28 January 2024

Four modern icons in
St Albans Cathedral
tell the story of
Saint Amphibalus

Saint Alban, England’s first martyr and saint … an icon in St Albans Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

For the past two years, an icon of Christ from Rethymnon has been on display in our main room in in Stony Stratford and the two icons in our kitchen include one from Romania of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, and a copy of an icon of Saint Alban, the first martyr in England.

It was interesting to see the original icon of Saint Alban in St Albans Cathedral earlier this month. But the cathedral also has a series of modern icons from 2021 made by Peter Murphy and telling the story of Saint Amphibalus and Saint Alban.

Peter Murphy was born in Leeds in 1959, and moved to Liverpool and later to Durham. He went to the Jacob Kramer College of Art and the University of East London, and then trained with the iconographer Guillem Ramos Poqui in London.

In his icons, Peter Murphy uses traditional techniques from mediaeval religious painting, including egg tempera paint and gold leaf. He is a former vice-chair of the Society of Tempera Painters and is a member of the British Association of Iconographers. He runs workshops and courses in Britain, Canada, Greece, and Italy and leads tours in Italy and Sicily.

Peter’s icons has been commissioned for a number of churches and cathedrals, including St Albans Cathedral, Tewkesbury Abbey and Hereford Cathedral, and has been employed by a number of museums for special exhibitions. He has recreated a triptych by Simone Martini for the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and created a mural of 10 scenes from the life of Benedict Biscop for Bede’s World Museum in Jarrow.

He is the chief tutor at the Saint Peter’s Centre for Sacred Art, in Saint Peter’s Church in the heart of Canterbury, and a visiting tutor in Byzantine iconography and early Italian painting and gilding techniques in the Edward James Foundation at West Dean College, Sussex.

Peter Murphy’s icons of Saint Amphibalus and Saint Alban, close to the Shrine of Saint Amphibalus in St Albans Cathedral, tell the story of Saint Amphibalus and how he was saved by Saint Alban.

These new icons are based on the Life and of St Alban and Passion of Saint Amphibalus, created at St Albans Abbey in the 1200s by Matthew of Paris.

1, Saint Alban shelters the priest Saint Amphibalus, who teaches Alban about the life of Christ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

2, When danger threatens the two men exchange cloaks, Saint Amphibalus escapes but Saint Alban is arrested and executed. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

3, Saint Amphibalus continues to baptise converts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

4, Saint Amphibalus is captured and murdered at Redbourn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The icons were a gift to St Albans Cathedral in 2021 by Sir Martin Smith and his wife Elise. He has had a 40-year career in the financial services sector, including investment management and banking. He chairs the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and has been involved with the Royal Academy of Music, the Glyndebourne Arts Trust, the Ashmolean Museum, the Science Museum and English National Opera.

He founded the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford in 2008 and is a fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Lady (Elise) Smith is the founder and President of the Tetbury Music Festival.

The shrine of Saint Amphibalus was restored in 2020 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayers during
Christmas and Epiphany:
35, 28 January 2024

Would we recognise Jesus on the shore early on Sunday morning? (see John 21: 4) … the beach at Platanias near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The celebrations of Epiphany-tide continue today, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (Epiphany IV, 28 January 2024).

Later this morning I hope to be at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Wolverton, and we may go to the Taizé service there this afternoon. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time for reading, reflection and prayer.

Christmas is a season that lasts for 40 days that continues from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on Friday (2 February). The Gospel reading last Sunday (John 2: 1-11) told of the Wedding at Cana, one of the traditional Epiphany stories.

In keeping with the theme of last Sunday’s Gospel reading, I am continuing with last week’s thoughts in my reflections each morning until the Feast of the Presentation:

1, A reflection on one of seven meals Jesus has with family, friends or disciples;

2, the Gospel reading of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some [fish]’ (John 21: 6) … a fishing boat with its nets at the harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

8, Breakfast by the shore (John 21: 1-17):

Saint John’s Gospel concludes not with the Ascension but with another meal, the breakfast by the shore of the Sea of Tiberias after the Resurrection and the conversation that follows (John 21: 1-17).

The Early Church, as it read the Fourth Gospel, would have understood each meal in the light of the Resurrection, with a post-Resurrection faith and understanding, and in the light of the weekly Eucharistic meal. This understanding, of course, would also have applied to Saint John’s account of the Feeding of the Multitude, or the miracle of the loaves and fish.

