The Blessing Christ by Mary Elizabeth Podles

The Blessing Christ

This image is one of the earliest surviving icons of Jesus. Kept since the sixth century at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai in Egypt, it escaped the destruction of the iconoclasts and, protected by overpainting and the dry desert air, has remained almost undamaged to this day.

This large icon (about 33 x 18 inches in size) shows Christ in half-length, not in a narrative context but posed frontally and directing a steady gaze outward. Behind him hangs a wall covering known as the cloth of honor. His right hand is raised in blessing: three of the fingers touch to represent the presence of the Trinity; the other two are raised, and denote the two natures of the Savior, with the forefinger, bent and partially masked by the middle finger, standing traditionally for the Incarnation. In his left hand Christ holds a jeweled book: the cross and the four groups of pearls suggest it is a Gospel book, but in any case it is, as he is, the Word of God.

This painting was unknown to the world for centuries, until the St. Catherine icons were first studied in the 1950s; a cleaning in 1962 stripped away the disfiguring overpaint and revealed its extraordinary beauty. It is now Sinai's best-known icon.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


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