Artist and iconographer Nicholas Markell ‘84 is pictured in his home studio. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Honoring the Communion of Saints With St. Paul Iconographer

This story is featured in the fall/winter 2021 issue of Lumen.

As part of an ongoing commitment to amplify the rich cultural and racial diversity within the Catholic Church, the Murphy Institute initiated a collaboration with a local artist this spring to begin work on a series of icons that will be housed at the School of Law in Minneapolis.

The collection is a commission of St. Thomas alumnus Nick Markell '84 of Markell Studios, Inc. in Stillwater, Minnesota, and will feature saints whose origin, mission and charism represent the breadth of the Church’s reach throughout history. This project is part of a larger effort at the School of Law to continue to build its on-campus art collection.

The inaugural icon of the Murphy Institute’s series will feature St. Josephine Bakhita. Bakhita was born in Sudan in 1869, where she was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a young child. She suffered horrendous abuse as she spent several years in the slave trade until she was brought into the service of the Italian consul in 1883. With the consul and his family, Bakhita was treated with kindness and they soon moved to Italy. Here she encountered the Canossian Sisters, and in 1890 Josephine was fully received into the Catholic Church. Shortly after, the consul’s family desired to return to Africa but Josephine refused to go. She was granted her freedom by the Italian courts since slavery was outlawed in Italy. Upon gaining freedom, Bakhita remained in Italy and joined the Canossian Sisters. During her time with the Canossians, Bakhita was widely esteemed throughout the community for her sweet disposition and the astounding charity that accompanied her through years of painful illness at the end of her life. 

The icon series project was originally announced April 12, 2021, during a two-part event, Fighting for Freedom: Neo-colonialism and the African Experience, with Nigerian-British speaker Obianuju Ekeocha. Ekeocha is an internationally known pro-life speaker who presented on the clash of the African culture and values with imposing Western influences in the form of foreign aid, especially in health care. When she learned of the icon to be announced during the event, Ekeocha shared that she considers the saint a patron of her work. She was called to found her organization Culture of Life Africa while in prayer on Feb. 8, St. Josephine Bakhita’s feast day. The coincidence was a beautiful moment of providence for both Ekeocha and the Murphy Institute during preparations for the program. 

St. Josephine Bakhita was recognized by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi as an example of the theological virtue of hope in action. In times where hope can be difficult to find, Bakhita’s example may serve as a reminder that, despite sufferings and injustice, goodness and joy may always be achieved through God’s grace.

The icon of Bakhita will be located on the first floor of the School of Law, immediately outside of the Chapel of St. Thomas More. 

“The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory.” (John 1:14)

The word icon comes to us from the Greek eikon, meaning image. Often referred to as theology in color and windows to heaven, icons are a form of sacred art, the content of which is spiritual – they reveal a vison of a “Kingdom not of this world.” Iconographers paint, create or “write” icons as a way of expressing faith. They incorporate the use of symbols, bringing forth images of restored or renewed creation made possible through life in Christ Jesus. In the realm of art, iconography is the intersection of art and faith. Icons are images of what is believed.

Thus an iconographer is as much a minister as an artisan and an icon as much a sacramental as a work of art.

Every aspect of creating an icon is a reflection of faith. The process is one of study, prayer and inspiration by the Holy Spirit. Traditionally iconographers begin by painting base coats of the dark areas, slowly adding lighter and lighter tones. This reflects the spiritual life – the process of moving from darkness into the light of God. Holy figures are depicted as illuminated from within, revealing the reality that the light of Christ is an interior light within believers.

Here, St. Josephine Bakhita is imaged as transfigured – glorified in Christ. She’s imaged as a dance of illumination, saturated with the light of heaven.

She wears chains, but ones that are broken. Thus, they are no longer a symbol of bondage, but liberation. No longer a limitation or the cause of despair, but of hope. As her left hand points to the Mother of God, who gave her comfort and maternal consolation, her right hand holds a cross, symbolic of the sacrificial love of her Lord Jesus whom she knew died for her and her freedom.