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We look at icons; the icons look back: Pope Francis among the Anglicans

© FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP
Pope Francis stares at an icon of Christ during his visit All Saints' Anglican Church in Rome on February 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE
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Pope Francis blesses icon fashioned from rocks where Jesus healed the blind man

ROME — On Sunday, Pope Francis paid an historic visit to the Anglican Communion in the church of All Saints in Rome, to mark the 200th anniversary of its founding.

During the visit to the former Augustinian monastery, the pope’s first act was to bless a newly commissioned icon of Christ the Savior, inspired by a fifth-century image the pope used to carry around Rome barefoot when the city was in peril.

The icon is the work of English artist, Ian Knowles. First captivated by Christian icons as a teenager, today the 54-year-old British iconographer works with Palestinian art students in the West Bank city of Bethlehem to revive iconography as living art in the Holy Land.

Vatican Radio sat down with Knowles ahead of the pope’s visit to discuss his work.

As Knowles explained, research suggests that this art form began in the monasteries of Palestine during the fifth and sixth centuries. Yet, he added, so many Christians are leaving the region that the community is down to one or two percent of the population in Palestine, making it “very important that you nurture what roots are still left.” In this way, he hopes the Bethlehem center can contribute to rebuilding the Christian community “giving a bit of hope and confidence to those Christians” who want to remain.

The school currently has over 30 students, many of them enrolled on a diploma program which works in conjunction with the Prince of Wales school of traditional arts in London. It also runs courses twice a year to bring visitors to stay and pray in Bethlehem, not just to visit the Church of the Nativity but to give people the chance to “stay and live alongside local Christians.” Doing that through iconography, Knowles says, touches “the very heart of what Bethlehem is about.”

Asked about the icon at All Saints, Knowles says he believes that iconography is “incarnational art so it has to relate to the community it’s being painted for.” Considering the English Christian cultural heritage of All Saints and the presence of Pope Francis, Knowles says he recalled a famous image of Christ the Savior from around the 5th century kept in the chapel of Rome’s Lateran palace. When Rome was under threat in those early centuries, he notes, the pope “would take the image and walk around city barefoot.”

Pope Francis’s visit, he believes, will in a similar sense, help to foster healing of the ecumenical wounds of the past, Knowles told Vatican Radio. As well as the image in the Lateran, Knowles says he drew inspiration from the medieval English illustrator Matthew Paris.

Describing icons as “a hymn in paint,” he says the works are all done with natural pigments, including “rocks which I find on the way to Jericho and we grind up.” According to the Synoptic Gospels, it was at Jericho that Jesus healed the blind man as he passed through the town shortly before his Passion.

God has given us these natural colors, Knowles says, and it’s our job to “weave them together into something which is joyful and beautiful,” or as Dostoyevsky describes it, an image of salvation.

The point of an icon, he concludes, is to be an encounter, just as the liturgy is the place where “heaven is wedded to earth” so this liturgical art is about the “opening up of earth to heaven.” It is like a door “through which the saint or Christ himself comes and is present to the worshipper, and graces and blesses them, and you find yourself caught up in heaven through these images.”

Thanks to Vatican Radio for their contribution to this article.

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