ATHENS – Holy Week in Greece and the Diaspora is the time when people who don’t think much about Church find all five senses pulling them deep into their ancient faith and roots – incense, chanting, touching and kissing – but most of all seeing, draws them in, and what they mainly notice in Church are the creations of people like Christos Baloukos and his wife Lina – the iconographers who embellish Orthodox life worldwide.
While Baloukos’ fellow iconographers – he paints individual icons – are gratified to see people marvel and being drawn closer to God by what they find inside the churches where they have worked, he also feels a supplementary mission when he visits places like monasteries for inspiration and lessons in iconography. When he returns to his community and city, he wants to share what he has learned about spirituality there, what the holy fathers taught him about how all of us can live the Life in Christ outside the monastery walls, in our homes and in all our relationships. That is part of the rhythm he has established in his life in the world, but not of it.
There is no doubt, however, that the spiritual depths he plumbs, along with the echoes of the Jesus prayer he silently recites, are reflected in the icons he paints, which are as rich in faith as they are in color and texture.
Asking artists and musicians about the roots of their talent usually leads to interesting nature/nurture discussions. Baloukos does not call himself an artist – those who see his evocative creations, especially those where nature plays a starring role will disagree – but the artistic ability is obvious. He notes that his mother draws, and while he grew up in Athens, his roots and frequent visits in Northern Evoia, one of Greece’s more picturesque locales, surely were inspirational, but after talking to him about his activites and life, his beliefs about the source of his talent are clear: they are gifts from God and his work is a calling.
And while he loved drawing from childhood, his path also led through love, not just school. His wife Lina, whom he met at 17 years old, is also an iconographer. Their son, naturally, is totally absorbed with…computers.
Baloukos grasps how he learned to hold pencils to sketch and brushes later to paint, but one thing is a complete mystery to him, his mastery of color. He learned much that he values from books, especially the bible and religious books he read from childhood, but he simply can’t say how he learned to use color the marvelous way he does.
What he does know is that as soon as he read about the Holy Mountain, the renowned monasteries of Mt. Athos, he could not stop thinking about them, until…
“One summer, in Athens, when I was 23 and my parents were in Evoia on holiday; without telling anyone I went there, having no idea what to expect outside what I read in books.”
Once he arrived the experiences and people he would never forget began to present themselves immediately. He was not yet an iconographer – his work was just work, as a typographer, another employee making a living.
“I found something on the Holy Mountain, something completely different from anything I knew. I saw people living a completely different kind of life. I discovered a part of myself I never knew existed – and I said to myself ‘I must live here.’”
He thought about becoming a monk, but understood that was not his path; nevertheless, he thought seriously about how he could combine what he found at Mt. Athos with the rest of his life.
He found a way to organize his life so he could go more and more often.
“Through the Grace of God I gradually learned both the art of iconography and the craft of being a printer,” and opened his own business.
One recent morning, he received a message inviting him to participate in an exhibition being organized by the Central Asia nation of Kyrgyzstan in the context of China’s Belt’s and Roads initiative and inspired by the cultural exchanges that were facilitated in the past by the ancient Silk Road.
He is delighted to be able to introduce the spirituality and glory of Byzantine Civilization to that part of the world, to visitors,and fellow exhibitors.
The exhibition will take place in Bishkek, the capital, this June.
“I sent them some of my work, and I was very touched to see how much they looked forward to my participation.” And he too can’t wait for the new knowledge and experience the journey will bring.
Visit his works at: www.baloukos.com.