Theodoros Papadopoulos has painted images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and angels that cover the walls and ceilings of churches.
Those images are not decorations, he says. Rather, they are a way of “meeting with the divine.”
“The icon has as its purpose to transport us into the realm of the spiritual experience, to go beyond the material world,” said Papadopoulos, a professional iconographer from Greece.
Last week, rather than working on icons for a church in Greece, Papadopoulos has been in Kansas, sharing his knowledge through a workshop held at the Catholic Diocese of Wichita’s Spiritual Life Center.
On Friday, Glenn Gunnels looked closely at the canvas in front of him, then at the example of St. Michael the Archangel. Slowly, he painted a few lines – by the nose, on the forehead, around the lips – giving depth to Michael’s face.
“I love the spirituality of the icons,” Gunnels said. “They’re supposed to be a window to the saint you’re praying to.”
Gunnels and the other students in Papadopoulos’ class spent nearly eight hours each day for an entire week working on a single image of Michael.
Sometimes they worked on blending different shades together to create Michael’s skin. Sometimes they worked on the sharp, geometric shapes comprising his cloak.
In the end, each had an icon of Michael, his sorrowful face surrounded by a golden halo. Angels never smile in icons, Papadopoulos said, because they aren’t human.
An icon is a religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel or the walls and ceiling of a church and used in the devotions of some Christians.
Papadopoulos paints in the style of Byzantine iconography and has created icons to cover the walls and ceilings of at least five churches.
Being an iconographer is not easy, Papadopoulos says. Without assistance, an iconographer can easily spend 15 years working on a single church.
Creating an icon is a deeply spiritual exercise, Papadopoulos said.
“According to the Orthodox church, an iconographer is a medium, and he delivers his mind and his body to the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit paints through him,” he said.
Icons themselves are full of meaning, Papadopoulos told a group of people who gathered last week for a lecture.
Byzantine icons don’t depict shadows caused by sunlight because they are meant to depict the illumination from God’s kingdom, which is everywhere.
Geometric shapes are used in the clothing of saints, demonstrating a heavenly order. Sometimes an icon will depict multiple events that occurred at different times, allowable because God is outside of space and time.
Icons also have a lack of depth, welcoming the viewer to “become” the depth, Papadopoulos said. The halo depicted around saints and Christ is a symbol of holiness, and the saints are never shown with a halo in images that take place prior to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended on Jesus’ disciples.
When the Virgin Mary is portrayed, she must have three small stars on her head and shoulders, indicating that she was a virgin before, during and after her pregnancy.
Papadopoulos says he is self-taught. He originally painted as a hobby but became interested in icons and began to study them, becoming a professional iconographer about 24 years ago.
The first icon he painted was of Jesus Christ. The second was of John the Baptist.
Since the financial crisis hit Greece, Papadopoulos has been teaching his skills to others, with workshops around Europe and the United States.
Last year, Mary Grassel created an icon of “Our Lady of the Passion,” Mary holding Jesus. That workshop was in Grassel’s home state of Wisconsin.
When she heard Papadopoulos would be back in the United States, she decided to fly to Wichita to create another icon.
As she paints, she calls on the saint or other religious figure she’s painting for assistance, she said.
“There’s just something about them,” Grassel said as she took a break from working on Michael’s cloak early in the week.
“After you paint an icon, there’s something about the eyes that you feel a real connection with who you’re painting. You actually start to see into their souls.”