Pope Francis took the time to personally bless an icon of Our Lady of Walsingham last week. The painting was commissioned by Mgr John Armitage, rector of the national Marian shrine in Norfolk, as part of the preparations for the re-dedication of England as the Dowry of Mary on March 29.
Mgr Armitage was part of the delegation to present the icon to the Holy Father, describing the occasion as a “truly blessed day”.
He was joined by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and the president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, who five days later recalled the meeting in a pastoral letter to the people of his archdiocese.
The cardinal said that Francis blessed the icon at his request. “He did so because he knows that during this Lent … all are invited to make a personal Act of Dedication of our country to Our Blessed Lady,” he wrote.
“In doing so we repeat the dedication made in 1381 by Richard II of England who promised this land and its people as the Dowry of Mary.”
He continued: “There is much for us to learn about being the Dowry of Mary and the love which is expressed in that title.
“It is rich in history even if not contemporary in language. I hope we can use these coming weeks to deepen our knowledge of this ancient and lovely devotion. This fits well into our Lenten journey. Mary will always lead us to her Son. She will take us to him so that he can show us his love and mercy.”
The third member of the delegation was Amanda de Pulford, a 64-year-old artist who over the past 15 years has turned her hand to iconography, a style of painting that all but vanished from England after the Reformation.
Her interest in icons developed after a visit to the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow. “I saw that through painting in this way I could come to understand the meaning of the Incarnation and the events of salvation history in a much more profound way, which was something I wanted very badly indeed,” she explained.
With her seven children grown up, Mrs de Pulford was able to travel regularly to Brussels to be tutored by Irina Gorbounova Lomax, the distinguished Russian icon painter.
Mrs de Pulford’s work not only caught the eye of Mgr Armitage but also that of the Church of England, which commissioned her to paint an icon of Our Lord washing the feet of St Peter for the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
In her painting of Our Lady of Walsingham (detail pictured above), the Virgin Mary is depicted dressed in Anglo-Saxon attire and holding up the Child Jesus.
The image includes the coat of arms of St Edward the Confessor, a patron saint of England, and it depicts Lady Richeldis, who built a replica of the “holy house” of Nazareth following an apparition.
The image also shows a frog in the place of the serpent, following a traditional Old English telling of Genesis in art.
The icon measures 75cm by 40.5cm (30in by 16in) and is made in a traditional way. It is painted with egg tempera on gesso mounted on a birch panel, before varnish was added for protection.
The value of iconography over other art forms, according to Mrs de Pulford, is the clarity of the message the painter seeks to convey.
“Symbolism occurs in many art forms, and iconography is no exception,” she says. “But you don’t have to be able to unpick the symbolism to understand the painting because the imagery is so clear. It’s clear what is going on, it’s clear who the people are, and if you contemplate for long enough the meaning will become clear.”
She adds: “What I hope is that for those who see it the icon will inspire a renewed sense of the overwhelming generous love which inspired God to give Himself to the world, and Our Lady to reciprocate that love with her willing cooperation.”
Richard II’s dedication of England was carried out amid great political turmoil, with the intention that the country and her people would be set aside for the guidance and protection of Our Lady.
The dedication coincided with the growth of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham into one of the four great pilgrimage destinations of medieval Europe.
The shrine was destroyed during the Reformation and the original statute is believed to have been burned at Chelsea by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s henchman. But it was re-established in the 19th century and the English bishops decided in 2017 that a re-dedication was desirable.
The National Day of Dedication involves Catholics making a personal “Angelus promise” to God in union with the “yes” of Mary at the Annunciation.
Communal acts of entrustment will be made in cathedrals at noon, renewing the vows of dedication made by Richard II. Schools are invited to join the re-dedication on Monday, March 30.
The icon will now be taken on permanent tour of parishes to remind the faithful of England’s unique and enduring status within the Catholic Church.