Guest blog: treasure in a skip
Nathan Goldsmith wasn’t expecting to find an icon amongst a load of rubbish in a skip. It certainly gave him pause for thought. He tells how it’s drawn him closer to God ...
Near to where I used to live is a now closed down church. Despite living there for close to three years, I only visited the church once when it was open – at the beginning of Lent. The vicar retired not long after my visit, departing the vicarage, church and people, whom he had served almost all of his adult life.
The vicarage went into an overhaul as requested by the Diocese – as it often does when a Vicar retires – things were ripped out, new things installed, with a strange interim of the outgoing incumbent’s life in material form lying to waste in a skip not 10 feet from the vicarage door.
I have always been intrigued about other people’s lives – mostly what they collect and own that gives you a snapshot into the sort of person they are. I had always known, despite only meeting and speaking a handful of times, that the vicar was a man of strong faith, a man who had devoted his life to Jesus, His church, and its people.
I have met many clergy – and been in plenty of vicarages – and you seldom find a lack of Byzantine icons hanging on the walls or adorning the vicar’s study. The same was true for this vicarage. These icons – with a plaster on the back stating they ‘have been produced with the greatest fidelity to the original, on canvas, old wood and a gold background’ – are paintings, made delicately and beautifully across the world.
The icons show different things – Saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Himself. Put simply, these are works of art from as early as the 3rd Century CE. They can inspire us to pray and can help keep us focused. We don’t worship or pray to icons, we worship and pray to God alone. But icons of Jesus, Mary or the Saints can act like inspirational windows which draw us and help us in our prayers to God.
I walked past the church and vicarage not long after the vicar had gone. Out of the corner of my eye, I was stunned to notice an icon of The Virgin Glykophilousa, lying just outside of the skip, concealed by dirt and scraps of notepaper. With just the gold corner of the icon poking out, I rummaged through the debris, and uncovered a beautiful icon of The Virgin Mary, with Jesus, who she is caressing. I considered that this was, perhaps, a mistaken throwaway, but it was confirmed not to be by the removal people. One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure, as they say, so it came home with me.
Carefully, I washed and polished the icon. Doing so revealed the intricacies of the artwork, and how beautifully depicted the Virgin Mary and her son were. Cherubs gently dance close to their heads, and the picture of Jesus and his mother sharing a kiss, with Jesus gently brushing Mary’s cheek, could not be more obvious a sign of his coming Passion. It is a painting that could perhaps be described as warm, loving, a show of a mother and son’s bond.
I don’t know much about icons – truthfully – but was eager to research. Not long after the icon was on my wall at home, I discovered that like the Panagia Portaitissa, The Virgin Glykophilousa was one of the icons saved from the Iconoclastic Controversy, which were all taken to Mount Athos. Victoria, the wife of eikonomachos senator Symeon, was made to hand The Virgin Glykophilousa over. Victoria threw it into the sea. The icon floated upright and travelled to the Monastery of Philotheou, where the Fathers of the Monastery, along with the Abbot, took it and cared for it. This was a big moment for them, and a moment spent in pure joy. They had been told of its advent in a revelation and readily awaited its arrival.
Reading this, after myself finding the very same icon in a vast sea (mine perhaps more modest – a metaphorical sea of a large front-drive with a skip sitting in the middle), taking the icon home and caring for it, made me realise that despite the centuries between us, how we receive paintings and words of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary will always be the same – with love, importance, care and amazement – as the early Christians did.
In prayer, I think of the Monastery of Philotheou, and how precious they would have found the icon. Something that could help their prayers, keep them focused and assured in faith, and how those very same things can happen to me, another Christian, centuries later.
I am, of course, not making a comparison between the retired vicar and the Orthodox Church during the iconoclastic controversy, but there is a parallel in somebody throwing away these icons, somebody else discovering (or saving) them, caring for them and tidying them up, and having them in their homes.
Whilst doing my research for this piece, I came across an account from a lady in Bosnia. Her account spoke true to what I was thinking. The lady owns an icon depicting the Virgin Mary with Jesus and 2 cherubs (sounding very similar to my icon of The Virgin Glykophilousa). It was rescued, by a Catholic, from a burning pile of artefacts and icons that had been stripped from a cathedral in Bosnia. The Catholic was a US soldier who couldn't bear to see it burn.
Since owning the icon, the lady has said “I am not Catholic, but through owning this piece I have come to understand the significance of these icons” which shows how these pieces of history, with so much meaning, are saved across the world by people of religion (and none) just like they were in the controversy centuries ago.
For Christians, these icons hold stories, warmth, act as a guide in prayer and more. It seems the same can now be said for non-believers too.
I do wonder whether one day I too will discard the icon – for whatever reason – into the skip or the sea, and who will own it after me. Perhaps another new Christian, seeing the glimmer of gold and wanting to care for it, or even another vicar. Whoever it is, I hope they too hold the icon in the same regard as I do.
The icon is remembered by the Church on March 27 each year.
- I'm an Anglo-Catholic in the Church of England, under the Diocese of Winchester. I came to faith some five years ago, and have been lucky to serve in churches across Hampshire. I've previously been a Foundation School Governor in my local CofE school, maintaining the religious ethos and character of the school. I write part-time about my explorations, my church visits, and other faith-based initiatives, and I very much hope you enjoy reading these.