Acts of Devotion
The illumined face as art and orientation.
By D. Y. Béchard
In July 2008, I traveled to the Greek island of Patmos, the direct flights already filled and my journey a long zigzag: Boston, Philadelphia, Zurich, Athens, Kos, and finally by night ferry to the port town of Skala. Patmos lies about 60 kilometers off the Turkish coast and is mentioned in the book of Revelation: “I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God . . .” (1:9). The exile of its author there has made that small dry island a place of pilgrimage, either for his cave or the monastery in his name, founded in 1088 and housing illuminated manuscripts from Constantinople.
For several months, I had been studying icons. Though I had not been raised Christian, my parents having renounced the church, I hoped to write on the relationship between individual creativity and tradition. I found icons compelling: the idea of an irrefutable image, one that employed our ability to create, yet transcended it. The tradition of iconography did not suffer from what the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, discussing the anonymity of those who rebuilt the cathedral at Chartres, described as the modern artist’s loss of connection to a unified cultural effort (Preface to Four Screenplays). “The individualists,” he wrote, “stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.”
A friend of mine owned a house in Patmos and had offered it to me for a month. It was in the mountaintop town of Hora, my room overlooking tawny hills and the sea. In the late afternoon, when I finished writing, I walked the hot broken stones of the donkey path to the village of Grikou and, hidden from the crowded beach, swam in a rocky cove sheltered from the wind that blew in off Turkey’s central plateau, as steady as the mistral. Returning home, I passed young women in bikinis shivering in the 32°C sun and tourists clutching hats as they looked at postcards fluttering in metal racks. That evening, over dinner with neighbors, I asked about the monastery archive, off-limits without the abbot’s permission, and learned that its librarian worked nights in Hora’s bar. Though I went and did see him, a lean man with a shaved head, the place was packed and he was constantly solicited, methodically starting the blender, pouring shots, rattling the shaker, pausing only to sip from the martini that he kept under the counter.
The next day I went to the monastery. The friend in whose house I was staying had been responsible for bringing wireless Internet service to the island and as a result his photograph hung alongside that of the patriarch in the office of the OTE, the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization. As soon as I spoke his name, the monastery’s security guard took my request to the abbot. An hour later, the librarian arrived, dressed exactly as he’d been the previous evening, in black belted pants and a white shirt. Smelling of gin, he led me to the library, a windowless air-conditioned vault where he motioned for me to sit at a table. As I explained my research, he remained laconic, but when I mentioned having seen him in the bar, he winced.
“You must understand why I work there,” he said. “It is so silent here.”
He passed me a heavy magnifying glass, its wooden handle worn black, small scalloped chips edging the lens. He donned white gloves and took down a manuscript and set it on a red velvet cushion on the table, then lifted the cover.
The story of the icon begins with Abgar V of Edessa, king of Osroene, who, suffering from leprosy, sends Christ the offer of asylum. Jesus refuses and Abgar, desiring to see his face, commands his archivist, Ananias, to paint Christ instead. But though Ananias attempts to do so, he is awed by the Messiah’s glory and unable to complete the task. Christ then requests water and presses to his own face a damp cloth, imprinting it with his features. The Eastern Church calls this image acheiropoietos, “made without hands,” part of that tradition of miraculous icons, divinely wrought like Saint Veronica’s veil or the Shroud of Turin. Receiving it, Abgar begins to heal. He disposes of an idol in his wall and in its niche he sets the holy image.
Surprisingly, after Abgar’s death, his grandson becomes a pagan. In order to protect the image of Christ, the bishop places a lamp next to it in the niche and seals the wall with bricks. Five centuries pass until, during a Persian siege, another bishop dreams of the image. He opens the wall to find the lamp still burning, the holy face imprinted on the tiles within. Though the Saracen took Edessa in 630, they did not forbid the image’s veneration, and in 944 the emperor Romanus I had it brought to Constantinople in exchange for Muslim prisoners. Only when the Crusaders sacked the city did it vanish. Every icon of the Holy Face is said to be derived from it, just as all faces are said to echo God’s perfection.
The first illumination that the librarian showed me, in a Gospel from the eleventh century, was that of the Crucifixion. Christ’s face had been rubbed away by the devout who once touched it for blessing. In the next, Christ was washing the feet of a disciple, and in another a garish mob gathered as Caiaphas turned the public against him. But it was the images of Christ’s face that I studied most closely, trying to understand the nature of its depiction.
An illumination had been neatly razored from a page, perhaps to decorate a wall or to be carried for luck. I liked that the Gospels were used objects, cherished yet damaged and fragile.
