A Treasure of Biblical Proportions
Iconography at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral
By Warren Hughes Photos by Sally Taylor
Workers in paint-stained tee shirts rearrange scaffolding and tarps to reach the focus of their efforts. The setting isn’t a construction site but a downtown Columbia church, where visitors look on as artists put finishing touches to glowing iconography at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Main Street.
There was much to celebrate at Columbia’s Greek Festival this fall. Food, dance and pageantry were on display as the artists were completing their years-long work to create enthralling icons depicting the Orthodox faith in the cathedral.
Later, after the festival wrapped up its 32nd year, internationally recognized artist Dr. George Kordis, with sacred music as backdrop for his work, graciously paused to greet even more guests. His associates studiously continued to work, occasionally asking in the melodious Greek of their native country for a moment with the master.
Cathedral Dean Father Michael A. Platanis smiled in gratitude beholding the project’s completion. All the while suns streams through the dome overhead, illuminating the iconography of the cathedral.
“Iconography is a most beautiful, vivid and engaging expression of the unity between heaven and earth, the unity between God and His precious, most beloved creation, humanity,” he explained. “I believe that visitors and parishioners experience this sacred unity in a special and vivid way through iconography, especially a completed picture of God’s plan, God’s entire story of our creation and our salvation.”
Kordis and his retinue of artists were commissioned not long after the church construction was completed in 2011. They worked to complete the dome and nave in intervals over a period of years, culminating with the narthex, the cathedral entrance.
Kordis is a professor at the University of Athens and an internationally-recognized expert in the modern revival of the ancient icon tradition. With his works gracing cathedrals around the world, he is the author of the highly regarded source on the subject, Icon as Communion.
Kordis explained his artistic philosophy in an interview for the scholarly Orthodox Art Journal. “The icon must be alive. … In this way the icon could demonstrate the belief that the Church is the living Body of Christ in time and space, where all members are embodied and live. In this perspective the icon should give the spectator the impression that whatever is depicted is alive, is present.”
To achieve this effect, he explained, ancient Greek painters used a rhythmic approach in their techniques, a method still used today. “In this way, everything in any icon is organized properly, is united and creates a state of dynamic balance. There is always movement, indicating life and motion, and at the same time there is also stability that indicates eternity, a state of timeless reality.
“Through rhythm the icon is projected to the reality of the spectator. Color, light and perspective, are also used as vehicles to create this projection. We could say that rhythm is a vehicle creating unity in any Orthodox icon and contributes to fulfill its mission in the Church.”
While acknowledging the techniques of the ancient masters, the contemporary iconographer “works with a lot of freedom and from his heart,” Kordis said. “You keep in your mind the saint and the event, and you work praying more than trying to copy the forms. The icons in this way can be more spontaneous, more authentic. But it takes time and practice to become so skillful.”
It is clear that Kordis brings theology to technique as he has a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Athens. He hopes a school for iconography can be established in the United States. Already, he has lectured on the subject at Yale and at USC here in Columbia, among other institutions.
“We can hope that in the next few decades an American school of iconography could be established with its own characteristics and idioms. It is in my plan to start something like this and I am in contact with other iconographers and personalities working in the field of ecclesiastical arts that have the same vision. We hope that in the next two years this will happen,” he said.
Of Kordis and his work, an art critic recently noted, “This man is incredibly blessed and talented. His work reminds me of Theophanes the Greek who painted in Russia back in the 14th and 15th centuries. What is old is new.” In the United States alone, works by Kordis and his team include churches in Indiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, in addition to Holy Trinity here in Columbia.
Iconography has been revered since the early Byzantine Empire when Emperor Constantine encouraged artists who created church art. Saint Basil the Great said, “With a soundless voice the icons teach those who behold them."