If you visit The University of King’s College Chapel, it’s impossible to miss the striking painting of the Madonna and Child resting on a wooden stand near the entrance. You’ll notice the brilliant gold leaf background surrounding an image that seems to glow from the inside. This artwork of Mary and Baby Jesus is an icon—a religious painting made to inspire quiet reflection and prayer—part of an Eastern Orthodox artistic tradition which dates back to the third century CE.
When one stands in front of the icon, “they’re given an invitation to stillness and reflection,” explains King’s alum Benjamin von Bredow BA(Hons)’17, who meticulously created this very special painting using traditional methods. “They’re given some freedom from whatever is disturbing them so that they can reflect on whatever is disturbing them in a way that is peaceful and stable and still.”
While Bredow was Don of Radical Bay in 2019/2020, Chaplain Ranall Ingalls asked him to paint a new icon for the Chapel as the old one left with the previous chaplain. Bredow had taken a week-long icon painting workshop as a student at King’s and spent years self-studying the art form after that, so he was eager to take on the project.
Bredow and Ingalls originally planned to consult the community to decide which traditional icon to replicate, but then Covid hit. In the early days of lockdown, Pope Francis was seen praying at one of his favourite icons, called Salus Populi Romani, or “health of the Roman people” in an empty St. Peter’s square. Bredow and Ingalls then knew this was the perfect icon for King’s. “It became a symbol of prayer during the pandemic,” Bredow says. “It was the icon with which Pope Francis chose to pray when he couldn’t pray with anybody else. Besides being a good icon in itself, it seemed to articulate the moment fairly well.”
Bredow got to work on the icon, first crafting the basswood and ash panel on which it would be painted. Then he attached a piece of linen to the panel using rabbit skin glue, and added a thick primer made of more rabbit skin glue and chalk. Next, he placed thin strips of gold leaf for the background. Finally, he painted the image using many layers of egg tempera, a mixture of pigment, water and egg yolk. “It doesn’t fade and will maintain its brightness for centuries,” Bredow says. Egg tempera is also very luminous, he explains. “Light travels through the paint and hits the white surface behind and is reflected back out through the many layers of paint.”
The new icon is accompanied by a new, custom-made stand, crafted by King’s carpenter Rodney Parsons. Ingalls provided a photo of what he wanted it to look like, and Parsons drew up the design. Working on the stand between other projects around campus took about three months. “It was quite a procedure,” Parsons says.
Parsons made the stand by gluing together pieces of solid oak, making sure the dimensions were exactly right for the icon. He followed that with an extensive staining process to bring out the perfect colour. In all, Parsons says this was the most elaborate woodworking project he’s done for King’s. “I’m quite happy with how it turned out.”
The Salus Populi Romani at King’s is an incredible piece of craftsmanship by community members, but it’s not meant to impress you. Bredow gives the analogy of keeping a photograph of a family member—when you look at it, you’re not admiring the beauty of the photo, instead your feelings toward that person are being drawn out by it. “That’s sort of what icons are trying to do. They’re not trying to be pretty decorations, they’re trying to be a means of intimate encounter with the spiritual presence of the scene depicted,” he explains.
And if you aren’t a particularly religious or spiritual person, Bredow says you can still experience something from the icon if you keep an open mind. “I’m not going to over-determine what I expect will happen,” he says. “What I tell people is just try it. See what happens. Stand in front of it quietly and reflectively and be open to the possibility that you might be somehow moved.”