Iconic literature


My copy is missing a dust cover.

I don’t know about you but I have a thing for second-hand bookstores. It’s the smell you see, the whiff of musty, dusty, literary treasures. I’d love to have a collection of antique books but let’s face it, the price you pay for bevelled, ribbed, gold leafed, finely printed, quality paged books is far beyond what I can afford, and so I’ve kind of made a hobby out of trawling second-hand bookstores, seeking out discarded treasures at bargain prices.

Doing what I do a few months ago I came across a 1954 print of The Water Babies and Selected Poems, published by Collins. It’s a beautiful A5’ish hardcover in fine condition and was a steal for only R20.00 (±$3.00). When I saw the title on the shelf I remembered that my mother had told me she read it to me as a child but truthfully I have no memory of stepping through this telling tale which is an entry on my 1001 must read list.

The opening lines were penned by Wordsworth and sang across time capturing me from the outset:

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a groove I sat reclined;
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts,
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieve my heart to think,
What man has made of man.

The story is of a boy named Tom, a chimney sweep living in England before the dawn of the 20th century. I haven’t yet read commentary on the book but so far I’m picking up that it’s decrying the social evils of it’s day. There are very clear distinctions drawn between the rich and the poor and working class Tom is portrayed as an underage, underpaid wretch. So far there have been enough hints in the message to indicate that a Christian theme will be weaved throughout the yarn.

The style is flowery and picturesque, full of metaphor and rich in imagery, the kind that captures the imagination of young children… and me. It’s kind of like The Hobbit set in a Mary Poppins world.

This crucifix adorns the East facing wall of a small church in Israel which commemorates Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Click to enlarge.

Page 33 got me thinking, Tom stumbles into a room in a large country house where a painting is hanging. The painting is of Jesus Christ, crucified. I guess crucifixes and images of Christ have always made me think.

Maybe I should explain: I’ve had an aversion to imagery for a while. A few years ago I went to Israel. Now Israel is a country of religiousocity, the Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches are decadently draped, jeweled and adorned with all manner of gold inlaid icons and almost every alter is ornamented with an over the top crucifix. Much of it is so kitsch as to be laughable but some of it is just sad.

Memory fades but I’m fairly sure that the statue of Mary on the Southern alter was larger than either of the other two crucifixes of Christ. Oh gosh, like that even matters! Click to enlarge.

I can distinctly remember entering the Catholic church which commemorates Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. There were three marble alters in the church, one on the North, one on the South and one on the East facing walls. Two of the alters had very large crucifixes on them and the third had an even larger statue of Mary on it. I can remember feeling quite repulsed and had to walk out the church. Much of the religious experience that the “Holy Land” has to offer is very foreign to the faith I hold dear.

For right or wrong the second commandment always comes to mind when I think of statues, icons and crucifixes. Exodus 20:4 – 5a reads:

4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”

I hardly spent a cent while I was in Israel. I bought a key ring or two and few T-shirts for myself, Silver Jerusalem Cross necklaces from St Peter in Gallicantu for each of my daughters and some AHAVA facial stuff for Liezl while at Masada but none of the usual trappings. The funny part is that the only thing I secretly wanted to buy but decided against was an exquisitely beautiful icon displayed in a specialist store in Old City Jerusalem which was about 100 years old and went for a pretty penny. It was gold inlaid and finely crafted but battered just enough to give away it’s age. I guess, going through my head at the time, was the question, if I bought it back home and displayed it on the mantelpiece, would people think of it as art or an idol.

More information on idolitary? Click here.

Was I fearing man or fearing God? What do you think of icons, contemplative beauty or graven image?

This is a review of the first chapter of The Water Babies. As so often happens with first chapters there is a second. To find it click here.

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2 thoughts on “Iconic literature

  1. Yet you put pictures in your blog…

    And I’ve noticed that many Muslims have cameras, and they are sold in the duty-free shops in airports in Muslim countries.

    Isn’t art for art’s sake more idolatrous than art for God’s sake?

    See Ikons or idols.

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