Reading the Icons at Rosati House
by Louis T. Brusati
In the June issue of Environment & Art Letter, I gave an overview of the recently renovated chapel at Rosati House, a residence of Vincentian priests and brothers near DePaul University in Chicago ("Little House of Light," p. 41-47). I noted that two niches were created on the east wall of the room, on either side of the door, and that Meltem Aktas had been commissioned to write two icons. One icon represents the annunciation scene from the gospel of Luke, ahnd the other depicts Vincent de Paul ministering to a beggar, who may in fact be Christ. Meltem's style is influenced by early Renaissance painters and traditional Eastern iconography. While each icon stands alone and can be understood separately, the two are best seen as a pair forming a sacramental meditation on the mystery of the incarnation.
The Second Council of Nicea (787 CE) upheld the veneration of images (icons), indicating they are on a par with scripture in that they portray a moment od divine revelation. Thus, one writes and reads an icon in a similar fashion as one reads scripture. James Swift, CM, a Vincentian priest and student of iconography, reads the two icons for the benefit of Rosati House members. A summary of his reading and meditation on the two icons follows.
The Annunciation Icon
The annunciation icon is a commentary on the mystery of the incarnation. It suggests an equal split between the divine world, the world of glory, and our world, the world of earth. The gold background communicates the transcendent world of glory while the dark and rich browns point to the world of earth. The icon's composition suggests an elongated triangle. The mountain in the background establishes a triangular frame supporting the triangular form of Mary's body. Mary is rooted in the world of human experience; she stands in contrast to the backdrop world of glory and transcendence.
The seraphim in the upper left corner counterpoint the angel Gabriel. Seraphim are angels of fire who stand close to the very presence of God. The archangel Gabriel, a direct messenger of God, has wings of seraphim-fire. When seraphim appear with Gabriel, the archangel becomes the diving presence penetrating the temporal. While Gabriel is fundamentally in the world of heaven, his head and hands pierce the earthly realm. This penetration appears in the fold of Mary's garment. The vermilion red of Gabriel's wing announces Mary's impregnation by the divine power. Through the incarnation, God "breaks the molecules of our being as to re-cast and re-mold us" (C. Jeriel Howard, "The Gift of Incarnation in Poetry and Fiction," Christianity and the Arts, Winter 1995). In penetrating Mary, God enters human experience and makes room in our world for the divine presence.
Gabriel confronts the innocence of Mary as he points to the lily she holds. Her early Renaissance-style face presents a look of surprise, fear and uncertainty. Gabriel's other hand extends God's consolation to her and declares: "Do not be afraid, Mary: God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son." (Luke 1: 30) Gabriel's somersault into the earthly world suggest that he belongs to both realms, and it portrays this truth: The divine remains divine, yet penetrates the human. the icon thus both distinguishes and integrates the world of heaven and the world of earth; it reminds us of the differences between these two worlds.
Vincent de Paul Icon
The icon of Vincent likewise celebrates incarnation. There is far less contrast between the divine world and the world of earth than is represented in the annunciation icon; creation is now diffused with the light of the incarnation. This insight is central to an understanding of Vincent and Vincentian spirituality.
The icon presents an oval movement of the beggar - resembling a Palestinian Jesus - and an aged Vincent de Paul. The two figures interacting form the heart of the icon's message - the discovery that the beggar is Christ. We find Christ in the poor who in turn transform us into Christ.
The tree to the left of the beggar creates a vertical point of entry for meditation. As we enter the icon we become the tree and observe the relationship between Vincent and the beggar, the relationship between ourselves and Christ reflected in the poor. The tree becomes a sign of our ongoing growth in the Christian life. Moving through the beggar's back one looks directly at Vincent. Vincent's eyes focus on the bread. This creates a parallel oval at the center of the icon. While Vincent is probably giving the bread to the beggar, it is difficult to tell by looking at the hands of the figures. It is possible that the beggar is about to place the bread in Vincent's hand. Herein lies the theological truth of the icon: Once we find Christ in the poor, the poor have as much to give to us as we do to them. The poor person becomes Christ and we become Vincent. In this exchange we receive from Christ, from the beggar, as much as we give. Vincent de Paul said, "You will gind that charity is a hard burden to carry...It is only because of your love, only your love, that the poor will forgive you the bread you have given them."
The beggar's deformed hand parallels Vincent's left foot. The relationship suggests a dynamism. The beggar's poverty enriches Vincent; Vincen't wealth enriches the beggar. Or perhaps it is the other way around: The beggar's esteem enriches Vincent's poverty. The awkward positions of Vincent's foot and the beggar's hand suggest a relationship between the poverty of the beggar and the poverty of Vincent. The tattered edges of Vincent's coat underline the parallel. Vincent stands with a listening attitude; he experiences something of his own weakness, brokenness and poverty, an awareness affirmed as he entes the world of the beggar and hears his gift.
The sharing of bread clearly refers to eucharist. The exchange is one of mutuality against the cloudy backdrop of divinization - God has penetrated the world of earth with the heavenly world. The cluster of stones and the barren branch at the far right side evoke the story of Jesus' temptation in Luke's gospel. The devil said to him, "If you are God's Son, order this stone to turn into bread." Jesus answered, 'The scripture says, 'Man cannot live on bread alone'" (Luke 4:3-4). The bread they give each other ultimately sustains life.
The beggar and Vincent step out from three horizontal planes. The lower third is the ground upon which the figures stand; the middle ground upon which Saint-Lazare, the first Vincentian church, is built: and the top section fades into the heavens. Saint-Lazare is suspended between heaven and earth like the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven; it is cloudlike and diffused in the heavenly light. This is the sphere of sharing between Vincent and the beggar; this is the place of encouter between the human and the divine. Saint-Lazare, sign of the heavenly Jerusalem, floats on the diffused light of God's glory now permeating the earthly sphere. The sharp contrast between the heavenly world and the earthly world in the annunciation icon is here diffused, in the light of our seeing in the beggar the divine presence, the person of Christ living in our world.
Louis T. Brusati, CM, recently left his post as a professor of religion at DePaul University, Chicago, and is now dean of the school of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
© 1995 Archdiocese of Chicago
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