A comprehended god is no god.

A comprehended god is no god.

A wise saying by saintly John Chrysostom

Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Iconography Class Project 2012

This project was conceived as an aid to meditation and reflection for a parish retreat during the season of Lent. The "icon" is revealed during the description of the image and a short reflection may follow. This may be a conversation or may be privately journaled.

Understanding Iconography: The “Veronica”
              The Gospels are full of stories of people wanting to see Jesus. Everyone from shepherds watching their flocks to wise men from the East, prophets, such as Simeon and Anna, Zacchaeus, the tree climbing tax collector, the sick, the lame, the hemorrhaging woman, crowds on mountain tops, people in the plains, multitudes in the dessert, wanted to see this Jesus from Nazareth. Even after his death we are told he appeared to crowds until he was taken up into heaven. Early “followers of the way” gathered around those who had known Jesus, house churches met to remember Jesus in special meals, and new disciples corresponded with old disciples for instruction in the faith. Gospels were written to preserve important moments of Jesus life and teaching. Christians began visiting important locations associated with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and anamnestic liturgies were created to help Christians enter into the Paschal mystery. As reverence for these holy places grew there was an equal interest and veneration of objects made sacred through contact with Jesus.

The most important object or relic was that of the True Cross (or fragments of it) discovered by St. Helena during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Relics of Jesus life and passion also drew attention and included his umbilical cord, supposed crib, the holy chalice, nails from the cross, the crown of thorns, the spear that pierced his side, among others. Whether or not these sacred objects and legends are “true” or not does not diminish their hold  on our imagination and the powerful truths they represent.

Another source of veneration were the Acheiropoieta. These images, usually of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, were considered of miraculous origin and not made by human hands. Examples include the Mandylion (towel), revered in the Eastern Church, and in the West, the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin. Another example of acheiropoieton would be Juan Diego’s tilma cloak with the image of the Virgin Mary. These images continue to be regarded as powerful relics as well as icons.

One of the ways to see Jesus is found in the Veil of Veronica or Sudarium (Latin for “sweat-cloth”). Veronica in Greek means "true icon" or "true image." Her story recounts an encounter with Jesus carrying his cross. She wipes the sweat off his face with her veil and the image of Jesus’ face is miraculously imprinted on the cloth. The event is memorialized by one of the Stations of the Cross. According to legend, Veronica later traveled to Rome to present the cloth to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The veil is reported to have miraculous properties, being able to quench thirst, restore sight, and even raise the dead.
 ----- Reveal "The Veronica" -----

The veil was eventually translated to St. Peter's and publically displayed during the first Jubilee in 1300. The Veronica became one of the "Mirabilia Urbis" ("wonders of the City") for the pilgrims who visited Rome. For the next two hundred years the Veronica, retained at Old St Peter's, was considered one of the most precious of all Christian relics. A Spanish visitor in 1436, Pedro Tafur, wrote:

On the right hand is a pillar as high as a small tower, and in it is the holy Veronica. When it is to be exhibited an opening is made in the roof of the church and a wooden chest or cradle is let down, in which are two clerics, and when they have descended, the chest or cradle is drawn up, and they, with the greatest reverence, take out the Veronica and show it to the people, who make concourse there upon the appointed day. It happens often that the worshippers are in danger of their lives, so many are they and so great is the press.

 Some believe the image was destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Artistic reproductions of the image, though popular, were prohibited by Pope Paul V in 1616, and, in 1629, Pope Urban VIII not only prohibited reproductions of the Veronica, but also ordered the destruction of all existing copies. This has led to speculation that the Veronica was “misplaced” or stolen from the Basilica.

The Veronica housed in St Peter’s Basilica is still displayed each year on the 5th Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday. After the 5:00 pm Vespers the Veronica is carried in procession, accompanied by the Roman litany, and displayed on the balcony above the statue of St. Veronica holding the veil. No image is discernible from that distance but "a square piece of light coloured material, somewhat faded through age, which bear two faint rust-brown stains” in a gilded frame.

The Veronica appears as a religious Rorschach test and reveals more of the observer than what is displayed. It is like looking in a mirror, dimly, and squinting your eyes this way and that, in order to see the face of God. We learn from the first chapter of Genesis that humankind is created in the image of God. In Baptism we are joined to the body of Christ and, in some mystical way, we are imprinted with the image of Jesus. Christian ministry, according to the Catechism, “is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness” to a broken world of God’s love.

 The crowds that gather under the image trying to get a glimpse of Jesus echo the effort of now over two millennia. They ask, “Show us Jesus.” Perhaps, as we strive to see Jesus, we will see our own reflection in the glass, and, with incarnational wonder and grace, see in our own face, however dimly, and in the faces of those around us, the image of God! For Saint Teresa of Avila once said, "Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now." I believe we can respond to those asking to see Jesus by looking in their faces and respond to their inherent divinity. This sacred Triduum I encourage you to keep in mind Jesus’ exhortation, found in the 25th Chapter of Matthew:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Jesus goes on to say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  In the words of an old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they will know we are Christians by our love.”


Questions for reflection:

1.      What do you see? How are Icons widows? What are the reflections/mirrors that are helpful in our own lives?

2.      Are you disappointed in what you see?

a.      How are we like/unlike questioning Thomas who said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger I the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe”?

b.      How are we like/unlike Paul who, though his eyes were open, he could see nothing? Paul writes later, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called and apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

3.      How do we as a community see and experience Jesus?