Artist brings Old World flourishes to new church
As Dionysios Bouloubassis picks up his paintbrush at Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church early one morning, the large canvas before him is blank but for the outlines of an angel he has sketched in pencil.
Swirling on reddish-brown pigment, he brings its wings to life. He fleshes out a Bible, then two hands to hold it. By nightfall, the cherub seems alive, its eyes gazing down from heaven.
The angel, a figure from the Book of Revelation, is one of 16 that Bouloubassis, a master iconographer from Greece, plans to paint and affix to the 60-foot dome inside Saint Mary, part of a years-long project in art and worship the Hunt Valley congregation launched in 2013.
If all goes as planned, Bouloubassis will leave the interior of the year-old church covered in icons — mural-sized renderings of Christ, the saints, angels and other religious images that have been part of the Orthodox Christian worship tradition for more than 1,200 years.
The Rev. Damaskinos Issa, Saint Mary’s pastor, could not be more excited about the prospect.
“I’ve seen the iconography in Orthodox
churches around the world, and Dionysios brings something unique — a different sense of color, a kind of expressiveness in his figures, that I don’t see with other iconographers,” Issa says. “When he’s finished, there will be a powerful feeling that you are entering a sacred space, one that reflects the glory of the Kingdom.” Bouloubassis, 49, is well into the project. It took him a year to create and hang the works that now cover the 27-by-36-foot wall behind the altar, including 45 life-size religious figures and 30 human-size angels in three sacred scenes.
He has spent the last 18 months completing similar icons he plans to affix to the dome in December. They include a 20-foot face head-and-body image of Jesus, the
(ruler of all), which will look down on the congregation from above, per Orthodox tradition.
The scale of the job would not be atypical in Greece, where Orthodox Christianity is the state religion, or in other Old World nations with centuries of Orthodox tradition.
But it’s exceptional in Maryland, where masters of the art are far rarer.
Orthodox Christians adorn their churches with icons, venerate them and pray in their presence. They do not worship icons or pray to them.
Bouloubassis acknowledged the assembly-line element of the project as he worked on an angel.
“One today, one tomorrow, another the next day,” he said, and smiled. “I have to stay on schedule.”
Bouloubassis, who was born in Baltimore but moved to Greece as a child, is heir to a tradition born in the first three centuries after the death of Jesus.
For much of that time, Christianity was banned in the Roman Empire, its followers persecuted.
“The earliest iconographers made primitive images that were symbols of Christianity: lambs, or fish, or flowering vines,” Bouloubassis says in Greek-accented English. “They gave courage to other Christians.”
Then Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313, and iconographers began developing the art. They incorporated saints and other religious figures as subjects, a practice that helped educate those who could not read.
But many inside and outside the faith believed their veneration violated the Ten Commandments’ stricture against making or adoring graven images.
The church overruled these “iconoclasts” in 787, after St. John of Damascus wrote a treatise defending the practice.
If Jesus could draw human beings to God by taking on bodily form, the church father reasoned, his physical likeness and could draw people toward the heavenly.
“It’s like a mother looking at a picture of her son,” Bouloubassis says. “Is she worshipping the picture? No, she is showing love for her child who isn’t there.”
There is no single training program for iconographers. Artists — many of them monks, others talented lay painters — have generally passed the tradition along through apprenticeships and hands-on instruction.
Bouloubassis began absorbing it about 40 years ago.
He was born in Baltimore to a GreekAmerican family. His parents divorced when he was 5, and his mother moved with him to Piraeus, a Greek seaport in the Athens area.
He showed an early flair for art, sketching anything that caught his eye. He says he left his fourth-grade teacher speechless by creating a calendar with a different animal for each month.
An iconographer-monk who was a neighbor saw Dionsysios’ work and took the boy under his wing, schooling him in the form, including the non-realistic Byzantine aesthetic that has prevailed through much of Eastern Christendom and its rules and traditions.
St. Peter’s robes, for example, were always to be yellow, St. Paul’s head always bald. Devilish characters were small in size, and shadows were to be avoided altogether.
“Byzantine art isn’t just art; it’s theology,” Bouloubassis says. “God is eternal, and in heaven nothing is hiding. We show you the life to come.”
When Bouloubassis was 14, the renowned iconographer George Kospidas took him on as an apprentice. The relationship lasted for a decade, even as the young man studied art at Athens Polytechnic, one of Greece’s oldest universities.
Bouloubassis and Kospidas worked together on seven churches. Then Bouloubassis went solo.
The rest, he says, seems to have been the work of God.
With a financial crisis raging in Greece, the artist resolved in 2013 to bring his then-12-year-old son to the States so the boy could grow up as a U.S. citizen.
While visiting Baltimore, Bouloubassis learned through a cousin about Saint Mary and its then-emerging “iconography project.
Members of the 100-family parish had already donated more than $250,000 to get it started.
Bouloubassis submitted a bid, got the job, and moved his wife and son to Parkville in late 2013, months before the church building would be completed.
Planning his scenes from blueprints, he finished and installed the altar work before the opening last fall.
That work includes an idealized rendition of the Last Supper, one that replaces Judas with Matthias, a later disciple. It also includes a life-size John the Baptist carrying his own head on a platter.
Like many icons, they combine images from different periods — a hallmark of the form.
“In heaven, there is no time,” Bouloubassis says.
If Saint Mary can keep raising funds, parish leaders say, Bouloubassis could be working another two or three years, ideally completing a traditional, mural-size tableau of the 12 Stations of the Cross around the walls of the church, as well as another tier of saints.
One fellow iconographer says Bouloubassis has already fashioned a masterpiece.
“It is a blessing to have a master Byzantine iconographer here in the States, especially here in Maryland as this country grows an Orthodox identity,” says Carolyn Cundiff of Towson, whose work can be seen in several Maryland churches. “It’s amazing to see [a] white base transform into a nuanced monumental image of the spiritual world. “I am in awe of Dionysios’ work.” Some experts say the project, once completed, would be a rarity in Maryland: a church decorated wall-to-wall like many of its ancient forebears, but appropriate to 21st-century worship.
“His colors are bright but in a subdued way, and his usage fits perfectly the church he is painting in,” says Father Nektarios Cottros of Saints Peter & Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Frederick.
If and when Bouloubassis completes the church, he says, he’ll look for a good place to add his signature. That’s something he doesn’t always do.
It might make a fitting end for a project that blends tradition and art.
“There are many rules to follow in Byzantine iconography,” the artist says. “It’s about drawing attention to God and the life to come. But I think it’s OK to add a little bit of a personal touch.”
Dionysios Bouloubassis has set out on a multiyear project to cover the interior of year-old Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hunt Valley with icons — mural-sized renderings that have been part of the Orthodox Christian tradition for more than 1,200 years.
Above, iconographer Dionysios Bouloubassis works on a depiction of a cherub on part of the dome of Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hunt Valley. At left, he included a portrait of himself above some of the Apostles in the multiyear project.