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True icon unveiled in Tualatin church

Resurrection Catholic Parish mixes new and old world

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Archbishop Alexander Sample, center, leads the blessing ceremony of Resurrection Catholic Parishs new icon on Sunday.In architectural terms, the church at Resurrection Catholic Parish in Tualatin is thoroughly modern. With clean lines and a wall of unadorned windows, the worship space values simplicity. Decor is sparse, but best described as “Byzantine.”

To artist Mary Katsilometes, who has followed 2,000-year-old traditions in religious iconography for 25 years, the church was a blank slate when she began work on the series of icons that have gradually appeared on walls since 2009. She studiously replicates the gold leaf-accented religious scenes that have come to symbolize the earliest days of Christianity.

“An icon represents a concrete expression of prayer,” explains Anna Mosey, pastoral associate at Resurrection. “It’s become kind of an ecumenical tool in Catholic and some Protestant churches.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: JUAN KIS - Iconographer Mary Katsilometes stands in front of the latest icon she completed for Resurrection Catholic Parish in Tualatin.The presence of icons in Catholic and even Protestant churches is a relatively recent phenomenon, as the icon was traditionally a symbol of Orthodox tradition. But in the early 20th century, iconography traveled with the massive wave of Russian citizens fleeing the Russian revolution.

This visual marriage of faiths resonated with Katsilometes, whose mother insisted she be raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but whose father was Greek Orthodox.

“Growing up in a Greek Orthodox community, the icons were always around,” she recalls. “But I never really understood them.”

When she later encountered the familiar genre in art school, she was struck by the negative stigma Byzantine icons carried. With a characteristically skewed sense of perspective and asymmetric facial features, icons were often referred to as poorly drawn.

“But the aesthetics in the icon are completely symbolic, and in many ways relate to contemporary art,” Katsilometes says.

“It’s undergirded by geometry that is based on the panel size,” she adds. “Once I figure out the geometry of the panel, that gives me the module of the size of the head.”

From her studio, she can draw in 8-foot by 8-foot increments.

Her latest work, however, compelled her to work on scaffolding at the entrance to the church.

Iconic Apostles

On Sunday, Resurrection unveiled an 11-by-16-foot, 800-pound icon, titled “Holy Pentecost.” It depicts the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne in the center of the Twelve Apostles.

Given Kastilometes’ yearlong process of creation, the image was hardly a surprise to the congregation of 1,200 families, who saw the icon in its many stages of completion.

“I am working in the classical medium of true gesso on a wood panel, and painting with egg tempura and using gold leaf,” Kastilometes says. “Egg tempura is one of the most durable mediums ever, because you're using the inside of an egg yolk mixed with dry pigments.”

It is also one of the most painstaking media, however. Kastilometes describes it as “going on like watercolor,” requiring multiple coats.

She then seals the several layers with “olifa,” the Russian name of a linseed oil-based varnish.

“You put down all of these transparent layers, and the oil makes the color come alive in the same way as if you had put water over a dry rock," she says. "It’s that startling of a change.”

A venerable series

It is the fourth in a series of five commissioned icons Kastilometes has been working on since 2009. The first depicts the crucifixion of Jesus and, at 13 feet tall, serves as the church’s central crucifix. Subsequent icons depict the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the annunciation which, in Catholic theology, is the moment Mary is told she will give birth to the son of God.

A fifth icon will depict Jesus’ baptism.

Each icon is dedicated with a blessing ceremony, and Sunday’s was conducted by Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland.

“Once an icon is blessed, it is considered to be worthy of veneration by the people of God,” Kastilometes explains, emphasizing that veneration is different from worship.

The creation of an icon is viewed as a kind of spiritual conversation, she adds, with the artist acting as a conduit for a divine message. Iconography comes with its own language, which is why Kastilometes says she “writes” icons, rather than “creating” them. In keeping with iconographic tradition, she does not sign her name anywhere on the image.

Lifelong study

An iconography teacher herself, Kastilometes compares the initial training in the discipline to a classical education in Japanese calligraphy.

“The master tells a student to do calligraphy for 10 years, and then they’re ready to do calligraphy,” she says. In iconography, “master teachers tell you to stand in front of the icon and let it teach you, and then you’ll be ready to do an icon.”

But she has found ways to skirt convention, even while adhering to Byzantine tradition.

“It's a very nontraditional way of depicting this image,” Kastilometes says of her newest icon, “because the figures are not arranged in a horseshoe (shape). And there is also the mother of God enthroned in the center of it. In Orthodox tradition, she's rarely shown. But as the first among the apostles, in my icon, I put her in the center, which I find more pleasing.”

For more information about the icon series, visit Resurrection's icon page.

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