KEARNEY — A few weeks ago, four iconographers worked in the sanctuary of St. George Orthodox Church creating icons on huge canvases. They painted delicately, mixing colors, dabbling at spots here and there. The pews had been removed to give them space to work.
“These are the premier icon painters in the entire world,” John Wolf, the church’s sub-deacon, said with awe as he watched them work.
By Oct. 26-28, the icons will glorify all the church walls. That is when the church at 1511 Ave. G will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the repose of Father Nicola Yanney, its first priest.
“It is going to be a real blessing to see our tiny St. George Church fill up with all those who love and honor both Christ and his faithful servant, Father Nicola,” Sarah Fothergill, a member of the anniversary planning committee, said. The celebration is being called a “pilgrimage” because “a pilgrimage is a journey of prayer and holds religious and spiritual significance,” she added.
The new icons do, too.
The project began in 2012-13, when some parishioners wanted icons on the walls. “Since it was Father Nicola’s church, we started praying to him to bless the project,” Wolf said. Soon the parish collected enough money to fly renowned iconographer Dmitry Shkolnik from California to survey the church. “His mind just flew. He was enchanted,” Wolf said.
Shkolnik envisioned icons of feast days on the ceilings and saints on the walls. The church proposed competing the project in three stages over 10 or 12 years. Shkolnik agreed, but the cost of $250,000 was daunting. Then a nine-member board proposed inviting people to choose a saint and buy that saint’s icon. After services one Sunday in 2014, they presented that idea to the congregation. Within 15 minutes, they had $35,000 in pledges. Within two years, all of the money was pledged.
In 2015, Shkolnik and Aleko Mchedlishvili completed 16 ceiling icons at a cost of $120,000, or $7,000 per icon. This fall, on Sept. 20, Shkonik and Mchedlishvili returned with Moscow iconographers Aleksei Vronskii and Alexander Cherny to complete more icons in time for the centennial festivities. Despite a snafu over paperwork for the two Moscovites, the four arrived and got busy. “It was blessed by God,” Wolf said.
They were given beds in the rectory and fed by church members. They worked all hours. Sometimes, they tiptoed into the church early in the morning to paint. Sometimes they painted in the dark, with only a few dim lights burning.
The icons on the ceiling, installed in 2015, had been created in California and shipped via UPS in long rolls and then placed on the walls. That project took 10 days. The newest icons were all painted here. The work took roughly a month.
A few weeks ago, Wolf sat on a folding chair watching the iconographers work. He couldn’t take his eyes away from their hands. “They change their minds a lot. They’ll change the color of this and the color of that,” he said.
He pointed to icons of St. Peter holding up the church in Antioch, and St. Paul, and the icon of beloved Father Nicola and Bishop Rafael in the sanctuary’s northeast corner. Icons on the north wall picture 20th century saints. One artist did all the gold halos.
“Icons are not just paintings. An icon is a powerful aid to prayer,” Wolf said. “People fail to understand that to God, the living and the dead are the same. We pray to saints, who are alive in Christ. They are still living the life they lived on earth. We pray through the image. Every saint has a deep meaning to the person who sponsored it, but it is there for all of us. It is such a comfort to have saints surrounding us and giving us the opportunity to focus,” he added.
Father Christopher Morris, 47, who has led the church for a dozen years, watched, too. He pointed out that “icon” is the Greek work for image. “Icons are the Gospel in color. They inspire us. They are the illustrated story of our salvation,” he said.
Wolf said some people think icons look “strange” or “crooked,” but “part of the reason is, we make them look different from normal humans because they have their heavenly bodies. We just guess what they looked like,” he said. Iconographers often fast and pray before they create the faces.
“Every single color and detail means something. My mother-in-law had just three years of education in Greece but she can walk into every church and know the icon and know its story. Orthodox children are all taught the meaning of them,” he added.
Shkolnik is known worldwide for his iconography. Since 1981, he has completed over 3,000 icons and 20 iconostasis (walls that separate the sanctuary from the nave in Orthodox churches), and painted numerous church frescoes, murals and wall ornamentations.
St. George was founded in the late 1880s by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. The current church was completed in 1923. Half the congregation lives in Kearney; the other half lives in Holdrege, Minden, Hastings, Lexington and other areas. Between 50 and 60 people worship there on Sunday.
Wolf calls icons “windows into heaven.” He said, “We use the word ‘paint,’ but they consider it ‘writing’ icons, like you write a prayer or a poem. If we as a parish do not use these icons as tools for prayer, we have applied the most expensive wallpaper anyone has ever seen.”