They have been called "windows to the kingdom." The saints gaze prayerfully with gentleness and concern, yet they have a silent, intense power.
These heavenly creations are icons, the work of Basil Lefchick, artist in residence at Wesley Theological Seminary in the District, who says the ancient art of iconography is his ministry.
Icons, which date back to the beginning of the Christian Roman Empire in the 4th century, are images sacred to Eastern Orthodox churches and illustrate biblical stories in mosaics, frescoes, paintings and sculpture.
Icons have survived centuries of tradition, Lefchick said, outlasting the iconoclasm of the 600s and 700s during which Christians opposed to the worship of images went on rampages, crushing and destroying them. Few icons exist that were created before 800 A.D.
Yet the tradition of iconography has survived. "Basically I'm a part of the tradition and I continue it," said Lefchick, a member of the Eastern Christian Orthodox Church.
"The art is totally devoted to serving the Christian church," he said. "They satisfy a fundamental human need to encounter God concretely, not only in words but through images that are visible, touchable and can express faith of the church in a clear, intelligent, humanly appealing way."
Lefchick, 46, who has a master's degree in dogmatic theology, quit teaching in 1972 and took "a leap of faith" to become an iconographer. He is one of about a half dozen professional iconographers in the United States, suggesting the rarity of this ancient work by artists who delve deep into Scriptures to interpret those words into pictures.
Lefchick recently finished a set of six icon paintings for Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, Conn. The icons were delivered last Saturday in time for the Sunday of the Orthodoxy, celebrating the date when icons were once again permitted in churches, Lefchick said.
"The veneration of icons is not idol worship," said Sergei Bouteneff, priest of the New Britain church. "Any honor or respect to the saints who are depicted passes through them ultimately to Christ to whom they are glorified."
When the Orthodox Church reached a settlement in 787 that permitted the display of icons, it mandated a standardized use for the way holy persons could be depicted and ruled that the illustrations must adhere faithfully to the Scriptures.
For example, Lefchick said, "because Scripture teaches no one sees the Father, in iconography there is never an attempt to portray the Father. In the New Testament, Jesus says when you see me you see the Father. We attempt to suggest an image of the Father by portraying Christ in an awesome manner."
Icons are often two-dimensional to deemphasize their sensuality and convey their holiness. Bodies are deemphasized, almost flattened to the point that it appears there is no body under the garments, Lefchick said. The eyes tend to be a bit more dominant, suggesting awareness and intelligence, and mouths are smaller to emphasize a nonsensual appearance.
"What we're looking for is a spiritual quality rather than a sensual beauty," Lefchick said. "Icons remind us of our goal to grow to a humanity that is transformed by the Gospel. That's what saints are. We need to be able to see that. That's why beauty is important."
Lefchick's Byzantine-style paintings joined six panels of icons he painted that were hanging in the church's sanctuary. The most recent paintings, which Lefchick started in December, portray eight saints in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. Saint Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome, and his mother St. Helen are painted in stylized elaborate robes of royal purple and rich jewels. They are depicted presenting sacred vessels, indicating their role as benefactors in the church.
St. Cyril and St. Methodius, apostles who translated Scriptures from Greek to the language of the Slavs, are depicted on one panel titled "The Apostles of the Slavs." On another panel are the "New Martyrs," St. Peter the Aleut, painted with an eternally innocent face of a boy, and the Priest Monk Juvenaly.
St. Peter the Aleut was martyred when he was about 21 in the early 19th century after he had accompanied Russian missionaries to Fort Ross in California, where he was baptized as an Orthodox. There he was confronted by Spanish Franciscans who tried to convert him to Roman Catholicism and tortured him to death.
The Priest Monk Juvenaly in the beginning of the 19th century worked as a missionary to Alaskan natives. The local shaman perceived him as a threat and Juvenaly was murdered. Juvenaly and St. Peter were recognized as saints by the Orthodox Church in 1980, the first officially recognized martyrs of the Orthodox Church in America, Bouteneff said.
On two other panels are St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom. Each icon is portrayed with a halo, indicating the figure has passed through death to heaven. Yet "the icons remind us they are still a part of our lives in spite of death," Lefchick said. "We know they are concerned for us. It reminds us of their oneness with us."