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How Orthodox church icons are made, tell visual faith stories

York, PA, July 8, 2015

If you've ever been in an Orthodox church, you've undoubtedly been greeted with walls covered with icons. They may look like simple drawings, but each one has a purpose and a specialized artist, an iconographer, behind them.

Elias Katsaros applies a thin coat of gold Saturday to a sticky adhesive on an icon in the dome he began many years before at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Springettsbury Township. Saints George and Demetrius, the icons he is working on, were Roman warriors who died for their Christian beliefs. Elias Katsaros applies a thin coat of gold Saturday to a sticky adhesive on an icon in the dome he began many years before at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Springettsbury Township. Saints George and Demetrius, the icons he is working on, were Roman warriors who died for their Christian beliefs.

Here are five things to know about the icons you see in Orthodox churches:

How icons are made

Iconographer Elias Katsaros doesn't actually paint the icons directly onto the wall. It's more like wallpaper, the Rev. Peter Pier of St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church said. The iconographer paints the icons on canvas, then brings them to the church and cuts them out using scissors. You need some great scissor skills to be able to cut out an icon, and Katsaros said he only uses a good pair a couple times before he buys new to ensure they're sharp.

The canvas is then glued onto the wall and gold leaf is applied after. If the wall leaks, the paint probably wouldn't be ruined, the canvas would just pull away from the wall, Pier said. That's part of the reason Katsaros paints on canvas.

Spirit over form

The icons aren't meant to look realistic or show detailed muscle and form like some religious paintings.

"They're not supposed to be beautiful, they're supposed to be spiritual," Katsaros said.

When you come into church, you don't want to be distracted and see big muscles, he said. He transforms the image to be stylized with no shadows or depth to draw focus to the story rather than the form.

Color counts

Colors are important and symbolic in icons. Russian Orthodox for example use bright colors, but Greek Orthodox and Antiochian Orthodox use earth tones that are similar to those used in icons painted thousands of years ago. To stick to surfaces, paint used to be made with egg and things from the earth, giving a muted and faded color. Now, the tones are similar but acrylic is used.

Red is an earth color, blue a heavenly color. Both colors are used in the garments of Mary and Jesus at the front of the nave (where the congregation sits) on the Iconostasis. Mary's dress is blue, a heavenly color, because she held Jesus in her womb. Her head covering is the earth color, red, because of her humanity. Jesus' colors are inverted, his outer garment is blue and his inner is red, symbolizing his heavenly presence on Earth.

Gary Stump, bottom, of Springettsbury Township and a member of the church, keeps fresh sponges at the ready as the canvas is attached to the wall last week. Now retired, Stump helped with earlier iconography installations at the church and is now able to devote much more of time for this installation. Retired from Verizon, where climbing utility poles was part of the job, Stump said he wasn't afraid of heights. Elias Katsaros, top, began painting iconography at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Springettsbury Township in 1996. Gary Stump, bottom, of Springettsbury Township and a member of the church, keeps fresh sponges at the ready as the canvas is attached to the wall last week. Now retired, Stump helped with earlier iconography installations at the church and is now able to devote much more of time for this installation. Retired from Verizon, where climbing utility poles was part of the job, Stump said he wasn't afraid of heights. Elias Katsaros, top, began painting iconography at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Springettsbury Township in 1996.

Voluntary icons

There are some icons that are always in an Orthodox church, always in the same places. For example, Mary is always on the left of the Iconostasis and next to her is the patron saint of the church. Christ is always in the dome and the Virgin Mary is always in the front on the East wall.

Then, around Christ in the dome, there will always either be prophets or archangels telling the story of the coming of Christ.

Aside from those mandatory icons, each church can choose the other icons they want displayed as well as how many they want. St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York chose St. Thecla as one of their icons because she is a woman saint. Pier says there are far too few women saints in churches and honored in the Antiochian denomination.

They also chose St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) because he is one of the most popular saints in the Orthodox church, two hymnographers to be displayed where the choir stands, St. Peter and St. Paul because they are traditional and are the most important apostles and St. Mary of Egypt, one of the most beloved in the church.

Taking it all in

Some people think icons are idols, but they're not, Katsaros said. Iconography didn't start as iconography, there's always been art in places of worship. Orthodox people believe it's a representation, not idolatry.

We take for granted that people are going to be able to read, said Pier. But there are people in countries where literacy is not very common. Icons powerfully tell stories using the visual images that affect those who can read and those who can't. Religion used to be an oral tradition with no printed Bible, so iconography is telling Bible stories without words, the way it's been done for over 2,000 years.

How to become an iconographer

St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Springettsbury Township has been adding icons to their walls for years. The iconographer, Elias Katsaros who lives in Huntsville, Alabama, comes back every year for a couple weeks to install the next portion of icons. He put up a handful of icons this week and expects to finish the project next year. It's his last big church project before he retires and he's enjoying the work. The big church projects are physically difficult with climbing scaffolding and travelling hundreds of miles to the churches and he's tired of those aspects of the work. Katsaros is 70 years old and started painting icons around 1972. He has done about 25 or 30 churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church in York.

"Some people can do icons but can't climb," Katsaros said. To do big projects, you must do both.

There are only about 10 or 12 iconographers in the country, many coming from Greece. While he is retiring, he has had a nun under the Romanian archdiocese studying under him for about 20 years.

While he is retiring, he'll still be pursuing his passion of painting portraits and sceneries and taking smaller icon projects. His schooling is in art, which he recommends for anyone wanting to become an iconographer. Study anatomy too, because if you don't know 3D you'll mess up 2D, Katsaros said. You have to know how to draw proportions. There are also certain books you have to read to do the traditional iconography, and with the tradition's complex history and influences, it's hard to learn the true form. One of the books is only written in Greek.

In Eastern countries a lot of people do iconography because of the large Orthodox population, Katsaros said, but he sees the religion, especially Antiochian Orthodox, "growing like aunts" in the U.S.

The outlines on the wall can be seen on the canvas before the border is painted. Elias Katsaros began painting iconography at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Springettsbury Township in 1996. The outlines on the wall can be seen on the canvas before the border is painted. Elias Katsaros began painting iconography at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Springettsbury Township in 1996.

To view more images of Elias' work, please see the York Daily Record's gallery.

York Daily Record

08 / 07 / 2015

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