A Byzantine-style iconographer tells the story behind Martin Luther King Jr’s icon.
An iconographer has paid homage to iconic civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. by creating a Byzantine-style icon that depicts him as a holy martyr.
This icon is the work of Robert Lentz, who lived in a cloistered monastery during the era of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The story behind the striking portrait of the civil rights pioneer is fascinating, as is the explains Lentz:
“When these exciting things were happening, I was behind cloistered walls, very oblivious to what was going on in the world. So the civil rights movement came and matured and slowed down without me being part of it.
Thus, the Franciscan monk painted the famous African-American leader entirely from book photographs and documentary footage.
Lentz finally left the cloister after 18 years and began supporting himself by painting icons or “writing” saints. He was almost entirely unaware of the many drastic societal changes that had taken place in America, explaining that he needed to educate himself and keep abreast of what had happened in his country during those turbulent years.
Monk paints MLK Jr: “He was a saint who lived with the people”
The Franciscan monk says that as a Catholic he thought he would struggle to paint the icon of a Baptist priest. However, after discovering the work of the great leader, he filled the icon with rich symbolism, and the resulting artwork is very powerful and thought-provoking.
“He was a saint who lived with the people, fought with the people,” he says when asked to describe King’s incredible life. Lentz painted the murdered activist’s name in Greek at the top of the icon, saluting him as “Ο Άγιος Μαρτίνος” (Saint Martin) in Byzantine calligraphy.
The image is a likeness of King’s famous photo taken after his arrest on February 22, 1956 during the landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott he helped lead. Reverend King’s costume is depicted somewhat crumpled in the icon to resemble the robe an ancient saint would wear.
The sign the minister is holding shows his prisoner number at the Montgomery County Jail, just as he was holding it in the famous photograph.
“He was arrested so many times, and that was part of his martyrdom,” says Lentz.
The prison bars behind represent the 29 times he was arrested and imprisoned for his activism and the enslavement and oppression of African Americans in the United States. The text on the scroll he is holding is from his speech in Albany, Georgia, delivered on December 14, 1961.
The final chapter in MLK Jr’s life of valiant sacrifice was his martyrdom, which occurred on April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, making him a modern-day saint in the eyes of many.