Artist brings Old World flour­ishes to new church

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Pitts

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.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

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.

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