Colin Podmore introduces Alexander Debenham’s portrait of Bishop Geoffrey Rowell – with contributions by the sitter and the artist

In January Geoffrey Rowell agreed to my proposal that he be painted by Alexander Debenham – an idea sparked by Debenham’s portrait of Fr Barry Orford. Forty of Geoffrey’s friends generously undertook to fund the project. The list of the bishops among them – Derby, Ebbsfleet, Ely, Fulham, Gibraltar, Bishop Peter Wheatley and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds – testifies to the breadth of the affection and respect in which he was held. A wider appeal would doubtless have generated many more subscribers.

Geoffrey was painted in the house in Fishbourne to which he had retired, sitting in his favourite high-backed chair. The composition reflects not only the artist’s skill and insight but also Geoffrey’s own innate creativity (shown, for example, in his hymns, notably his eucharistic hymn, ‘Your gentleness, O God of grace’, which has been set as an anthem by Paul Mealor). It also reflects aspects of his life, and theological themes that were important to him.

The first decision to be taken was what to wear. Just a cassock, or a cassock with academic dress? (Geoffrey was the last member of the House of Bishops with a non-honorary Doctorate of Divinity.) Even before meeting the artist Geoffrey’s choice was clear: episcopal robes. His fundamental identity, from his ordination in 1968 onwards, was his character as deacon, priest and ultimately bishop. It was no surprise that he should choose to wear a cope rather than a chimere, and under it not a rochet but his alb. He is depicted as a bishop, with his episcopal insignia: amethyst ring, pectoral cross, mitre and staff.

The comment that this would be ‘a theological portrait’ was one that Geoffrey always made when talking about the portrait. Many of his choices with regard to it reflect his interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, in which he first immersed himself when he visited the theological school on the island of Halki as an undergraduate, and his longstanding relationship with the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Geoffrey’s choice to hold a Victorian copy of the Book of Common Prayer reflects both his scholarly interest in the Victorian Church and his rootedness in the Anglican tradition. In private worship he generally used the modern-language Common Worship daily offices and eucharistic rite, but theologically and devotionally he was steeped in the Prayer Book. (He was already in his twenties when the liturgical revision which culminated in the Common Worship rites began in earnest.)

He chose to wear a jewelled golden cross rather than the Ethiopian silver cross that was made for his episcopal ordination. Not only does it complement the gold of cope, morse and stole, all replete with crosses: it also draws the eye to itself: theologically, to the cross of Christ. The cross, and therefore Christ himself, is at the centre of the portrait. The cross is also visible in the pattern of the cloth of the vestments. Between its arms is the Greek Christogram IC XC NIKA (Jesus Christ conquers).

Although in the portrait the text of the Epiphany Collect is hidden, Geoffrey mentioned it whenever he spoke about this ‘theological portrait’. In translating the Sarum collect, Cranmer had expressed ‘usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur’ as ‘may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead’, thereby inserting a specific reference to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis or deification (that incorporation into the life of God is our ultimate destiny). Geoffrey was disappointed that the Liturgical Commission did not find a way of retaining this, the only reference to the doctrine of theosis in the Prayer Book, but instead returned to a more prosaic translation of the Sarum original: ‘may at last behold your glory face to face’.

In the icon, the Blessed Virgin Mary looks at her Son, pointing to him as the way of salvation. Similarly, Geoffrey looks not at the viewer but away from himself, towards the light that falls on his face. The analogy with the icon suggests that he is contemplating Christ, the Light of the world.

Geoffrey’s book about the Oxford Movement was entitled The Vision Glorious. In his tribute the Bishop of Chichester wrote, ‘In the resurrection may he enjoy the vision glorious that his longing eyes had so clearly glimpsed on earth.’ Alexander Debenham’s portrait shows Geoffrey contemplating that vision, and captures the longing in his eyes.

The portrait was completed in late May. When Geoffrey died on 11 June it had yet to be framed, but in the last week of his life he was given an A4 photograph of it, prompting one of the many conversations in which he discussed it.

Not long before his death, Geoffrey expressed the wish that the portrait should be presented to Pusey House, Oxford, which subsequently agreed to accept it. He was a Governor of Pusey House from 1979 until his death, and President of the Governors from 1996 to 2009. It seems appropriate that the portrait should have a permanent home in this, the principal repository of the history of the Oxford Movement.

The portrait will be on display following the memorial service which is to be held in Keble College Chapel on Saturday 21 October at 4 pm.

Colin Podmore is Director of Forward in Faith