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Monday, February 27, 2017

Icon of Christ the Saviour commissioned for All Saints Anglican (Rome)

Yesterday, the Holy Father, Pope Francis visited the Anglican church of All Saints in Rome.  During his visit, he blessed a newly-commissioned icon of Christ the Saviour.

One of the earliest, if not the earliest, icons of Christ the Saviour found in the City of Rome is placed above the altar in the Lateran Sancta Sanctorum. This image, also called the Uronica, is kept in what was once the pope’s private chapel, and at various times of severe crisis in the city’s history was carried by the Pope in solemn procession around the city barefoot, such was its power.

Given that a new icon of Christ the Saviour was made as part of the 200th celebrations of the Anglican church in Rome, and that the Holy Father himself visited and blessed the icon yesterday as an important ecumenical gesture in unity with Orthodox and of course Anglican bishops, and as the parish of All Saints (Anglican, Rome) commissioned the new icon of Christ the Saviour, the Lateran icon seemed an appropriate place to begin. Its wide open eyes with its direct expression of mercy, without a trace of harshness speaks clearly in a world and at a time when the Church has just celebrated a year of mercy and the world has taken on harsh and aggressive tones especially towards those most vulnerable and needy. The face of the Merciful Saviour is what the writer of the new icon tried to express, using the ancient Byzantine traditions of liturgical art, to produce an image which graces the Liturgy as a receptor for prayer and a source of compassion.

Stylistically, the artist looked to the English traditions of manuscript illumination. Not only is All Saints a Victorian neo-Gothic structure, but the flowering of English liturgical art in the Middle Ages was a time when all English Christians worshipped as one. Since the icon sits in Rome and was to be the focus for an ecumenical moment of prayer it seemed good to reach back into a time before such gestures were necessary.

The great English master illuminist, Matthew Paris, was the main reference point in finding an English Acheiropoieta (Medieval Greek: ἀχειροποίητα, made without hand) of which the Lateran Saviour icon is a type. In referencing this time when English Christians were united, it calls the churches to reflect on the enormous damage which the desecration of sacred images caused to the religious soul of the English people. Conscious of the fact that this Icon was written at the only icon school in the Middle East, under the Patronage of his Beatitude Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III of Antioch in Syria, and also conscious of the desecration of sacred images across the Middle East in our own time, this image is a hope of the healing of those scars and the return of the English people to faith in Christ.


Christ looks almost directly at us, a slight sideways tilt of the head prevents it being too searing a gaze, and as in all icons of Christ he has two sides to his face, one directly observed from the front, the other slightly from the side, a side of mercy and a side of judgment. There is also a darker and a lighter side, for Christ has two natures – fully God who in essence remains always a Mystery and fully man through whom God is nevertheless revealed. He wears a red undergarment, a royal reddish purple, as a sign of his humanity and lordship, while his outer garment is a rich blue of Lapis Lazuli, the colour of the heavens and a sign again of his Divinity. The blue garment is built up of translucent layers giving the sense of seeing the whole cosmos infused with light.

Light is a key element in the image, as in all icons, as the image seeks to show the interior light of the Spirit shining forth rather than an exterior light that casts heavy shadows. Here, Christ is very humble, and the face attempts to portray the compassionate lover of mankind, who looks with a deep longing upon all peoples who labour and are heavy burdened, and who raises His hand in blessing upon the meek and the poor in spirit. His other hands holds the Book of the Gospel shut, encouraging us to not stop at the words of the Gospel, but to heed the words that I am he, to turn to Christ himself, to believe and to live, to enter into a personal encounter with Him and live.
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