12 Jul 2022
The responsibility of working with a prototype such as the fresco of Our Lady of the Heavens in St. Andrew Cathedral, of Patras, in Greece.
The announcement for the iconography of Our Lady of New York in the new Church of St. Nicholas at Point Zero was posted on the newsletter of the church’s website in March 2022. The consecration took place on July 4, 2022. https://mailchi.mp/stnicholaswtc/2022-march
The iconography of the Virgin Mary embracing the city of New York surprised me. I couldn’t agree more with the idea of this composition. It is because I had the very same idea with His Grace Bishop Joachim of Amissos, the consultant for the iconographical program of the St. Nicholas Church.
The proposal I submitted to the Archdiocese of America, on October 21, 2020, concerned the remake of the fresco of the Platytera (Our Lady) of the Heavens, the majestic artwork of the late painter Yannis Karoussos, to adorn the apse of the shrine of St. Nicholas. The Platytera of the Heavens in St. Andrew Cathedral of Patras, a landmark of modern post-Byzantine art, depicts, for the first time in Orthodox monumental art, Our Lady embracing the modern city of the cathedral, namely Patras. In the idea submitted, New York City's iconography would replace that of Patras. Essentially, it would be the second time in the history of Orthodox monumental art, that the Virgin Mary would embrace a modern city. It’s been two years since I submitted the proposal, and I haven’t received any response yet. Now, I realize that the absence of a reply was due to the creative commons’ nature of the idea. Therefore, I am really excited that even by the hands of the hagiographer, monk of Mount Athos, Father Loukas, it became a reality.
Having in front of me the drafts of the Platytera of the Heavens by Yannis Karoussos, I recall the effort of the artist to conceive the composition of the niche that covers the 220 m2 of St. Andrew Cathedral, the boldness, and joy of its creation. I also remember the opposition of both ecclesiastical and secular groups, when they saw Our Lady embracing the modern city of Patras. The depiction of the city encompassing all its everyday social activities surprised some groups of the congregation who felt that the illustrations of some buildings, in which activities contrary to religious faith were carried out, created a sense of disgrace in the church.
The controversies that broke out for this radical composition did not daunt the artist. The painter’s intention was to revitalize the great religious concepts of love, mercy, and compassion of all the people embraced by the Platytera. Also, this composition acted as a catalyst in the unification of the enormous architectural volume of the church, giving the feeling, with the painter’s great mastery, that the niche of the Holy Step itself is an embrace. Therefore, it wasn’t a display of a fancy idea, but a serious undertaking to serve liturgical and aesthetic needs. It didn’t take long for the congregation of St. Andrew Cathedral to adore the fresco as they felt that Our Lady embraces the life of each one of them. This is, indeed, the value of a great work of art, especially if it is liturgical and public.
Such an attempt can only be realized by an artist with deep knowledge in fine arts and Orthodox monumental painting. As the late academic Nikos Zias mentions about the fresco of the St. Andrew Cathedral in Patras:
“Painting churches today is a very easy or very difficult task. Easy if the painter follows unconsciously the prototypes. Very difficult if the artist wants to stay in the apocalyptic, theological Byzantine type and at the same time be engaged aesthetically and spiritually with his artistic quest”, referring to the artwork of Yannis Karoussos. And he continues: “But this is more than the personal contribution of the painter. It reflects the entire community that lives the Church.”
The right to use such a prototype is based on the discretion of each one. However, the responsibility assumed by someone who is based on this prototype, concerns “ the entire community”, i.e., the respect of our cultural heritage, its transmission to the coming generations, but also the appreciation of the original work of St. Andrew Cathedral.
The consultant and artist of the iconography of the “Virgin of New York” in Saint Nicholas church undoubtedly did the right thing because a “beacon of Orthodoxy” could not have a prototype of less importance than the pioneering artwork of the Platytera of the Heavens by Yannis Karoussos. But it is apparent, that neither an idea nor its realization is enough to create a monumental artwork.
It needs people inspired, with great knowledge in fine arts, able to integrate the messages of our time in their work, transforming them into Orthodox monumental art. Otherwise, it is fortunately certain that there will always be that child who will recognize that the emperor is naked. Only through this recognition do we give the right and the sense of responsibility to future generations to stand creatively in front of their glorious cultural heritage.