“According to greek mythology, humans were originally created with 4 arms, 4 legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
I don’t know what first drew me to this particular image, or more aptly put, Icon. Oh I’ve written about Icon’s before, quite some time ago, which means I don’t want to rewrite a post (see “What is an Icon” dated 3/1/13) however there is a little background necessary in order for one to fully appreciate the image accompanying this particular post.
An Icon, which translates to “image” is just that, an image. A bit of an artistic photograph if you will. It should be noted that Icons are not considered paintings at all, but rather are referred to as written images– as in the artist is not painting but actually “writing,” what I like to describe as, a love letter.
Now back to this particular image.
No doubt you have seen it at some time or other as it is quite notable as far as Icons are concerned. It is an image of the Christ, or Pantocrator as He is known in Greek/ Παντοκράτωρ—–meaning Divine (translated from the Hebrew El Shaddai). This particular image dates to the 6th century–let’s say 500 years or so after the death of Christ. It is considered to be the oldest known image of Christ or as He is known to many, as the Chirstos.
I don’t want to give an in-depth mini history lesson today regarding icons, or of this particular image, as there is so very much out there in the form of books or on the web for the curious to discover. I simply want to share with you something that is very meaningful to me. I think it is important to share with others the things that significantly impact our own lives as those are the things that make us who we are.
As a person who grew up with Western Christianity, or that of the Roman or Latin branch of Christianity, I was always accustomed, as no doubt you were, to what typically is considered to be images of Jesus. Benevolent images of a young man of fair skin complexion, soft brown hair and beard who most often had blue eyes. But the problem with that stereotypical image is that Jesus was not European. He was a Middle Eastern Jew. Therefore that meant he most likely had a more dark or olive skin tone, with a thicker head of very dark hair. He was an orthodox, meaning devout, Jew, so it is theorized that he most probably wore the hair ringlets as do the modern day Hasidic Jews. His features were not as close to ours in the West but rather he was closer in appearance to those currently living in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, etc.
Knowing all of the geographical information of Jesus, I’ve never gravitated to the images depicted in much of our Western Culture’s art and literature regarding Jesus, as I just didn’t think it a true likeness. I knew he didn’t look like me– as he grew up in an entirely different area of the planet that does not have many light haired, blue eyed folks running about. I wanted to see Jesus for who is was, not some stylized image.
And so it was when I first saw this image—I was truly taken by this image. The question of whether or not I was glancing at the closest image of the man who has had the greatest impact on humankind–let alone my life, resonated in my head.
This particular image is considered to be the benchmark for all other artistic images of Jesus—that is until the expansion of the Christian Church in the West, meaning Europe and eventually the new continent of the Americas.
This Icon is located in St Catherine’s Monastery in the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. St Catherine’s is located at the foot of the mountain, Mt Horeb, in which it is believed that God spoke to Moses in the form of the burning bush. It is also within these mountains that Moses later received the Ten Commandments. St. Catherine’s has been in existence as a practicing Monastery since the year 564—making St Catherine’s Monastery one of the oldest practicing monasteries known in all of Christendom.
It is troubling, given the current political crisis in Egypt, that St Catherine’s has had to shut its doors to pilgrims most recently as the safety of Christians, particularly in Egypt, is a perilous situation. I’m attaching a short nice informative link to a Youtube clip concerning a brief overview of St. Catherine’s as narrated by the monks:
There is also a most fascinating book based on the travels of two of the first Western woman, sisters from Scotland, who journeyed to St Catherine’s in the mid 1800’s. The Sisters of the Sinai by Jancie Soskice– Theirs was a journey of the discovery of ancient manuscripts. A most interesting true tale.
To the casual observer the life and worship at this most ancient of monasteries is something of another world and time—And so it is—yet it must be understood that the monks at St Catherine’s have been practicing these rituals since the year 500 with little to no change. . . so if anything, it is our worship today that is otherworldly and foreign. It is on my bucket list to one day travel to St. Catherine’s. The original burning bush is purported to be within the walls of the monastery as the bush in question actually does date to the time of Moses. The library is full of ancient texts as well as the largest collection of original ancient Icons all of which are housed within St. Catherine’s fortified walls. It is said that the aired conditions have helped to preserve these ancient and holy relics with many dating to the birth of the Christian faith.
The story goes that a cloth was found just at the inception of the monastery, buried within its walls, which was purported to have been part of the burial cloth of Jesus—not the Shroud but rather the face cloth that was customary of the time to be placed over the face of the deceased before being wrapped in the burial shroud. This cloth, or what the Eastern Church refers to as a napkin, Holy Napkin, is said to have, just as the shroud, held the image of a man—-of what the faithful claim to be that of Jesus. It was shortly after the discovery of this cloth that this particular image of Jesus, the Pantocrator of Sinai was created—making it the first known artistic image in existence based from something that is said to be the original image of Jesus—making this image to be the closest thing Christian followers would have to an exact image of Christ. Some stories even attribute the Icon’s creation to St Luke as he was considered an artist as well as a medical doctor.
But it is the facial features of this particular image that draws me from mere observer to that of one of awe and worshiper. The duality of God rests in this image–the Deity as well as the Human–two separate entities, yet united in one face. If an image of the face from the Shroud of Turin is laid over this image, the two faces are proportionate, lining up equally. If you split in half the face of this Icon’s image you will note that both halves of the face are vastly different, making this image asymmetrical rather than symmetrical– as we consider the human face to be–more equal than different.
