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Icons transform walls of Greek Orthodox church

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The blank tablet -- often intimidating to a writer or terrifying to an artist -- can also wondrously become for some a miraculous opportunity.

For Rev. Fr. Ted Paraskevopoulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Winnipeg, the latter seems to be the case, for something remarkable has transpired in this, the only Greek Orthodox church in Manitoba, over the past two years.

Where, for many years, there had been bare, stark white walls, there are now bold, colourful icons covering the walls in and around the altar of the church at 2255 Grant Ave. -- and this is just the beginning of an enormous undertaking that began in 2010.

The interior of the church, built in 1973, was mostly white stucco, says Paraskevopoulos, who moved here from Toronto three years ago, and he's not sure why, as it's not common for Greek Orthodox churches.

"If you have visited other Orthodox churches in the world, especially in the older countries such as Greece and Russia, you will see that Orthodox churches are not meant to be white, but they are meant to be vibrant and full of life and covered from the floor to the ceiling with icons," says Paraskevopoulos.

"There should be a plan from the beginning where everything is placed in a specific place -- position is very important. Iconography is part of the worship. It is considered liturgical."

The project began with the installation of a huge icon of the 12 apostles going to receive Holy Communion. Placed on the two back walls high up, the icon draws the eye to the altar and was completed last year by Romanian-born iconographer Florin Vlad.

The "icons are not realistic on purpose," says Paraskevopoulos, "because it is supposed to involve you, reveal a theological truth about an event, not make it historical... All icons are otherworldly."

With the focus on the two main parallels of promise and fulfilment, the 30-year-old priest hopes to next fill the two currently bare walls of the nave, where the congregation sits. The idea is to connect the promise of the Old Testament with the fulfilment of the promise in the New Testament. Scenes from the Old Testament would be depicted along one wall, with scenes from the New Testament along the opposite wall.

"For example, Adam and Eve with the serpent, with Eve being tempted, from the Old Testament, with its parallel of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary -- considered the new Eve -- who said 'yes' to God," says Paraskevopoulos.

Last June, four more icons were installed by Vlad on the two side walls inside the altar and on the two side walls in front. Sketched first, then painted on canvas in the studio, the icons were then brought out and put up, with the gold leaf and varnishing done at the church.

Rich in deep and colourful hues of red, green, blue and much gold, the blue is used in the icons to represent divinity and the red represents martyrdom, blood or humanity.

The icons on the back wall behind the altar were painted by noted Greek iconographer Elias Katsaros in 1979, says Paraskevopoulos.

An enormous wooden iconostasis or icon screen wall, designed in Greece, was installed about 10 years ago. Six vibrant stained-glass windows were installed in 1983, designed by famed Winnipeg artist Leo Mol. A circular window in the back of the church was also done by Mol and installed in 1974.

The completion of this latest project could take about 10 years, Paraskevopoulos says. The icons so far have all been made possible by donations from church members. As people donate, work proceeds.

The icons make the church look more beautiful, warm and inviting, but that is not their primary purpose.

"The word iconographer, translated from Greek, means icon writer," says Paraskevopoulos, "because we believe that the iconographer is not creating a piece of artwork, he is actually writing theology with a different medium so that we can understand and so it's easy and visual for us to grasp the concepts that are taught to us through Holy Scripture."


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2011 J12

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