is closer to the Hebrew, being able to convey unmarried woman as well as woman who has not had sexual intercourse. In the prophecy, the invaders have overrun Judah and society has broken down. God is with us, and no-one else is.

John William Waterhouse is far more to my taste, even if I would usually deprecate following a style from decades before.

Here the only supernatural thing is the halo, which I like to see as a symbol of force of personality rather than holiness.

John Collier shows the form still has vitality:

Trainers? Well, why not? Here, as always, is a Mary for her contemporary audience to relate to. I am unsure about American teenagers, but I think specifically for a rather older audience to relate to.

At last, to the Uffizi:


Fra Angelico

Simone Martini

Mary, for me, has to be that human being who comes to the sudden realisation that she is in the most difficult position: an unmarried peasant who is pregnant. At that moment, the cry “All generations shall call me blessed” is a cry of faith in herself as a human being, able to cope even with this situation.


This is the first Madonna and child I acquired. I bought it in Florence, after being in the Uffizi, and seeing all those scores of Annunciations, Gabriel and Mary in every conceivable relationship, Mary with every conceivable expression, one story used to express so many different ideas. It is a simple thing, printed onto the wood, and its colours seem a little dull. They need candlelight to come into their own.

It is full of symbolism, such as the crown of thorns around the child’s left wrist, but at heart it is a young woman and her child, a far more naturally baby-like child than in Orthodox icons with a baby’s proportions. The consciousness in the child’s face is also naturalistic: I have a photograph of my sister bathing her son in a basin (which he would not wish to be published, I think). They have eye contact, and the consciousness and trust expressed on his face are beautiful. I know little of photography, but I do know that one of my favourite subjects is people in eye contact.

It is something I have lived with, and living with a beautiful thing I get to know it, and see more and more detail in it; and then pass it, and notice it briefly, so that its beauty continually enriches me.



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.