One side of the face is that of a tender and loving man–that of pure-hearted love, that of Savior. The other side is a man harsh and stern–that of Judge of Mankind. I am reminded of the verse in Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples that at the time of Judgement He will separate the sheep form the goats. The sheep on the right having done the acts of kindness during their lives of clothing the naked, feeding the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned will all see Glory. On the other hand are the goats, those to His left, who did not do the act of kindness to the strangers throughout their lives—they will be cast away to eternal damnation –the Savior vs Judge–the two compelling actions all within one individual.
I first saw this image, oddly enough, in a store specializing in Icons on a street corner in Rome. In the shadow of the great Latin Roman branch of Christianity, that of St Peter’s, exists an Eastern Orthodox store of Iconography. The irony was not lost on this little pilgrim. The store clerks spoke only Greek and no doubt Italian. There were reproductions of many Icons, but it was the Pantocrator of Sinai which truly spoke to me. It is said that one does not choose an Icon, but that the Icon chooses you. I brought home a copy that I eventually framed–later purchasing a mounted image from St Isaac’s Skete–a wonderful small orthodox Skete located in rural Wisconsin which offers a beautiful selection of mounted Icons as well as commissioned Icons by the trained monks. (http://www.skete.com )
And so it is, as I stand in my kitchen, just on the counter above the sink, sits a small collection of Icons. As I spend countless hours in the kitchen, I am afforded time to ponder these images—pondering the significance they play and have played in my life as well as the cascading significance they have played throughout the existence of humankind. I marvel and stand in awe of the duality of God. I am drawn to the face of both Grace and Judgement. At times I am compelled to look away, as I feel so unworthy, so less than, so dirty by the weight of my sins—and just when I feel defeated and worthless, less than— the face of Love draws me back–
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
Beautiful post Cookie. I do not believe I have ever seen that icon, that is, a picture of that icon.
My mom’s name is Katherine of course and she has a St. Katerine’s icon that I’ll have to take a picture of and share with you.
Have you ever read “Heaven is for Real”. It’s written by a young boy who was very ill and visited heaven. When he gets home, he searches for true images of Jesus as he remembers him…..and finally finds one.
It is a compelling book and I recommend it if you’ve not read it already.
There’s a reproduction of this Icon hanging in our bedroom. I have always felt drawn to it too.
There’s an iconographer here at the Abbey where I work. Although his work is a little more western, I like his icons too.
The Abbey’s site:
And a great video of Br. Claude at work, with the Abbey monks chanting.
Oh Wow Debra—thank you—and how cool is it that you work at an Abby, I didn’t know—is it Catholic or Orthodox—as you reference it as an Abby, I will assume it is Catholic—what a wonderful place to work!!! thank you for sharing—hugs–Julie
Yes, it is a wonderful gift to work at an Abbey. It’s a Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery and Seminary.
I cannot say enough about how wonderful it is to work here. It is a daily blessing to be working for something that is so meaningful and to be around the monks and the community here.
I work in the Development office where we fund raise for the seminary, monastery, library and retreat house.
Well you can probably tell that I am a Catholic waiting to happen–a couple of years ago, I thought I’d pursue becoming a Benedictine Oblate, but I didn’t have a close enough Abby that I could call a home base—nor do I regularly attend a church as I am the wayward Episcopalian who has left the fold due to the increasing objection I have to its pursuing of what I feel is a doctrine that counters the will of God—I suppose I’m that lost sheep if you will—but my heart is and always has been drawn to my Catholic roots as that is what the spin off Anglican church is—it’s kind of bad to say you’re a member of a church that came into existence because a selfish spoiled stubborn king couldn’t have his way—which boils down to my problem with protestantism in general as it is a constant spiraling away for the Latin Church of our history—-I loved the book Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn
I didn’t mean to ramble on–again, thank you for sharing, I’ve bookmarked the Abby’s website–does Br. Claude sell his Icons? A lost sheep Icon would be right up my alley 😉
I have a similar journey. I was raised Methodist but have always had a deep interest in religion, theology, the nature of God, etc. As a teen, I became a Baha’ai, drifting away after a few years. In my early thirties I dabbled in an eastern church called Ananda that was a cross between Hinduism and Christianity. I learned how to meditate deeply using the breath. But, again, I drifted away after two years.
When I met my now husband in 1998, he was a recovering Jehovah’s Witness, and I was still on the path but non-affiliated. We started exploring Catholicism in 2003, reading authors like Scott Hahn and then Cardinal Ratzinger. I was hooked just reading the Catechism!
We officially entered the church at Easter Vigil, 2005. But again, after four years of being regularly involved (teaching RCIA even), we’ve stopped attending Mass, but I can’t really say that I have any huge beef with the Church, but feel called to move on, exploring other ideas. It’s complicated, as I am sure you know!
So happy to share with you here. I agree that Protestantism is a very fracturing phenomenon and there are inherent ideas there, especially within the more fundamental groups, that seem mistaken and psychologically damaging. I especially take issue with the idea that the dead are dead and that we have no connection to them. My experience tells me otherwise.
The Abbey has a gift shop where they do sell Br. Claude’s icons. Let me know if you need more info.
Yes, Happy Friday to you too! 🙂
Very interesting and informative post, Cookie. I’ve always been fascinated with stories about monasteries and abbeys. You may not know this but roses actually made it from the mediterranean areas into Europe by being moved from one monastery garden to another. And many of the monks were apothecaries who knew and practiced herbal medicines. One of the oldest roses in the world is called The Apothecary Rose because it was used in herbal medicines by the friars and monks. I really do like the image of Christ as protrayed in this icon. It is what I would have envisioned Him to be. Love and hugs, Natalie 🙂
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