Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Beautiful Contemporary Anglo-Byzantine (Romanesque) Style Icon

Here is a recently completed icon of the Harrowing of Hell, by Peter Murphy. Peter is an English iconographer who paints in a neo-Romanesque style reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts of that period. He also teaches, and for those who are on the left-hand side of the pond, he has been making regular trips to teach summer workshops for the Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta in Calgary.

This is based upon an image in the St Albans Psalter from about 1130 AD.
I think I prefer Peter’s version. The subtle depiction of the rotation of the head, shoulders, and hips relative to each other in each figure reads particularly well. It is anatomically accurate while still remaining within the stylistic constraints of the tradition.

There is one modification of the image that caught my eye, in the upper section where the flames of hell shoot out from holes in the canopy that contains it. The original had four flames, where Peter’s has three. I spoke to Peter about it, and he modified the number for artistic reasons; it created a better balance within his composition. I think this was a good choice. However, inadvertently, it created a connection for me as I was meditating upon it, which, now that I have seen this, I would choose to make more explicit if I was to paint this image in the future.

It struck me that through Christ, the flames that burn in the hell of the damned are the purging flames of the Holy Spirit prior to the bodily resurrection for the saved. This would be the case regardless of how many flames there are, but I made the connection in my mind because I thought of the image of the three figures in the fiery furnacem which I wrote about here. The three figures sang the canticle of praise that is used at Lauds on feast days.

If we were to emphasize this connection, we might choose to have four flames too. In the original narrative in the Book of Daniel, a fourth figure appears whose identity is not given and who is sometimes identified as an angel, or as John the Baptist (who can be referred to as an angel) or even as a pre-incarnational appearance of Christ. Here is the fresco in the Catacombs in Rome which appears in reproduction in the Catechism.

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