St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church adds ‘Missing piece’ in icon of Christ
Now, when parishioners of and visitors to St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Craig look up, they’ll see a reminder of the reason for their worship.
In the ceiling of the humble yet beautiful chapel, a large painting of Jesus Christ was installed in a dome-like disc this week, but, to adherents of this ancient Christian church, it’s more than just a painting. It’s an icon.
“To have Christ, ruler of all, in the dome, representing iconography in the center of the church, it’s kind of the missing piece in the iconographic tradition of the church,” said St. John’s presiding priest, Father David Henderson. “One of the most powerful things is to walk into the church and your eyes are drawn up. You see Christ, looking down. Christ looking down as the one through whom all things were created, in the dome of the cosmos, as it were. That’s full of pretty deep theological and spiritual meaning for us.”
In Greek Orthodoxy, Henderson explained, icons are a critical piece of worship. Several, all painted in the Byzantine style of the church, can be seen throughout the Craig chapel, featuring the Savior and others like Mary, the Mother of Christ and others. These icons are not the thing that is being worshiped, Henderson is careful to explain, but a vehicle through which those whom they depict may be.
“Orthodoxy has always understood our theology and spirituality in terms of the experience and the sort of interaction of the narrative of the Gospel,” Henderson said. “The visual representations of icons touch us in the senses in a different way than the written word.”
Henderson said that the church has been clear that icons — which are painted in Greek Orthodoxy in that highly stylized, somewhat two-dimensional, only pseudo-realistic Byzantine style — are not akin to the “graven images” decried by God in the Ten Commandments. They are simply a way to connect the physical with the spiritual. In fact their very visual style — a consistently patterned style across the worldwide church — is indicative of that understanding.
“It’s a depiction of divinized humanity,” Henderson said. “The divine and human intersecting.”
The new icon in the ceiling of the St. John chapel is a gift from a part-time parishioner to the Craig church, Bessie Zgourides. Zgourides is an accomplished iconographer with at least 25 years of experience in the medium, though she views it as a discipline, not truly an art.
“When I’m writing icons, or painting, the idea is that God is working through us, right?” Zgourides said. “The first icon was painted by St. Luke — Mary and Christ as a baby. We don’t really sign (the work). If we were to sign it, it’s ‘through the hands of,’ so the emphasis isn’t on the person but on the icon that is a vehicle to bring other people closer to God.”
Zgourides explained that the Byzantine style of the ancient church fell out of fashion for a period but was brought back after the influences of the Italian Renaissance made religious art more realistic. Henderson pointed out that the idol versus icon discussion was a contentious one in the early centuries of the church.
“Our spiritual lives are not lived apart from the body,” Henderson said. “There was a big controversy in the eighth century, people in Eastern Orthodoxy thinking icons were idolatrous. The church in 787 wisely said no, these aren’t violations of the commandment against graven images. This is a declaration that the invisible God came.”
For Zgourides, it’s an opportunity to be an instrument in the hands of her maker.
“It’s asking for help — first God’s help, and then other people,” she said, motioning to fellow parishioner Mike Charchalis as he prepared to hoist the icon into place. “I can’t do this without Mike and his crew. It’s a community effort, and it’s OK to ask for help. For me, it’s very spiritual. It helps me get closer to God. Every brush stroke — I usually have Byzantine music on, something peaceful and relaxing, and I get zoned out. Time and space disappear. I forget what time it is, I used to, when my kids were younger, almost forget to pick them up. But time and space cease to exist, and I focus. It’s a passion. I really love it.”
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