Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Russian painter dedicates years of his life to painting ceiling of Orthodox church

Photos by John Walker / Fresno Bee The centerpiece of the work by painter Valery Butyrsky, atop the scaffolding at center, is a large portrait of Jesus Christ in the center of the ceiling. He estimates the commissioned artwork is about 75 percent finished.
This is a close-up view of the centerpiece portrait of Jesus Christ on the ceiling. Such iconic images are traditional in Eastern Orthodox churches.
Valery Butyrsky mixes oil paints for use on the Fresno church's ceiling. Russian iconographer Valery Butyrsky works on the ceiling of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Fresno.
John Walker / Fresno Bee Iconographer Valery Butyrsky stands back to check an oil painting of St. Matthew he is putting on an arched wall inside St. George Greek Orthodox Church.
George Gianopulos, chairman of the St. George Greek Orthodox Church iconography project, looks down into the church sanctuary from the painter's scaffolding.
By Ron Orozco
Saturday, May 10, 2008
FRESNO — High above the pews at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Fresno, a Russian painter is breathing new life into the church's sanctuary, creating inspiring images of Jesus, prophets, evangelists and angels on the ceiling and arched walls.

You can imagine the comparisons to Michelangelo, right?
Valery Butyrsky, 44, an iconographer from St. Petersburg, Russia, says the only connections between him and Michelangelo, who turned the Sistine Chapel's ceiling into a masterpiece with his frescoes of biblical images, are box-like pallets, scaffolding and long hours.

"Every day, I'm working on the ceiling, not talking much," he said.
Stroke by stroke, however, he has been making strides on an iconography project — Christ Pantocrator — that has been a long time coming at St. George.

The Pantocrator is the iconic image of Jesus as "God Almighty" or "Ruler of All" — and a fixture in Eastern Orthodox churches. However, St. George's sanctuary, built in 1955, was without the Pantocrator, its ceiling bare, all these years.
Project nears completion

Butyrsky has been painting the ceiling for a year and a half. Although delays have pushed St. George's iconography project months behind schedule, he said he is 75 percent done, and he estimates he needs just two or three more months.
The church's pastor, the Rev. Jim Pappas, said congregants are excited as they sense the end of the project.

"We're completing a labor of love that started more than 50 years ago, and generations to come will be able to appreciate what others are getting accomplished now," he said.
In Orthodox churches, icons are a centuries-old tradition that convey the tenets of the Christian faith. Initially, they helped those unable to read to have a better understanding of God's love and the church's foundation.

"In Orthodoxy, this art form conveys Scripture and the historical life of the church," Pappas said.
The centerpiece of Butyrsky's Pantocrator is Jesus, of course. Butyrsky shows meticulous detail in presenting Jesus with a hand raised in blessing. Butyrsky also shows Jesus holding the Scriptures. The image adorns the center of the ceiling — 38 feet, 6 inches above the floor.

Many ancillary portraits
Butyrsky surrounds Jesus with images of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the evangelists and traditional authors of the Gospels that open the New Testament. Butyrsky also presents them with symbols — a man with Matthew, a lion with Mark, an ox with Luke and an eagle with John — that are described in Revelation 4:6-10.

Butyrsky's work also features angels, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah, and dozens of medallions and splotches of gold leaf that resemble mosaic from the floor.
"It inspires me toward a great sense of holiness," Pappas said of Butyrsky's work. "When you see the prophets of the Old Testament and the evangelists of the New Testament, it gives me great hope."

George Gianopulos, chairman of the church's iconography committee, noted Butyrsky's ability to treat the 70-by-45-foot ceiling as a single "canvas."
"It's gorgeous; we have a master here," Gianopulos said.

St. George and Butyrsky came together in an unusual way. The church began its search for an iconographer in 2005. Initially, its committee sought written proposals from iconographers, and many in the United States responded. But then Gianopulos, an art collector, visited a now-closed Carmel gallery that featured Russian artists and asked, "Know anybody good?"
The owner replied, "Valery Butyrsky," an instructor at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Gianopulos traded e-mails and phone calls before asking Butyrsky to come to the United States so they could meet in person and he could look at the church's sanctuary. After two weeks at St. George, Butyrsky said yes.

Start of a long process
After Butyrsky returned to Russia, he used charcoal to sketch templates on pieces of paper. Once they were approved by Gianopulos and others, Butyrsky rolled them up and boarded a plane for Fresno.

"He gave up that job as a faculty member to come here," Gianopulos said.
Workers prepped the surface of the ceiling and walls, which included some replastering. They also erected massive scaffolding on which Butyrsky could work. Then, Butyrsky and his wife, Larisa, a painter who assists him, began transferring the templates onto the ceiling.

It wasn't until October 2006 that Butyrsky got approval from the committee to begin painting with acrylics, oils and gold leaf. He hoped to finish last June, but the unexpected happened; Larisa, 38, became pregnant with the couple's second child. (They also have a 9-year-old daughter, Anna.)
With Larisa unable to climb the scaffolding, Butyrsky worked by himself — and got behind in his work. A boy was born in January — and appropriately, the couple named him George.

Gianopulos heard some complaints from congregants, wondering when Butyrsky would finish the ceiling. But he reminded them that Michelangelo needed four years to complete his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and had four helpers.

Both back at work now
Now that their boy has been born, Valery and Larisa Butyrsky are working together again. Color needs to be added to the sketch of John. Jeremiah needs Greek lettering on his scroll. And Valery Butyrsky needs to paint an image above the choir loft of David playing his harp.

"We are excited," Larisa Butyrsky said. "It's hard. We have a lot of emotion. We hope we will be finished soon. It's not just for us to be done, we want to see it as gorgeous."
Marie Antoniou, a church member for 26 years, said everyone has had to be patient while attending services amid scaffolding and plastic drop cover.

"You look up at the scaffolding — and you know he's been up there a long time working," she said.
As Antoniou sees the continual progress, she said, she is reminded of the Pantocrator at her former church, St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles.

"Some people think St. George is so ornate, but that's part of the church," she said. "Icons are important to us. They are a learning tool."
Antoniou said she knows the first thing she will do when the Pantocrator is completed: "I'll have to find just the right place to see it all."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

these paintings that you've created are the most beautifulist that i've ever seen keep doing a good job and god bless.