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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

FRANCIS J. MOLONEY, Life of Jesus in Icons from the ‘Bible of Tbilisi.’ (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2008). Pp. 143. $US34.95.

There is no question that this is both a smart and timely book. There is no explanation as to how it came about, but seeing that the icons presented in it are icons of the life of Christ, who better to provide a brief scriptural commentary on each than Frank Moloney. But how the Catholic Church in Georgia came in contact with M., or conceived this book, is not explained. That is a small point, given the value of what has been produced. In the Cathedral Church of St Mary of the Assumption in Tbilisi, 30 incidents or themes from the life of Jesus, recorded in the New Testament, are portrayed in wall frescos based upon the Byzantine iconographic tradition. Those in this book deal only with the New Testament incidents, evidently there are another 100 frescos descriptive of Old Testament events, persons and mysteries. The other omission is any detail of the provenance of the icons themselves, as to which stream of the Byzantine painting they are drawn, of the artists who executed them, in other words, the providence of the artwork itself. This doesn’t detract from the overall effect and purpose of the book, but there are one or two places where it would be good to know, because certain variations and abbreviations occur, which are not exactly mainstream.

An example occurs in the very first icon of the Annunciation. In the Byzantine tradition the angel’s greeting finds Mary seated holding the distaff, weaving the true purple for the new temple curtain. This detail comes from the Protoevangelium of James and is making a spiritual and theological point, present in all the portrayals of the Annunciation in the East, the most generous being that in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. In the Tbilisi Annunciation this quite important symbol is missing. Another example is the very frugal wedding table in the icon portraying the Wedding Feast in Cana in Galilee, and in which the wrong bridal partner is wearing the crown—two things that indicate that the icon has not been read within the tradition. We will return to that. But let there be no mistake, this is a very useful book and quite ingeniously arranged.

Each major icon begins with the scriptural passage that gave rise to the image. All the Gospel writers are sampled, including the icon of the Ascension, based on Acts 1:4–11. Following the scripture comes M.’s commentary on the Word. All of M.’s commentaries, as well as being exegetically interesting for a lay audience, make an important point in regard to the spiritual life, a feature which is very much in line with the intentions of Giuseppe Pasotto, the Apostolic Administrator of the Caucusus for the Latins, who commissioned this work. Pasotto makes it clear that the icon plays a part in what Eastern Chris-tians would have called the Theosis or Divinisation of the believer. In his language, he sees the icons as windows “through which you will be able to perceive the Divine presence who gazes upon you and who calls you by name, who loves you and seeks to transform you.”

While not being a fault, it is a pity that there is not more exegesis and reflection upon the icons themselves. In the Byzantine tradition the icon is not merely an illustration in your Bible history book. While the Fathers at Second Nicaea and throughout the iconoclast controversies acknowledged a didactic purpose to the icon, the icon itself has something to reveal about the mystery or person that it represents, and is indeed another kind of commentary and insight into the word. It serves a sacramental function. The icons in the Bible of Tbilisi have a wonderful energy to them, as for example that portraying the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane but, as noted before, there are some puzzling omissions. The Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee is a good example. At the head of the table of what should be nature’s abundance, and occupying the central position of the icon, should be the figure of the bride, crowned as in the Byzantine wedding ceremony. In this icon the bride should represent nature, good and graced by its creation by God and yet lacking something vital. The table should be laden but they have no wine and the feast is turning sour. In modern, Western, terms we would be more traditional, and more accurate, to consider the bride as a symbol of Sophia. Sophia is a concept which is largely unfamiliar to the West but which plays an important role in Eastern Theology. It was perhaps best described by the Russian philosopher and theologian Pavel Florensky. Florensky saw creation as “one living being praying to its creator and Father.” This one living being he called Sophia—the divine wisdom. Sophia is in creation from its first being and yet is in the process of becoming. Sophia is the spiritual beauty of creation, the incorruptible, first-created beauty of creation and the glory of creation struggling to be born. Here, Sophia as the bride connects human marriage with this great act of becoming, of giving birth. In marriage, humanity is opened to the full, awesome creativity of life.

The professed intention of the Catholic Church in Georgia is to become a bridge between the Churches of the East and West. Certainly, this project is a moving contribution, but it is true to say that the book as a whole exhibits a Western phronema or mind, but applied creatively to Eastern material. It would be another book again to write an artistic and spiritual exegesis of the icons themselves.

The introduction to the book is under M.’s signature, but it is a reworking of the Italian introduction to iconography by Fr Gabriel Bragantini, as acknowledged in the Author’s Note. It is an excellent introduction and M./Bragantini get it absolutely right. The introduction is one of the richest parts of the book, and the basis for a whole re-education and discussion of the function of the symbol in theology and spiritual life. They wrote:
The theological basis for iconography, first articulated in great Councils of the Church before it was divided, and since then preserved in both the East and the West, with different nuances, is the incarnation of the Son of God: a unique mystery of obedience which comes to pass in the fullness of time and had its beginnings with the origins of the universe. Over time it has shown its power to give itself to the possibilities of the communication by means of human language, human writing, and human representation. Every page of the Bible and every icon is an eloquent and visible sign of this “"wonderful divine condescension” that accepts the limitations of ‘dwelling among us’” (see John 1:14).
Following M.’s commentary on each illustration and the biblical text, selections from some of the Fathers of the Church on the same theme are provided. These are predominantly from Western Fathers. These passages are freshly and well translated, and almost illustrate one of the principles of scriptural interpretation. No one Father necessarily has the same ‘take’ on a scriptural passage, as another, illustrating the way in which the Spirit-guided subjectivity of the believer is part of the interpretation process.

The arrangement of scripture, exposition and patristic reflection in M.’s Life of Jesus in Icons from the “Bible of Tbilisi” is a very clever approach. The believer and the preacher both will find it useful as they walk through the liturgical year, as a place to begin their pondering of the mysteries.

Review by
Faculty of Theology and Philosophy
Australian Catholic University, Melbourne