19 May, 2009

The Shrine of Ammon

Upper Clapton, on the edge of the largest Hasid community in London, just north of the old Murder Mile, an urim's throw from the Lea, and from the cricket grounds alongside Springfield Park, on the corner of the Common, by the fountains, with children being children and the buses idling by, and the endless young women in long black skirts, with their remarkable faces, on a bright Sunday afternoon, presaging an evening of poetry, I find myself in the Good Shepherd, originally erected for the Agapemonites, and latterly occupied by the Georgian Orthodox Church. I politely ask an elder lady, the only person inside, when the church was built.

Ahh, she says, after a pause. Tuesday Saturday.

— No, when was it built? The date, when built?

Ahh. Easter!

The lady's English is evidently somewhat limited. The building, when built? Building. It is curious that we should slip into this sort of bastard pidgin when dealing with those not so gifted with the tongue, as if we were talking to a small child or retard. Still, it is a natural reflex.

Oh. Sixtin centry?

I shake my head. No, I smile, it can't be earlier than the late nineteenth century. But never mind, it's not important.

— And why you want know? You Orthodox?

No, not that.


No, atheist. I don't believe in God.

You no believe God? Why you no believe God?

I reply that I think the language barrier between us too great for that conversation. She tries to convince me that Britain was Orthodox before it was Catholic. In return I try to explain, with some patience, that this is not true, and that in fact Orthodoxy and Catholicism only became distinct religions about four hundred years after Britain was officially Christianised.

You young pipple, you no understand history. You go read history book.

Come, she wants to show me something. In the dark recess of the church is an icon, painted or possibly printed on cloth, fraying authentically at the edges. The image is a rather gangrenous, Gothic Jesus, staring reproachfully out at me.

— You understand, says the lady, when we have this, it all like this, white, dark. Then, last year, you see? She points to the area around the right eye. Is red. Is blood. This is living person here. Then, the day after, varr between Russia Georgia, varr, you understand?

Oh. It's magic, I say, somewhat startled. She gives me a stern look. It's a miracle, I repeat, nodding my head.

— Yes, miracle. It's miracle. So now you Christian.

Yes, yes, you convinced me. That's amazing.

— Come, come, I baptise you. She takes me by the shoulder. Not today, I fear. I'll come back next week, I promise. I ask to take a picture of the icon. Yes, yes, she beams. I explain that I will bring news of the Orthodox Church, spread its message. We introduce ourselves; she's delighted. It seems a better solution to the situation than simply marching off, or, indeed, being baptised. I'm not ready for the font and aspergill quite yet. In the light of day the world is a little more magical, a little more miraculous; if I have not truly been converted, at least a strange corner of London has acquired that bit more mythical resonance—place made of a space, crisis memorialised in an artist's blood, the heart of a religion yet beating, even surrounded by civic indifference, cynicism, rationalism. I smile, tease, but do not sneer in earnest. I am too curious.

Peiresc explained his willingness to believe the unbelievable, such as the possibility of seeing through walls, because he had himself 'seen things, so incredible without having seen them, that I am, in faith, almost disposed not to be surprised by any other'. —Peter Miller.
Had the Georgian lady seen such things, things incredible to you or me? Had she been victim of a fraud? Perpetrator? Was she insane, stupid? Did she simply allow herself to believe, because believing explained everything that needed explaining? The small accounts for the great, the dash of red on a picture for the reality of the Godhead, Christ, the Spirit, who proceeds from God the Father, and not the Son, thank you very much.

Plutarch. 'Demetrius went so far as to say that it was ridiculous to try in this way to draw great conclusions from small data, not, as Alcaeus puts it, "painting the lion from a single claw," but with a wick and lamp postulating a mutation in the heavens and the universe.' Cleombrotus has just suggested that, since the lamp of the shrine of Ammon consumes less oil each year, so the years must be getting shorter. He responds to Demetrius: 'not to allow that small things are indication of great stands directly in the way of many arts; for it will result in taking away from us the demonstration of many facts and the prognostication of many others.' Proof and prophecy go together, deduction and induction.

I wanted to ask her how, even if she knew it was a sign, she knew she had interpreted it correctly, and what sort of assumptions she had to have in place already before she could reach the conclusion she did. These are the very questions I ask of my scholarly protagonists, such as Peiresc or Plutarch; I fear she would have been just as unable to answer them as the long dead. I wonder, too, what questions I would be at a loss to answer.


Anebo said...

Which Demetrius is that? Not Poliorketes, is it?

arnold said...

I'm glad to see you're sound on the filioque.

John Cowan said...

No mere aspergill for you, Jewboy. The Orthodox baptize by threefold submersion.

They do have the randistirion, saith Wikipedia, a pot with holes in the lid. It's used in blessing the congregation, the church building, and even the homes of the faithful -- but not in Baptism.

Anonymous said...

Foundations laid in 1893, spire completed in 1895, open for business 1896! Except I think you probably know that by now...

Designed by Joseph Morris & Son in Reading (his nephew was the book designer Talwin Morris). The bronze figures of the Four Evangelists around the tower are by Arthur George Walker. Apse and west windows by Walter Crane.

Shame it's such an Italianate looking icon. The Georgians have a wonderful naive look to many of their icons, but many got suckered into doing this representative style once the Russian Orthodox Church annulled Georgian autocephalous status in 1811 and started redecorating in this then fashionable style.

Anyway off to said church now (I am Eastern Orthodox and live five minutes away) for an initial visit.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Anebo: Demetrius of Tarsus.

Arnold: Yes, natürlich.

John: Threefold it will be, then.

Eating: Thanks for the info, some of which, but not all, I knew. As you will discover, there are also plenty of more traditional, 'naif' icons inside. Have fun!

Lucy Fur Leaps said...

I have a copy of that picture in my bedroom! It was given to me by my (Irish Catholic) Gran for my 21st birthday. It had hung at the top of the stairs in her house, and scared the living daylights out of all of her grandchildren, for as long as I could remember. As scared as I was of it, I was always attracted by it too. I never thought I would come across it elsewhere.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Lucy, how curious to know of this iconographical intersection between Ireland and Georgia, and who knows where else.

A.J.P. Crown said...

That head really needs to have a body drawn on to it.

Anonymous said...

My mom has this picture in her living room just seen it today.