- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

"If icons tell you anything, they tell you if you want to get close to God you have to be quiet," says icon collector Daniel Callahan of Washington, who has been gathering these religious images from around the world for the past 20 years. "Each one tells that same story but in a different way."

Before there was art there was the image. Existing outside the rules of perspective or line, the earliest images of Christ, Mary and the saints were more evocative than representative, more archetype than art. Even now, icons of the Eastern Orthodox churches can stir more emotion than they can admiration for the artist's skill. Apart from time or space, they beckon the viewer inward, to a world of contemplation, transformation and, ultimately, peace.

Those who seek that interior peace can immerse themselves in the sublimity of today's iconic art, as more than 200 of these paintings some by local iconographers come to Washington from around the world for a show later this month.

The exhibit, at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Northwest, brings together icons from several different Orthodox traditions, including the Russian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The Greek Orthodox Church is represented as well, with icons from such influential artists as Christy John Chakos and two-time Fulbright scholar Thomas Xenakis.

The Eastern Orthodox Church used icons extensively after the Roman Emperor Constantine transferred the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Constantinople in 330. Wherever Byzantine influence was felt, so was the impact of what the Greeks called the eikon, or the image. Growing out of the mosaic and fresco traditions, these images accompanied Byzantine expansion into Serbia, Russia and the Middle East, providing effective and cogent evidence for conversion.

Among the two dozen icons Mr. Callahan plans to show at the exhibit is one a friend brought back for him from Ethiopia, a land that became Christian in 324, long before Europe's conversion. A modern piece, made within the past 10 years, "The Story of Menelek" is painted on animal skin. It tells of Menelek, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who brought the ark of the covenant to Ethiopia.

The icon shows the effects of water damage, but its meaning is clear. The piece combines the bold colors characteristic of African culture with the distinctive flatness of Byzantine and Coptic icons.

While Mr. Callahan's Ethiopian icon is relatively new, an icon gives a feeling of timelessness, an impression of space that exists outside the confines of the frame. At times, icons proved so powerful that they generated a controversy of their own in the 8th and 9th centuries, after a group of icon-haters the iconoclasts or icon-breakers became concerned that icons were being used as objects of worship, rather than vessels for veneration. The result: smashed images and destroyed icons throughout the Eastern world.

But that same power is why iconographers those who make icons and even many collectors refer to them as something more than just art.

"It breaks my heart to see icons hanging in museums when they should be venerated in churches," says Mr. Callahan, who is not Orthodox. "These images are very powerful things."

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Many people are more familiar with icons in computer usage than they are with the term as a religious device. Yet religious icons function in much the same way as their computer namesakes. Computer-literate people would never confuse the little pictures on the desktop with the real things, but they recognize the desktop icon as something that connects to something else. In much the same way, religious icons function not as literal representations of a particular religious figure, but as a means of connection to something greater.

"They give you a sense of the eternal imperishable," says Mr. Chakos, an artist living in the District.

Trained at the Art Students League in New York City, and in Paris, Mexico City, Italy and Greece, he has taught art at the National Cathedral School and has given workshops at the Smithsonian. He just turned 80 and has been making icons and working in other media since his days as an art student.

But in iconography, as Mr. Chakos is quick to point out, the process is as important as the product. Often, the art of iconography is referred to as "theology in color." For iconographers, the work is more a "collaboration with God" than it is an individual effort.

It is a collaboration that begins with prayer.

"Of course, you always start with prayer," says Mr. Chakos. "You have to be in the right frame of mind to make an icon."

Because icons are considered spiritual expressions with little opportunity for interpretation, many iconographers (a word that combines the Greek for "image" and the Latin for "writer") prefer to say that an icon is written and not painted, that they are in effect "taking dictation" from a higher power.

Unlike a secular painting, an icon is made or written using an unchanging series of steps. These are the canons of iconography: prayer, the association of certain colors with certain saints, and an arrangement of figures based on importance and significance.

The result is a stylized portrait, with elongated torsos and flat frontal views that can seem strange at first to those more acquainted with Western religious art. But most icons contain at least the seed of a recognizable figure, which seems to glow from within the frame.

"Things come to you as you work, " says Mr. Chakos. "You see how things unfold, and you are not even aware of how you did what you did."

One of Mr. Chakos' renderings of the Virgin and child came to him one day as he was recalling an incident that happened to him during World War II.

"I had been shot accidentally and had already had the last rites," he remembers. "I remember seeing people standing around me, people I had known who had died. And there was one lady who was mixing something in a cauldron. She kept saying it wasn't my time yet."