The feeding with loaves and fish is a prelude to, looks forward to, another meal by the shores of Lake Tiberias – that breakfast with the disciples when Jesus feeds them with bread and fish. Once again, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to those he is feeding (John 21: 13).

The fish is an early Christian symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, capitalised ΙΧΘΥΣ or ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words, spelling out Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).

The disciples that Sunday morning are not very successful at fishing, are they (John 21: 3)? So unsuccessful, indeed, that they are willing to take advice from someone they do not even recognise (verse 4 ff).

The disciples are at the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias, back at their old jobs fishing. Peter, who denied Christ three times during his Passion, Thomas, who had initially doubted the stories of the Resurrection (see John 20: 24-29), Nathanael, who once wondered whether anything good could come from Nazareth (see John 1: 46), James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who once wanted to be so close to him that they wanted to be seated at his right hand and his left in the kingdom, and two other disciples who remain unnamed … how about that for fame, lasting recognition and success?

They are back on the same shore where there once were so many fish, so much bread left over after feeding the multitude, that they filled 12 baskets (John 6: 1-13). There are not so many fish around this time, at first. But then Saint John tells us that after Christ arrives 153 fish were caught that morning (verse 11).

This number is probably a symbol meaning a complete number. The number 153 is divisible by the sum of its own digits, and it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of cubes of its digits, since 153 = 13 + 53 + 33. Aristotle is said to have taught that there were 153 different species of fish in the Mediterranean.

Whatever they say, the disciples must have thought they had managed the perfect catch that morning.

But the perfect catch was Christ – and, of course, they were the perfect catch for him too. When they came ashore once again he invites them to share bread and fish, to dine with the Risen Lord (21: 12-13).

To eat with the Risen Lord and to invite others to the Heavenly Banquet, so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea can say ‘Amen’ before the Throne of God … now that is what I call success (Revelation 5: 11-14).

And when others ask us, Do we love Christ?, when others ask us, Do we love them?, when others ask us, Do we love one another?, will we hesitate, like Peter in this reading, not knowing how to answer?

Or when they ask, will the answers be obvious in the ways we worship, in the way we live our lives, in the way we respond to others?

Beached … an old fishing boat on the sands at Platanias, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 1: 21-28 (NRSVA):

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26 And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[ commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

A fishing boat at the harbour in Panormos, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 28 January 2024, Epiphany IV):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is: ‘Welcoming the Stranger – A Candlemas Reflection.’ This theme is introduced today by the Revd Annie Bolger of the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Brussels:

As we approach the joyful celebration of Candlemas, we also remember the shadows cast over Jesus’ early experiences. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of a frightening threat to Jesus’ life, and an angel warns Joseph to flee from his homeland with Mary and his young son. They narrowly escape and seek asylum in Egypt.

The Holy Family’s refugee status enriches our Christian ethos towards refugees today. Due to climate crises, war, famine and many other factors, the UNHCR estimates that 117.2 million people were forcibly displaced or stateless in 2023. The numbers will only rise in the year ahead and may simply overwhelm us. We cannot possibly imagine the trauma and difficulty that each person’s story represents. That is why Jesus came among us as a refugee: to remind us of the humanity and dignity of every displaced person.

In Brussels, the existing infrastructure for refugees is inadequate, and many asylum seekers are living on the streets. We run a community kitchen in partnership with USPG that provides over 5,000 meals each week to people in need, the vast majority of whom are asylum seekers. This Candlemas, we remember the elderly Simeon taking the refugee child Jesus in his arms and praying for peace. Let us light our candles and remember that the light of Christ shines for all people.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (28 January 2024, Epiphany IV) invites us to pray in these words:

Light our darkness, O Lord,
and reveal the unspeakable
lest we forget the victims of our inhumanity.
Turn our hearts to repentance
and our actions to justice.

The Collect:

God our creator,
who in the beginning
commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ
may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all your people,
and reveal the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Generous Lord,
in word and eucharist we have proclaimed the mystery of your love:
help us so to live out our days
that we may be signs of your wonders in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Additional Collect:

God of heaven,
you send the gospel to the ends of the earth
and your messengers to every nation:
send your Holy Spirit to transform us
by the good news of everlasting life
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection (The Last Supper)

Continued tomorrow (A banquet with Levi)

Aristotle believed there were 153 different species of fish in the Mediterranean (see John 21: 11) … fish in a taverna in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org