The Lithuanian-born Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, in an interview on his theory of the face as ethical imperative, stated: “The face is not in front of me (en face de moi) but above me; it is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. Secondly, the face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: you shall not kill.” Even for those of us who do not subscribe to Christianity, could the illumined face nonetheless be that which we must see in another and serve? Perhaps the goal of religious art was to draw not just the viewer but the artist away from “his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism” that he, as Bergman wrote, considered “almost holy.” Such art demanded humble contribution both to the other and to the collective human project.
Over the course of that afternoon, the librarian showed me seven illuminated Gospels transcribed between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. The texts were written on grids of small impressions, lines and dots pressed into the parchment, visible only upon close inspection: the scribe’s version of ruled paper. One manuscript was bound with silver thread, another mildewed about its red ink, the marginalia crowded with a cramped hand. An illumination had been neatly razored from a page, perhaps hundreds of years ago to decorate a wall or to be carried for luck. I liked that the Gospels were used objects, cherished yet damaged and fragile. In the depiction of the blind man being healed, Christ’s eyes had crumbled, only one of his supplicant’s remaining. On another page, Jesus was once again washing the feet of a disciple who looked tired or perhaps dismayed, the hand lifted to his own face brushing Jesus’ halo with strange familiarity.
“How long did manuscripts take to transcribe?” I asked.
The librarian shrugged. “The scribes spent five, maybe ten years.”
He brought another Gospel, broken metal emblems like medallions nailed to its gouged leather cover: Mark’s winged lion, Luke’s flying bull.
“This one has a new cover,” he said, as if it had just been purchased.
“How old?” I asked.
“Maybe just one or two centuries,” he replied.
Though home to the book of Revelation, Patmos had none of its illuminated texts. The East, he explained, was not as interested in it. It had been the West whose imagination was captured by the narrative of destruction. Rather, the manuscripts here contained only the Gospels, and what struck me were the page-sized icons of the evangelists. Though the air about each apostle might be painted gold, as if he breathed divine light, he resembled a craftsman. He sat at a desk transcribing the contents of a scroll into a book. The lecterns from which the scrolls hung were similar in different manuscripts, the desks all with inkwells, knives for etching lines in parchment and compasses to draw the perfect circles of haloes. This was serious yet practical work, Luke scrutinizing the text, breathing gold. Mark had a stylus behind his ear, the strings of his gilded sandals undone as I might undo my shoelaces while researching in the library. It wasn’t just that there was less interest in Saint John’s Revelation, but the images suggested that there was less interest in new revelation than in devotion and its daily work. Transcription was precisely this: time-bound, not sudden. The apostolic desks and implements suggested those of the scribes who had copied these very illuminations and texts. It was as if these men could not conceive of devotion as other than this diligence, each manuscript requiring years of their lives.
Studying these images, I considered my individualistic desire for inspiration and the tricky relationship between truth and imagination. Was this what I could learn, to challenge my investment in originality? From my research, I knew that iconographers did not value individual creativity in the same way. An image of Mary was believed to have been painted from life by Saint Luke and the likenesses of the apostles were thought to have been made when they were alive. All icons referred back. The iconographer sought to purify the image of his own influence and never signed his work. Icons should be rendered with a minimum of detail and without drama, the faces almost inexpressive, showing not the earthly but the eternal. The icon’s calm is like that which we might observe in the face of a meditator whose stillness evokes her inner state. The iconographer does not see himself as an artist so much as one who records and tries to reproduce and transmit, as faithfully as possible, the initial revelation: Christ revealing his divine nature. This was the face that the devout studied, hoping that they themselves would be transfigured.
What would it mean, as a writer, to depict such a face, one that exposes truths, that compels us to question our own importance, or our relationship to others and to the world? Whose would I choose, not as an artist but as one who rendered an image more true than any my individuality could invent? Illuminations showed Christ’s glorious empty visage, and yet the scribes did invent: the first letters of texts were drawn into doorways or towers or reaching hands; a tiny Saint John sat writing, crouched within the first epsilon of In the beginning there was the word. The last Gospel was from the fourteenth century, its images rudimentary, only Luke’s face distinct within his halo, his cheeks gaunt, his gaze serious. The writer’s work? Or had the Christian world come on hard times, Constantinople soon to fall to the Ottomans?
“This book you are writing,” the librarian asked, “how long before I can read it?”
“It may be some years,” I told him. “Maybe three or four.”
“Years?” he repeated, appearing somewhat startled.
Apparently, some things had changed even in Greece.
