Portrait of a poor man
Why do we pray before icons of the saints? After all, it is God whom we worship. Do we just keep statues and pictures of the saints around as reminders - like we keep photos of our aunts and uncles?
No, we honour our saints because, like us, each of them had the Blessed Trinity dwelling within them, and (perhaps unlike us), the transparency of their lives made God's beauty visible: how incredibly bright the sun must be if the tiny moon, so distant from it, is so stunning?!
I cannot conveniently look into the face of the sun, nor could I bear the unveiled beauty of God - but I can see his reflection in the saints.
This picture is not an icon in the formal (and Byzantine) artistic sense, it is more like those on your computer screen. It was painted by Giotto and is part of a fresco of the Mothr of God and the angels in the Basilica of St Francis. There are two contemporary portraits of Francis, one at Mount Subasio, and one at Greccio of him, weeping. Giotto has followed this latter portrait. And it fits well the detailed and not entirely flattering description of Francis, given by Thomas of Celano (First Life ch.29):
"He was very eloquent, with a cheerful appearance and a kind face; free of laziness and arrogance. He was of medium height, closer to short, his head was of medium size and round. His face was somewhat long and drawn, his forehead small and smooth, with medium eyes, black and clear. His hair was dark, his eyebrows were straight, and his nose even and thin; his ears small and upright, and his temples smooth. His tongue was peaceable; fiery and sharp. His voice was powerful, but pleasing clear and musical. His teeth were white, well set and even; his lips were small and thin; his beard black and sparse; his neck was slender, his shoulders straight; his arms were short, his hands slight, his fingers long and his nails tapered. He had thin legs, small feet, fine skin and little flesh. His clothing was rough, his sleep short, his hand generous."
Now, lay all this aside and look at this picture as if it were a ‘moon reflection’ I look into the gentle, humble, rather ordinary eyes of Francis. He looks back. He can only see me now in God's eyes. Where he lives, the Lamb is the light of the city. His look is welcoming, it includes me in.
I take a step nearer. I gaze. I see that he is inviting me to observe the wound in his side that he hid so devotedly while on earth. I look at the nails in his hands and feet - formed, not of the metal of human rejection like Christ's, but of his own flesh.
I take a step nearer. I reflect on my own life. I, too, expose my wounds to God that they may be healed and transformed. I reflect on the life of Jesus and I see his glorious wounds irradiating heaven.
I take a step nearer and it takes me through the picture into the reality.
I am inside the picture, inside the suffering and glorious wounds, and I am gazing out through the eyes of Francis that are is eyes. I see the whole of creation through his eyes, one with his mind. I see it in love, awe and reverence. I see myself, now, objectively, with the same love, awe and reverence. I am drawn into the love of the Father by the joy of the Holy Spirit, even as I am part of the Body of Christ.
I pray the Lord's Prayer, slowly.
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us
and lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
Then I lift up my heart to God with the words of the Didache which come after the Our Father, at Mass:
For the kingdom,
and the glory are yours,
now and for ever