(Vatican Radio) The blessing of a newly commissioned icon of Christ the Saviour sets the stage for Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Anglican Church of All Saints on Sunday. It’s the first time a pope has ever visited an Anglican place of worship in his diocese of Rome and it comes as the centerpiece of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the community.
The icon, which will be blessed by the Pope, together with Anglican and Orthodox leaders attending the afternoon prayer service, is the work of English artist Ian Knowles, who heads a school for Palestinian art students in the Holy Land.
He talked to Philippa Hitchen about the aims of the Bethlehem Icon Centre and the way this type of liturgical art can help to heal our ecumenical divisions…
Knowles says he started the school four and half years ago as an attempt “to revive iconography as living art in the Holy Land” since research suggests that this art form began in the monasteries of Palestine during the 5th and 6th centuries.
So many Christians are leaving the region, he said, 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 school 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 programme 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, the artist 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 Saviour 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. 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”. Knowles says the works are all done with natural pigments, including “rocks which I find on the way to Jericho and we grind up”. God has given us these natural colours, he 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”.