By Richard Mammana Jr.
November 25 is the annual commemoration of James Otis Sargent Huntington (1854-1935), one of the founders of the Order of the Holy Cross, the first stable American religious community for men in the Episcopal Church.
The monastic’s father was F.D. Huntington, Bishop of Central New York and a convert from Unitarianism. After preparation at Harvard and a now defunct divinity school in Syracuse, Huntington was ordained to the priesthood in 1880.
While on retreat at S. Clement’s, Philadelphia, he decided to form a distinctly American community dedicated to missionary work and prayer among the poorest residents of New York City, in close cooperation with the Sisters of St. John Baptist now based at Mendham, New Jersey.
Huntington was superior of the Order of the Holy Cross for a number of non-consecutive terms during his half-century as a monk, the last three decades of which were spent at West Park, New York, in the first lasting purpose-built monastery since the reign of Henry VIII. In addition to his work concentrated in the Hudson Valley, Huntington founded schools for boys and girls in Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, and a mission in Liberia.
A recent installation in the chapter room of Huntington’s monastery — where monks reflect on community life by reading a chapter of their Rule — is a striking triptych (three-panel painting) by American iconographer Zachary Roesemann of Sacred Icons. Roesemann’s studio is in the Mission House at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York.
The triptych takes the traditional form of a Byzantine deesis icon, whose name comes from the Greek δέησις, for supplication or petition. Most deesis icons show the Lord enthroned as Pantocrator, or the ruler of all, with the Virgin to the viewer’s left and St. John the Baptist at the viewer’s right. This icon shows St. Benedict on the left and Huntington on the right.
Depicting this modern saint on an icon posed challenges, because there are no surviving color photographs of Huntington. Roesemann worked with four pictures and three portraits of the monastic founder to make an informed decision about his probable eye color. The portraits are familiar to visitors and retreatants from the great hall, stairway, and library at West Park. While Huntington wore glasses, traditional icons never show spectacles because the saint’s vision is now perfected in the transfigured and fuller direct vision of God.
Huntington stands in a formulaic pose wearing the order’s habit and offering his monastery, and by extension the community he founded, to Christ. St. Benedict holds his sixth-century Holy Rule in a mirrored offering in the black Benedictine habit.
The Lord blesses both — and the community — from the center, supporting a jeweled and clasped book of the Gospels. The three sections of the triptych are tied together by the Hudson River to the immediate east of the monastery. In a further blend of Byzantine inspiration with Western subject matter, the titles above the Pantokrator and on his nimbus are in Greek, while the identifications of the monastic saints are in English.
The triptych is in an area of the monastery where only the monks have a routine reason to see it. Retreatants should ask the guest master if they wish to see it in person.