Byzantine-Style Iconographer Tells Story Behind Fascinating Martin Luther King Icon

A Byzantine-style icon which portrays Martin Luther King as a martyred saint is the work of a man who was living in a cloistered monastery at the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

The story behind the striking portrait of the civil rights pioneer is even more fascinating, as iconographer Robert Lentz explains. “When those exciting things were happening I was behind cloistered walls, very unaware of what was happening in the world. So the Civil Rights Movement came, matured, and slowed down without me participating in it.”

So the Franciscan monk had to paint the leader of the African-American movement for equality and justice from photographs in books, as well as footage from documentaries. “Growing up in rural Colorado I had seen maybe three or four black people in my whole life,” he admits.

Finally leaving the cloister after 18 years, Lentz made his living by painting icons, or “writing,” as the art is called, of saints. For the most part unaware about the many sweeping societal changes that had taken place in America, he says he had to educate himself to get up to speed on what had happened in his country in those turbulent years.

When asked to paint Dr. Martin Luther King, he relates that he took a bus to San Francisco and “studied” the faces of African-Americans in the streets so he could more faithfully create the icon of the revered activist.

The Franciscan monk says that, as a Catholic, he had thought he would have a hard time painting the icon of a Baptist priest. However, after learning about the work of the great leader, he filled the icon with rich symbolism, and the resulting work of art is very powerful and thought-provoking.

“He was a saint who lived with the people, struggled with the people,” he says when asked to describe the incredible life of King. Lentz painted the murdered activist’s name in Greek at the top of the icon, hailing him as “Ο Άγιος Μαρτίνος” (Saint Martin) in Byzantine calligraphy.

The image is a likeness of King’s famous mugshot taken after his arrest on February 22,1956 as a result of the seminal Montgomery Bus Boycott which he had helped spearhead. Reverend King’s suit is shown somewhat wrinkled in the icon, to resemble the robe an ancient saint would wear.

The placard the minister holds shows his prisoner number at the Montgomery County Jail, just as he held it in the famous photograph.

“He was arrested so many times, and that was part of his martyrdom,” explains Lentz.

The prison bars behind represent the 29 different times he was arrested and jailed for his activism, as well as the overall enslavement and oppression of African-Americans in the United States. The text on the scroll he holds is from his speech in Albany, Georgia, given on December 14, 1961.

The final chapter of Martin Luther King’s life of valiant sacrifice was his martyrdom, which occurred on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, making him a modern-day saint in the eyes of many.