A Beautiful Contemporary Anglo-Byzantine (Romanesque) Style Icon

Here is a recently completed icon by Peter Murphy of the Harrowing of Hell. Peter is an English iconographer who paints in a neo-Romanesque style that is reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts of the 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 one is based upon an image in the St Albans Psalter from about 1130AD.


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. So 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 and the is the upper section where the flames of hell shoot out from holes in the canopy that contains it. The original had four flames and Peter's had three. I spoke to Peter about it, and he modified the number it for artistic reasons, it created a better balance within the composition he had created. 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 furnace. I wrote about this here. The three figures sang the canticle of praise that is sung at Lauds on feast days.

The fresco from the Catacombs which is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The fresco from the Catacombs which is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Nikola Sirac.jpg

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.