James the Just, Icon (Artist and Date Unknown)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Proper 17, Art for September 2, 2012

Surnames often are the result of physical characteristics, occupations, places of origin, and family connections. Names such as Johnson or Peterson require no explanation and we are familiar with “Mac” (son of) in Irish names and “von” (meaning from) in German names. Yet, “last names” as we know them today were not widely used until the modern era. In biblical days, American architect Philip Johnson (designer of the Crystal Cathedral), would have been known as Philip the son of John. In times when people were given a single name, an identifying designator often was necessary to differentiate one person from another. Among the disciples was Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. Two disciples were named James; James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus. At times, a person was given several different identifying descriptions.

Although one of the brothers of Jesus also was named James, the exact nature of his kinship has been debated; it has been said he was a step brother, half brother, or cousin. He was not a participant apparently in Jesus’ ministry and it is likely he was not sure of Jesus’ divine nature. Upon seeing Jesus after the resurrection, however, James was convinced. As Bishop of Jerusalem he helped spread the Christian faith and became known as, “James of Jerusalem.” Because he spent so much time in prayer, it was said his knees were hard like those of a camel; thus he was known as “James the Righteous.” He is known more often as, “James the Just” because of the great respect for his wisdom.

Though highly respected in many quarters, James was not appreciated by the high priest of Jerusalem. His martyrdom took place when he was asked by Ananias to denounce Jesus from atop the temple. James went up but instead of cooperating, he began preaching the gospel. For this, he was shoved off and hurt critically but was still alive. As he prayed to ask forgiveness for those who tried to kill him he was stoned and then a man with a fuller’s club hit him on the head and he died. He was buried near the Temple.

Images of Mary, Jesus, and the apostles began appearing very early in church history and it was believed some were of miraculous origin. Icons were used particularly in worship by Orthodox Christians but during the eighth and ninth century a segment of the Church regarded them to be “graven images.” The Church defended the use of icons and pointed to the belief that Jesus himself pressed a cloth to his face and produced an image. In icons of James the Just, he is depicted in his linen bishop’s vestments wearing a long beard (it was reported he never wore wool and never cut his beard) and he is shown holding a book of his writings. Often he is depicted with a fuller’s club, the stick used as he was being killed. Neither the artist nor the date (possibly 12th century) of the image shown above is known. Except for a few notable exceptions, painters of icons worked anonymously.

Note

Icon: The term is from the Greek word eikon meaning likeness or image.
Fuller’s club: This stick is used to beat clothes when they are being washed.

St. Luke as Icon Painter: There is a tradition that Luke painted an icon of Mary as well as images of Peter and Paul. St. Thomas Christians of India lay claim to still having an icon of Mary that was painted by Luke and taken to India by Thomas himself. In illuminated manuscripts, St. Luke sometimes is shown at an easel but there is no evidence to support the tradition that he was an artist.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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