Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Just in time for the Oct. 14 canonization of Blessed Oscar Romero, iconographer Vivian Imbruglia completed an icon of the El Salvador archbishop assassinated while saying Mass.
Imbruglia’s work was featured last year in the Register when she completed an icon of the Fatima now at the World Apostolate of Fatima headquarters in Washington, New Jersey. She also completed one of Saint Francis that she handed to Pope Francis.
How and why did she come to write this icon of Saint Oscar Romero? How did she literally make El Salvador a part of it? What are the many symbols and what do they mean? The iconographer answered all these question.
To begin, she admits she really had never heard of Archbishop Oscar Romero until she started researching him. When her former pastor and friend Father Patrick Kirsch was assigned to start a new church named Blessed Oscar Romero Catholic Community in Eastvale, California, she told him that she would write an icon for him when he eventually got the church edifice built.
But the icon process began earlier than anticipated at her Sacred Image Icons studio. The church is not yet built, Imbruglia points out that the community is already very strong, and when the date of Blessed Oscar Romero’s canonization was announced, she “knew it couldn't wait.”
“I went to work studying and learning about Blessed Oscar, and sketching the icon,” she explains. “I had to make sure the symbolism would rightly tell his story. It was heartbreaking to read, hear, and see how many Salvadorians died during this time, and I wanted to have a way to honor their memory.”
She did that in a most unusual way because the “soil from El Salvador used in the icon attempts to do that…One of the most beautiful notes about this icon is that I had soil brought back from El Salvador by a priest who walked in the same path where the archbishop preached. I ground the soil to a fine dust and mixed it into the paint used in the icon, bringing El Salvador into the icon.”
Indeed, the icon is very symbolic.
The Icon’s Symbolism
First of all, the “Saint Oscar Romero” Icon is large — 30 inches by 40 inches. It’s written on birch panel and incorporates 24 karat gold and semi-precious stones.
Gold Background — Imbruglia explains Father Kirsch brought the soil back from El Salvador while on a recent pilgrimage there. He walked in the same steps of Archbishop Romero. She had for the soil with the idea of placing El Salvador into the icon that way. She details how she ground the soil to a powder, “then mixed it with the paint that would cover the icon. Therefore, El Salvador truly is in the icon. Real 24 karat gold was then placed over the paint. The gold represents Heaven.”
Motto — Across the top, above his name, is Archbishop Romero’s episcopal motto: “Sentir Con La Iglesia.” The iconographer points out the motto is translated as “Feel with the Church,” also as “To Think with the Church.”
Gospels — Symbols for the gospels grace all four corners. Again, they have symbolic significance for the saint. The reason? As Imbruglia illuminates, “Archbishop Romero began all his writings with text from the Gospels. The four Gospels are also represented at the site of his tomb.”
The Altar — “Archbishop Romero was the first archbishop killed at the altar since Saint Thomas Becket in 1170,” notes the iconographer.
The Chalice — Archbishop Romero is presented at the altar as he holds a chalice with the image of Christ the Eternal High Priest. Imbruglia points out he is witnessing to the gospel verse in Hebrews 7:17: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Pelican — On his chasuble appears a “Pelican.” The iconographer notes that it’s sometimes called “Pelican in her Piety” and seen as was seen as “a perfect symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the Eucharist. Just as the pelican would give its blood to save its children, so Christ poured out his blood on the cross to save us from our sins, and offers his blood to us in the Eucharist as spiritual drink.”
Olive Branch — The olive branch is a Christian symbol of peace, Christian peace. It calls to mind a famous quote from Archbishop Romero: “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.”
Halo — “The halo is red to represent his martyrdom, but it is also made up of the woven fabric for which the people of his country are known,” explains Imbruglia. “This halo not only symbolizes his sainthood, but also the simplicity of the El Salvadorans he served who were woven into his heart.”
Crown of Martyrdom — The iconographer includes this to make clear those martyred for their faith in God and Jesus will be given not only this crown of life, but also “some special rewards once they enter into heaven.” She refers to Revelation 2:10 — “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Sacred Heart — While he was a student in Rome, Archbishop Romero kept a diary. Pages of it were discovered by one of his friends who was also his first biographer, Msgr. Jesus Delgado. The pages reveal that even as a student the archbishop was “a timid, but generous soul, with a solitary and mystical bent, marked by a profound devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a deep desire for sanctity.”
Our Lady of Peace — Our Lady of Peace is the patron of El Salvador. Archbishop Romeo invoked her to ask her to guide her children “to know the freedom, justice and peace that Blessed Oscar Romero gave his life for.”
The Reliquary — In a unique addition, there is a 12-inch reliquary permanently attached to the icon. The reliquary is in the form of a cross, with fleurs-de-lis, one at each end. Two angels kneel at the foot of the cross, gazing reverently at it. Presently, the reliquary contains a third-class relic of Archbishop Romero, but the new church has been promised a second class relic. However, Imbruglia shares that the new church named after the new saint is praying for a first class relic of their patron to place inside the reliquary once the building is completed. In the building plans is a side chapel just for the icon.
The Roses — Bouquets of red roses behind and to the sides of the reliquary embellish the bottom of the icon. The roses are there for two reasons. First, because Archbishop Romero was deeply devoted to Our Lady. “There is a long stem rose on his tomb for the same reason, the iconographer observes. Second, she explains that while her pastor Father Kirsch was on the pilgrimage in EL Salvador, one of the sisters of the community that cares for the house in which Archbishop Romero lived, “told them the story that when the Archbishop was killed his intestines were removed and buried under a rose bush. Three years later they were exhumed, and the intestines put into a shrine dedicated to our Lady of Lourdes. The grotto is located next to his home. The rosebush is placed under the reliquary for that very reason.”
Has writing this icon affected Imbruglia in any way? It surely has according to her: “I was also in awe of the courage of Archbishop Romero, as I couldn't help but wonder if I would have the courage to die for my faith. I pray for that courage, as he truly is wearing the Crown of Martyrdom.”