That woman became the face of the Virgin of Mr. Chakos' full-length icon, which hangs in his front porch. It and perhaps nine other of his icons including "St. Peter," "Encaustic Christ" and "St. Catherine" will be shown in the upcoming exhibition.

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For Mr. Xenakis, creating art is part of a journey "toward theosis, my unification with God, and eternal life," as he puts it.

The artist, who lives in Annandale, came to the Washington area in 1998. He teaches drawing and painting at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, at Marymount University in Arlington and at the Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, and has been working in both sacred and secular genres for many years.

Among the 10 works he will exhibit at the show are "St. John the Baptist," "St. Peter," "St. Patrick" and "The Crucifixion."

A Fulbright Scholar to Greece in research scholarship and an artist-in-residence in 1994 and 1995, and 2000 and 2001, he studied and worked with traditional Byzantine media such as egg tempera, mosaic, egg-oil emulsion, wax encaustic and precious metals. He was trained in part on the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, the center of Orthodox monasticism, and works on sacred liturgical icons to perfect the techniques.

As a contemporary artist Mr. Xenakis, 46, is unusual, using the media of the Byzantine era within his secular works, which deal with issues of faith in multicultural American society.

•••

Iconographer Evelyn Rophael, who plans to show as many as 15 pieces in the exhibit, began making icons just a few years ago, after her marriage to an Egyptian of the Coptic variant of Orthodoxy.. She and her husband, Wafik Rophael, have traveled the world studying the process. She "writes" icons for Coptic churches throughout the country, while he makes the frames, using the style associated with the Egyptian Christian Church.

"Every faith has its own style of icons," says Mrs. Rophael, 46. "I would say that Coptic icons are deceptively simple."

Of course, icons must be compelling.

"They may not be pretty, but they do need to be attractive," she says. "You don't want to lose a chance to tell the story."

Regardless of time period, place of origin or artistic expertise, all icons maintain a marked similarity of detail.

"Icons are not supposed to add new ideas," says Mrs. Rophael. "We stay pretty close to the original."

In "The Burial," her icon of Christ brought down from the cross, Mrs. Rophael uses iconic conventions, including the cloth cover and the sad-looking but hopeful expression that can be found in icons throughout the Eastern world. Yet she also adds a device of her own, a single small flower lying close to Christ.

"If I were there I would want to leave a flower," she says. "I think that's the way most people would feel."

Mrs. Rophael uses acrylic paints for her icons. But many iconographers use the same kind of materials that their forebears did: wooden panels, gold leaf and paints made from egg tempera.

"It's an exciting way to work," Mr. Chakos says. "There is a kind of sacredness to what you are doing when you know it has been done this way for more than a thousand years."

Mr. Chakos mixes his paints using an egg base, which makes the colors adhere to the wooden panels. He also uses the encaustic method, in which pigments are mixed with wax and heated to create a homogeneous layer of color. Finally, he picks out parts of the work he wishes to highlight with gold leaf.

When the moonlight washes over the icons arranged in his Northwest studio, "something holy takes place," he says.

"When the light strikes the picture that is when the magic happens," he says. "The person may be long dead but there is something that remains of a very vibrant spirit there."

•••

So what makes a "good" icon?

"We judge an icon by who is moved to prayer," says Father Basil Kissal of Sts. Constantine and Helen Church. "A good icon will make you want to pray."

Icons are an integral part of both the architecture and experience of Orthodoxy. No Orthodox church would be complete without its iconostasis, the icon wall that separates the sanctuary from the body of the church.

In the Washington area, an influx of immigrants has resulted in a plethora of Orthodox churches. Each brings its own tradition of icon making. But all are linked by the powerful pull of the past.

Since 1918, Sts. Constantine and Helen has been a beacon for members of the Washington area's Greek community, which began arriving in great numbers just before the 1900s. .

Initially, most of the immigrants to Washington were men, lured by the promise of economic self-sufficiency. Often, the new arrivals were from the same village and together or stayed with a compatriot who had gone before.

"People came because there were other Greeks here," Father Basil says. "Families were intertwined and unbreakable."

After World War II, many Greeks moved away from the old downtown, following 16th Street uptown or leaving the District altogether for the suburbs. It is a pattern that continues as immigrants from the Orthodox tradition move in and establish churches, often at the behest of relatives who have come before them. Like their icons, the Orthodox churches in the Washington area remain a constant in the lives of their members.

"We are united by a singularity of purpose," Father Basil says. "There are many churches now, but we are one family."


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