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
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.
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
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”.