High above rows of pews and the holy altar, large images depicting the Christian Gospels were recently added to the upper walls of an Oklahoma City sanctuary:
The apostle John and Jesus' mother Mary peering up at Jesus on the cross.
Christ, a golden halo atop his head, ascending into the heavens as His disciples gaze in wonder.
Women gathering at the tomb to bury their beloved Jesus.
Nick Papas, a Houston iconographer, created vivid iconography for all to see at St. Elijah Christian Orthodox Church, 15000 N May.
“We want Christ and the saints around us,” said the Rev. John Salem, the church's parish priest, looking around the sanctuary one recent morning.
Salem said the iconography project comes in time for Pasha, which is the name for Easter in the Orthodox Christian church. Eastern Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar typically celebrate Easter on different dates than Western Christians, who, following the Gregorian calendar, celebrated the holiday March 31.
Salem said Papas' iconography shows Jesus' crucifixion on the left of the church's altar area and Jesus ascension on the right. The iconography created by Papas joins many other icons already in place in the sanctuary, including a stunning image of the risen Christ inside the church's dome.
“The more iconography, the better. It helps in our spiritual life,” Salem said.
Salem said church leaders felt it was time to add the iconography planned for the upper walls above the altar area in the sanctuary. He said a visitor might not have noticed the absence of iconography in those areas, but the congregation had always planned to have it created.
“It kind of stood out. You have all this iconography and then you have the bare spots,” Salem said.
Salem said Papas was chosen for the project because his color palette matched that of the iconography in place at the church. He said instead of a hodgepodge of iconography, the church wanted to partner with an experienced iconographer who would be available for other iconography projects in the next 10 to 12 years.
Papas said he created the iconography with acrylic paint in three separate pieces of canvas in his Houston studio.
Orthodox religious leaders say icons are divinely inspired, setting them apart from other artwork.
The colorful depictions — rich with symbolism — are a pictorial history of Christianity, they say. With that in mind, many Orthodox religious leaders prefer to say that icons are “written” rather than “painted.” They say the images are to be understood in a manner similar to Holy Scripture.
As part of his recent project at St. Elijah's, Papas also did some touch-up work to other areas of iconography that were peeling.
Papas and his daughter, Irene, spent about five days working on the iconography project at St. Elijah's, using scaffolding brought in by a local contractor. The scaffolding allowed the pair to affix the iconography to the walls over the altar area about 36 feet high. Salem said the church's dome over the altar area is an additional 12 feet high.
Papas said his work as an iconographer blends his love of art with his love of Christ.
“Every job is unique, and this particular job required some of that blending.”