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 an abandoned Chapel in Greece, or shall I say, what was left of it. Two walls standing and no roof, but there in front of me was a faded ‘Holy of Holies”, the sacred area that would have normally hidden from the public.
There I stood before this beautiful fading fresco, exposed to God’s abundant air and sky. The holy of holies is the place the Priests retreat to prepare the Eucharist and special prayers for the people, usually it protected by an enormous wall of icons, an iconostasis which separates the congregation from divine space. The public never goes into the sacred divine space behind the iconostasis.
The separation was gone. I was overjoyed to be standing before not only the remains of a forgotten past but the remains of another artist’s fine hand. It was a perfect symbol of where icon painting had taken me over the years. The organized Orthodox church is fading like these walls. Many of its members are old and the reality of this leaves me feeling the beauty of icon painting is fading in the abandoned chapels in Greece.
Why not fix this abandoned chapel in Greece, with small brushstrokes of Love
By the wall they left some scaffolding and a ladder 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 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 of Kefalonia done by the same hand. There are thousands of Church interiors just like this one, older and more beautiful. What struck me was how it was going to be lost forever in just a few more years, this fragment of a Chapel to renovate in Greece.
Afterwards, Valentin and I went down the mountain to have a coffee.
I kept thinking about the little chapel with two walls and the sun’s merciless glare. I arrogantly thought the discovery of the chapel could be an invitation from the universe. I surprised myself by saying, “Hay, I can paint, 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 with this ridiculous idea. After considerable research on the internet and talking with a few experts in Italy, I went to paint. I said I would renovate a corner to see if it would look better or worse and if it would crumble if I touched it.
I thought about what were the consequences if caught and where did this desire come from. 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 scorching 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 entire 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 gained? All our life efforts are 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 have the illusion of actual power. Even what is divinely inspired is not everlasting, and yet it is all good.
So I took it upon myself as a meditation to give this little altar a face lift
So I broke the first egg with reverence and some trepidation, thinking I would make only tiny reparations 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 retouched would inevitably disappear with time, so there was no actual risk or damage involved.
This whole site would continue to be exposed to the sun and endless wind, so any brushstrokes of love would disappear with time and the elements. 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. This abandoned Chapel in Greece was painted with earth pigments.
Look at the Difference
When I tried to take off what I had done, dabbing it gently with a damp sponge, it surprised me to see much more of the detail. So 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 the 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 remain. It’s symbolic of God’s 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 represent historical church figures who inspired the storytelling, to remind us of God’s 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 here, on this mountaintop, with these old men.
My mom used to say every little of effort counts and, in this case, every small brush stroke counts to bring forth what faded. Every 4 days 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 inspected or maybe leave me a message like, “Who are you? And Stop It!”. You cannot renovate an abandoned chapel in Greece, with small brushstrokes of Love.
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. 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.