The art of iconography has been a long-standing Byzantine tradition dating back to at least the 3rd century, if not earlier if you subscribe to the tradition that St. Luke was the first to paint an icon of the Mother of God. Churches and private chapels, indeed many an Orthodox home, is full of the holy images of the life of Christ and the saints. As with most things Greek, times may come and go, but holy Tradition still holds sway. Such is the case with the tag team iconography studio of brothers Panagiottis and Dimitris Christodoulou.
I caught a glimpse of them on a cold night on the hill of the Agia Skepi Monastery in White Haven, Pennsylvania. There was a glowing full moon with a captivating golden halo around it; the wintry wind wisped flakes of first-born snow. I had gone to my car to get an extra blanket. On my return, inside the chapel window of the newly constructed church of Sts Paul and Peter, one was straddling a ladder and delicately applying deep indigo blue to the background of one of the prophets. The other was going over the floral border design to an interior wall. So dark the night and so bright the naked bulb they were working under, that I was immediately entranced. I stood outside the window of the chapel in the dark, despite the cold and my parka hood, in awe of the mystical manners of the artistic process. Here were the artists at work, close to midnight and what they were creating was beautiful.
I had a chance to speak to them about their experience as iconographers and the creative process in the dining hall of the pilgrim’s quarters at the monastery. Dimitri and Panagioti hail from Thessalonika and were expressly shipped from Greece to finish the iconography of the monastery. They are some of the few practicing iconographers in Greece. This is their third job in the US, having completed commissions in St Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY and another church in Maine.
As they explained, an iconographer deals with bringing pictures and stories from the Bible to life for the education and edification of those in church, much like a comic strip around the Church. While there are no state-sponsored schools for the official study of iconography in Greece, an artist can specialize in Byzantine techniques as part of art school preparation. However, still the best way to gain experience in the craft is to follow the tradition of apprenticeship where one would be hired under a master in his studio and learn from modeling his techniques. The techniques can be learned in a period of two years, but to be a really gifted iconographer, Dimitri cautions, “one must lead a spiritual life of ascetism. If an iconographer does not follow the faith and deepen their spiritual life, then they eventually reach a plateau from which they can not develop.” One cannot study iconography but live it; an artist can dabble in Byzantine techniques but they would not be considered an iconographer, only a unique artist who dabbles in Byzantine art. “It is very easy to get off the right path in iconography without an adherence to spiritual practice,” he confesses. One becomes either an iconographer that makes technical progress because of spiritual growth or one becomes an “eccentric kind of artist” who dabbles in iconography.
Dimitris maintains that the tradition of iconography is strong in North America, even if it has not made progress as the other formal iconography schools in the Old World. While it is true iconographers must follow certain stylitic trraditions they are not slave to such. Each can imbue their subject with subjectivity. For example, he/she might depict a personality in the saint by sketching them with more stern characteristics. Each school of course has its own style, Russian, the Cretan, the Macedonian. The brothers follow in the Macedonian style. However, the essence is the same. They even distinguished a particular North American style of iconography that is still in its infancy but which they believe will develop into its own unique school.
“We are sentenced to work for the biggest boss of the universe,” Dimitris admits with a laugh. “He is a tough taskmaster.”