Time-ly story on Dallas iconographer

icon003For the world’s 250 million or so Orthodox Christians, this is Bright Week. And if it is Bright Week, that means that last Sunday was Great and Holy Pascha. Which means that I was so busy this week, as my students wrapped up their work here at the Washington Journalism Center, that I didn’t offer a post on some of the Pascha coverage. I did, however, work in a Pascha column of my own for Scripps Howard.

But there was an interesting multi-media package in the Dallas Morning News about the work of iconographer Vladimir Grigorenko and the icons he is writing (you “write” an icon, not “paint” it) at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of Dallas. This has been an 8-year project.

Now, I happen to have met this man, because he is the godfather of Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher and I attended the Dreher family chrismation rite not that long ago.

I have also written a few icon stories in my time, several before I converted into the faith myself. It’s a rich and very complex subject, with lots of details to cherish and/or mess up. You have to capture the craft as well as the spirituality. Here is a key piece of Roy Appleton’s report:

Church leaders hired him to create icons for a wooden screen that stands in front of the altar. And in April 2000, he arrived with sketchy English and a fervent Christian faith to undertake what became a yearlong project. “I had in mind I would go back to Ukraine,” he says.

But once the screen was done — depicting Jesus, Mary, saints and disciples — the cathedral’s white walls and ceiling stood obviously bare. And Mr. Grigorenko was asked to continue his work and take on a canvas of plastered drywall. He figured the challenge would take two years or so.

Since then, the wiry artist has been at it six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, grinding pigment stones, producing colors, climbing scaffolds and glorifying his Dallas church with Christian scenes and figures.

“The most important concept here was to represent the story of Christ,” he says, standing beneath his artistic vision, his bearded face void of emotion.

Now there is a problem here, one that may be linked to that phrase “his bearded face void of emotion.” You see, the people of lands in and around Russia have a stoic quality to them, but there is deep, deep emotion in there. That gets poured into worship, art, literature and many other things. It is a different style and, frankly, iconography is a good fit.

I am having trouble picturing Grigorenko dealing with this topic without getting into the other side of the work — the rituals of prayer and fasting that go with this calling. It is more than art.

Was he silent? Was he asked?

And, finally, there is one other amazing detail in this human drama that really needed to be included — but didn’t make the cut.

putinIt would have been easy to find, since it ran — on the record — in a Dallas Morning News weblog. This Dreher post was called “The Icon that Wasn’t” and here is the crucial part:

Not long ago, Vladimir Grigorenko, the iconographer at St. Seraphim’s Orthodox Cathedral in Oak Lawn, received a call from an editor at Time. Would Mr. Grigorenko create an icon for the magazine? The image Time wanted was not one of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint. Time wanted an icon of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was a problem. In Orthodox Christianity, icons are not mere images of holy figures and events. Icons are revered as sacred objects, as windows into the world of the divine.

Mr. Grigorenko, who converted to Christianity in his native Ukraine during the last days of the Soviet Union, instantly refused. When he told this story to an American friend, the startled American responded that Time was likely to name Vladimir Putin its Person of the Year.

“If that happens,” the American said, “you just gave up the chance to illustrate the cover of the year’s most important issue of one of the world’s most important magazines. You would have been famous. You might have made a lot of money.”

“What’s that to me?” Mr. Grigorenko said dismissively. Holy things are for the holy.

Amazing, right? That detail may not be the lede in a Pascha story. But there is no way in the world to leave it out. There is more to this story than art.

Illustrations: For more of these glorious icons by Vladimir Grigorenko, click here.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    It astounds me that Time would even ask this. It never occurred to anyone on the editorial staff that such a request would be offensive and entirely inappropriate?

  • Eric W

    (you “write” an icon, not “paint” it)

    I read from an Orthodox blogger or combox poster (he might even have been an iconographer himself) that this terminology that you “write,” not “paint,” an icon has achieved a false significance in popular parlance. I can’t track down what he wrote; IIRC, it was to the effect that the term “write” is a matter (or fault) of language and translation, and not because an icon is “Scripture” or something like that.

    I guess I could ask Vladimir the next time I’m at St. Seraphim’s or he visits us at St. Maximus.

  • bob

    Remember, for most people an “icon” is a thing you point a “mouse” at and click it. It means no more to Time Magazine than a crucifix in a jar of urine. Let’s see, only about 5 more months before some really bad art will appear on their cover to ask yet again, “What REALLY happened at Christmas?”
    I can hardly wait.

  • Eric W

    # bob says:

    May 3, 2008, at 12:35 am

    Remember, for most people an “icon” is a thing you point a “mouse” at and click it. It means no more to Time Magazine than a crucifix in a jar of urine. Let’s see, only about 5 more months before some really bad art will appear on their cover to ask yet again, “What REALLY happened at Christmas?”
    I can hardly wait.

    *chuckles*

    I’m waiting for Time Magazine to do a cover picture of Mohammed.

  • http://www.vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Well, Bob, the folks at Time obviously knew from ikons enough to contact the ikonographer in question, so let’s not overstate this, okay? It’s bad enough as it is.