Valentin my dear husband called to me to come down and see what he found tucked in to the side of the mountain. It was a small little church, or shall I say, what was left of it. It had only two walls standing and no roof but there in front of me was a faded ‘Holy of holies” the area which would have normally been hidden from the public.
There I stood before this beautiful fading fresco, exposed to Gods abundant air and sky. The holy of holies is the place the Priests retreat into to prepare the Eucharist and special prayers for the people, usually it is protected by a big wall of icons, an iconostasis which separates the congregation from divine space. The public never goes into the sacred divine space behind the iconostasis.
Well, the separation was gone and I was over joyed to be standing before not only the remains of a forgotten past but the remains of another artists fine hand. It was a perfect symbol of where icon painting had taken me over the years. Icon painting is a nitch market with little interest these days. The organized Orthodox church is dying, many of its members are old and the reality of this leaves me feeling the beauty of icon painting is fading and forgotten as well.
So I took it upon myself as a meditation to give this little altar a face lift
We noticed by the wall some scaffolding and a ladder left over from renovations perhaps abandoned 10 years ago. In the middle of the Greek financial crisis it was doubtful whether anyone would ever return to finish renovating this poor little byzantine jewel. The signs to get there had fallen down, the path to it overgrown and steep. I wondered how many people had seen it or comment afterwards on the faded beauty left here to bake in the sun. Did they see the details the artist had skillfully painted with reverence. I wondered who the artist was and how many other paintings there were on the island done by the same hand. Most icons are painted for love of God mixed with a bit of church politics and money. There are thousands of Church interiors just like this one, older and more beautiful but what struck me was how it was going to be lost forever in just a few more years.
Afterwards Valentin and I went down the mountain to have a coffee.
I kept thinking about the little chapel with two walls and the powerful sun fading it as we sipped our coffee. I arrogantly thought the discovery of the chapel could be an invitation from the universe, maybe I could simply add a bit of love and color. I surprised myself saying, “Hay, why can’t I go fix it?” So the next day we went to find the officials, the office, the phone numbers, the one in charge, even though we did not speak Greek. What was I expecting? The fellow we found said the place was abandoned and there was no money to fix it and more than likely it was not on any register to be repaired. I would be on the island 7 months, thinking it would take 7 months to find the official political unit in charge and maybe never get permission, all the while the colors fade even more… After talking it out with Valentin my friend and advocate, he was going to support me in this ridiculous idea. After considerable research on the internet and talking with a few experts in Italy, I decided to go and paint. I said I would paint just a corner to see if it would look better or worse and if it would crumble if I touched it.
I did think about what were the consequences if caught and where did this desire come from in the first place. Life is full of signs from beyond. After all, this is not my country, I am not orthodox, the site belongs to someone else, it would be a lot of work, in the hot sun and what if I made the icon paintings worse! Who did I think I was! Ironically, three weeks earlier a woman iconographer had given me some of her pigments as a gift to encourage me to paint while i was visiting Greece, the land of icons. We went back up the mountain but this time I took only two of her pigments and an egg just in case.
The whole experience is a metaphor and analogy
I am getting old and as you get old you naturally notice things and ask questions. Have I left a mark on the planet, did I ever do anything good for the world, how much time do I have left, how can I leave something for others after all the experience I have acquired? We begin to see all life and activity is temporary, there is only constant change, sometimes renewing itself and sometimes resting from the efforts and sometimes fading in the sun like a memory. We begin to see there is no ownership only an illusion there of, no real power because it is eventually taken away and no control which is perfect or divinely inspired that is lasting, and yet it is all good.
Jump in do not look back.
So I broke the first egg with reverence and some trepidation thinking to simply try to make a tiny reparation on the side and see how it looks. I began with 2 natural earth pigments (blue and red the two colors associated with Mary and Christ) and one egg. I knew anything i gently retouch will inevitably disappear with time so there was no real risk or damage involved. This whole site would continue to be exposed to the sun and endless wind so the work I do was destined to disappear with time and the elements, which is the way it is with all things. I worked for 4 hours and waited, I came back after a few days giving myself time to think about what I was getting myself into. I had no permission, only a heart full of love trying to retrieve a bit of the beauty for the sake of others who might stop by one day. When we returned I tried to take off what I had done with water just to imagine what the rain will do, UUUHH NOPE. It surly worked to my surprise and is steadfast and beautiful. The original work was also done with earth pigments.
When I tried to take off what I had done, dabbing it gently with a damp sponge, I was surprised to see much more of the detail. So first I covered a small section with egg emulsion. I finally thought to take pictures brilliant! I wanted an archive of the original condition.
I had no intention of taking away from the image, or adding any new ideas. Clearly I was intent on extending the life of these beautiful paintings for a few more moments of time in honor of the original artist. The guy who painted this is long gone, maybe 200 years ago. He or She did the work in the traditional technique first etching some lines into he wet plaster. What a gift for me, in Iconography they say the etched lines are there precisely because if the colors fade the lines will still remain. It’s symbolic of Gods love for us, his message written into wet plaster is eternal, not to mention it helps with the next guys renovation if there is one. I was grateful to have the lines as a guide.
I was full of humility but not enough to stop painting.
The figures portrayed speak of spiritual teachings, illustrating church theology. They represent historical church figures in story telling image reminding us of Gods love for humanity. Many of us live in a miserable world of chaos and pain. There is very little beauty for those who live in war torn countries, great poverty, unforgiving cold and desert heat. I was so grateful to be me here, now on this mountain top with these old fellows. My mom used to say every little bit of effort counts and in this case every small brush stroke counts to bring forth what had been lost. Every 4 days or so for a month I worked three or four hours as the images became vibrant again using only a tiny amount of color. I always left the chain in a certain way to see if anyone had come to inspect or maybe leave me a message like, “Who are You? and Stop It!”.
The end result was only a bit more color.
I did no damage and touched the surface with reverence. In the end the paintings are the same with a bit more love and life in them. I have no doubt that those who take the time to walk down the hill will appreciate a little more vibrant color within the full scope of its tiny preservation. To anyone reading this, Forgive my arrogance and I will never do it again. At least I think I won’t. Peace on the planet