My final week on Patmos, I considered time—that of transcription or invention or tradition, the age of manuscripts, the hackneyed brevity of our lives or of my vacation. I wrote the arid landscape, the footpath rebuilt where winter rains washed it away, the stone fences up hillsides that appeared too steep to climb or the mountaintop town of Hora, a cluster of white boxes, the walls of homes built into each other. I visited the Cave of the Apocalypse, down the gusty stairs to where Saint John wrote in 60 CE, the space larger than most apartments I’ve had. Germans in shorts talked near the window. Greeks and Italians shouted at their children while outside three young Frenchwomen descended the steps, holding their skirts against the wind.
On the annual day of pilgrimage to the shrine of the prophet Ilias, I set out late and found myself walking alone. The fat black-robed priests were already returning on motorcycles and in minivans, many of the locals also driving.
Built on the island’s highest point, the white shrine overlooked the sun as it set against the Mediterranean. The dome of the sky rose from the water all around us, and I imagined that the first holy men knew this to be the only true cathedral. Suddenly, nothing in my life seemed so important. I had always been devoted to my goals, keeping friends and family at a distance, seeking challenges—to write more honestly, I might have claimed. But inevitably I had been learning that the art of writing was not in the inspiration, not even in the vision, but in the slow steady work, the devotion to one thing that illuminates the beauty of our lives. I was seeing devotion in the increments of human effort, life upon life, work and art and religion as slow as rain that wears hills into temples, parsing the dry landscape, the distant sea cliffs struck white by the late sun.
Patmos was filling up. In the street, outside restaurants, tired vacationers sat in metal chairs. Italians parked yachts along the shore and browned themselves. On my last afternoon I walked to the cove and swam through the green water, its salt stinging my skin. Eventually, I returned to shore and started home along a dusty path above Grikou, one that circumvented the town.
I was seeing devotion in the increments of human effort, life upon life, work and art and religion as slow as rain that wears hills into temples.
I was passing a large isolated house that a month before, on my first day there, my friend had pointed out. Pants and shirts had hung from the metal grates in the windows, and he’d explained that island authorities used the building as a prison for refugees. Now, three shirtless men with dark sunburned skin called down to me with words I did not understand. They turned to the room behind them and shouted until a young man in a white shirt came. He was paler, with cropped black hair and an easy smile.
“How are you?” he called in near perfect English. “Can you help us?”
“What do you need?” I asked.
“We have no water,” he said, still smiling. “We have been here for days. There are sick people who need water.”
“They don’t give you water?” I asked.
“No. There is no water here. Can you get us water?”
I told him I would, and he threw down a plastic bottle and I caught it.
I walked into town and found a hotel with a spigot and filled it. I would take it to him, then go to the store and buy them several more bottles before my ferry arrived.
When I returned, the young man was still in the window, staring off, still smiling.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Afghanistan,” he said, and he grinned. He looked out at the sea with joy, as if no one had a better view of the world. From his features, I guessed that he must be Hazara, a Shi’a Muslim people who claim descent from Genghis Khan but who have for centuries been persecuted by the Pashtun majority.
Standing there, I thought about his country where soldiers from my own were fighting, and months later I would think of him again, in Boston, as I prepared for a trip to Iraq to write about the Kurdish perspective on the American elections. Researching online, I would be surprised to see Patmos mentioned in the news. The article described refugees who traveled 1,000 kilometers from Iraq or 3,000 from Afghanistan to the Turkish coast. They paid to be taken by boat and dropped on unpopulated islets in the Dodecanese where they waited for the Hellenic Coast Guard to find them.
Time, I thought, was not a generality. Holy men write of seeing the small acts that compose our days. The article said that the people of Patmos, led by their mayor, blocked the disembarkation of 133 of these refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, half of them infants and minors in need of medical attention. The boat was sent to Leros instead, an island that had already that year cared for more than 2,600 such refugees. In justifying their actions, one of Patmos’s leaders was alleged to have said, “Malta sinks their boats and Italy lets them drown.”
But right then, speaking to a young man whose face was the most joyful I had seen in a month, I thought only of how I might write this one clear moment to make sense of the devotion required to cross 3,000 kilometers and numerous borders, to wait on a waterless island for days until he was taken into custody and released, to journey again, guided by words and imagination, toward an unknown life.
The late afternoon sun shone on his face. I stood beneath the window as he extended his hands, and I threw the bottle up but miscalculated. It rose and briefly was suspended in the light beyond his fingertips. His smile vanished, as if an heirloom, an ancient, precious thing were falling to earth. But I caught it and hefted it back into the air, and he clasped it in his hands and laughed.
D. Y. Béchard‘s first novel, Vandal Love (2006), won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Cures for Hunger, a memoir, is forthcoming in 2012 from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Montreal, Québec, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.