Pandemic inspires artist to create icon of Christ as healer

This is an icon of "Christ the Healer" by Joe Malham. (CNS photo/courtesy Joe Malham via Chicago Catholic) 

CHICAGO (CNS) -- When word came that Illinois residents were being asked to stay home and the Archdiocese of Chicago suspended public Masses in mid-March, Chicago-based iconographer Joseph Malham was at loose ends, like so many others.

He decided to use the time to create, and the result is a 3-foot-by-4-foot icon of Christ the Healer, an image he completed in just about three weeks.

"Like the rest of the world, I thought, 'I can sit around listening to my own fears and anxieties and uncertainties or I can do something creative,'" said Malham, whose studio is at St. Gregory Parish in Chicago. "That's when I came up with doing this for the sufferers of COVID-19."

The icon is intended to comfort not just those who are ill or who have loved ones who are ill or have died. It's also for all those suffering financially or emotionally, those isolated from friends and family members and those who put their own health at risk to care for those who are sick, Malham said.

He counts himself among that number, as the work he does creating icons for parishes and other institutions has dried up and the art restoration jobs are all gone.

"Then I think about the parishes, and whether they'll have the wherewithal to commission something when they come out of this," Malham said.

At the same time, it's become impossible to get some of the materials he usually uses, so everything in the icon comes from supplies he had on hand. The board that forms the base is a piece of oak he found while cleaning out the parish garage. Because he could not get the gesso he usually uses, he coated the board in plain white paint. Since he had no gold leaf, the icon is highlighted with gold paint.

"I'm not striving for anything that is perfect or beautiful in a technical sense," Malham said. "I think it's the most genuine icon I've ever done."

Its message, he said, is a plea for help, but a plea made to Jesus in hope rather than fear. That's also the tone of a prayer that accompanies the icon that was composed by Auxiliary Bishop Mark A. Bartosic of Chicago.

The first half of the prayer calls on Jesus who sees what we cannot.

"It's the idea that Christ sees to the bottom of everything," Bishop Bartosic said. "Something that seems so opaque and dark to us is not opaque and dark to Jesus. It's to trust that we don't have to see to the bottom of it because he does. Day by day, we have to do what they tell us: Wash our hands, maintain social distance, take care of the poor and the sick. But we have to trust in Christ to see the bigger picture."

Part of that trust is understanding that the nature of human existence hasn't changed from six months ago, Bishop Bartosic said. People depended on God for everything then, and people depend on God now.

"We always stand in need of healing," Bishop Bartosic said. "Even when we're not in a pandemic. We don't always realize it until there's a crisis. What we're asking for now is what we should ask for every day of our life."

Malham said he hopes people contemplate the icon and pray the prayer during the Easter season, noting that it can be one more thing that is drawing Catholics together in a time when everyone is staying apart.

"All my friends are talking about watching daily Mass and Sunday Mass and commenting on the homilies," Malham said. "This has made us feel like a wider family beyond our parish.”