What do you give to the pope, who pretty much has everything he could want, especially if he is a simple man at heart?
That was the problem facing the Order of St. Augustine, whose leadership gathered in Rome on Aug. 28, the feast of St. Augustine, at the Basilica of St. Augustine for a general chapter.
After an announcement in late July that Pope Francis would celebrate the opening liturgy at the general chapter, Augustinian Father Richard Cannuli, who is chair of the art department at Villanova University, offered to paint an icon for the pope as an appropriate gift.
The offer was immediately accepted by Augustinian Father General Robert Prevost, who said, “Do St. Augustine.”
The icon, which in a rather nice touch is inscribed “San Augustin de Hippo,” utilizing the native Spanish language of Pope Francis, was presented to his Holiness on Aug. 28 by Cardinal Prospero Grech, O.S.A., and Father General Prevost.
The back of the icon has an English explanation of the presentation preceded by “AMDG” the initials for “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” (To the Greater Glory of God). That is the motto of the Society of Jesus, the order in which Pope Francis spent his entire ministry.
That Father Cannuli could supply such an icon on short notice should be no surprise because he has painted several hundred icons during a distinguished career. As a certified liturgical design artist he has designed many liturgical vestments as well furniture, stained glass windows, water colors and mosaics.
He is also curator and gallery director for Villanova University’s 9,000-piece art collection.
For the most part, after Father Cannuli has designed a stained glass piece in color, he sends to a studio in Siena, Italy, where it is transferred to glass.
Originally from St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in South Philadelphia, he graduated from the former Bishop Neumann High School and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from Villanova University.
His congregation then sent him to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., for doctoral studies. He also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and has taught summer programs in China and Italy.
Although he was an Augustinian Friar for many years and a faculty member at Villanova since 1979, he did not decide to seek priestly ordination until 1996. He was ordained a priest in 1999.
Among his most impressive stained glass commissions is at the Carmelite monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus in Denmark, Wisconsin, and that includes “some 30 windows,” Father Cannuli said.
Generally speaking, the icons can be divided into two groups – canonical and devotional. The canonical icons follow the form of icons before the split of the eastern and western Churches, or Roman Catholic and Orthodox.
The later devotional images executed by Father Cannuli include such examples as Miguel Pro, Cardinal John Newman, St. Philip Neri and most recently Mother Cornelia Connelly.
The more numerous canonical icons might include multiple images of the same subject, highly stylized but with slight difference. For example the St. Augustine icon presented to Pope Francis is just one of several St. Augustine icons painted by Father Cannuli.
Another image showing Christ before the crucifixion with the crown of thorns, draped with a cloak and with tied hands, which is often called “Extreme Humility,” has been painted by him about 15 times, with slight variations.
One copy was presented to the famed St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Egyptian Sinai, where it has been used in Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Another of his icons was presented to Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Archbishop of Krakow who was a close associate of Pope John Paul II.
“I believe the icons go where they are intended to go,” Father Cannuli said, adding “for me, the most important one is the one I am working on at the time.”
See more examples of Father Cannuli’s work at his website.