SOUTHAMPTON, NY – When worshipers enter some of the more prominent Orthodox churches in America, they are often embraced by the living images of Christ and the Saints created by internationally- renowned iconographer Sirio Tonelli.
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons – Kimisis Tis Theotokou, has a striking new sanctuary. In time, the blank white walls of the interior – which nonetheless evoke a simple yet sublime spirituality – will be adorned with icons, but the parish made the felicitous decision that visitors should immediately encounter the quintessential expression of Orthodox religious art – a mosaic icon, in this case depicting the moving scene of the Kimisis – the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.
The icon consists of 38 figures – Christ and the Virgin Mary, and all the Apostles gathered around her bier. Tonelli believes it is the largest exterior mosaic icon in the Orthodox world.
The Pastor, Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, and assistant pastor Father Constantine Lazarakis are pleased that it was sponsored by the family of Emanuel Kontocosta, the architect who designed many Orthodox churches who fell asleep in The Lord this year.
Tonelli and his colleagues, Cristian Costa and Simone Quiriconi, traveled from Italy to install the mosaic, which was completed in October.
At present Tonelli is, as usual, working on multiple projects, including the Greek Orthodox cathedrals in Milwaukee, New York, and Boston, but the Southampton icon is the most prominent.
He has created mosaics in almost 100 churches, and it is difficult for him to say which are his favorites. They are all exceptional, evoking pride among the members of the churches they grace.
Pressed to name some special installations, he mentioned those of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Manhattan – people passing from the main entrance through the narthex and into the church feel like they are walking through the Great Palace of Constantinople – and the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Boston.
Some of his projects stretch over many years and he is often working in multiple churches.
For 60 years, Tonelli has maintained a studio in Pietrasanta in Northern Tuscany, where Michelangelo used to work. One must keep reminding oneself – this interview was conducted by telephone – that this dynamic man is 91 years old.
The artist with an extraordinary gift has humble origins, like many of the great figures of the Renaissance.
Tonelli says “my family is just a regular family from La Spezia,” a port town 70 miles northwest of Florence. But he was no ordinary young person when came to the United States on scholarship to Art Institute of Chicago.
He was the youngest of five brothers and sisters, and the eldest, his sister, was the other artist in the family.
It was around age 12 when it became clear that he had a gift. Part of his studies were undertaken as a seminary student in a monastery. His pious mother wanted him to become a priest and he wanted to make her happy, but that was not the right path for him.
While he was a student in Italy he was also working as an artist outside school and he ultimately chose to become a professional.
He was inspired by the great art of Tuscany, so even though La Spezia is right on the border the region of Liguria, the home of Genoa, he identifies as a Tuscan.
An artistic renaissance man, he has created frescos, mosaics, sculptures, and stained glass windows.
He naturally studied the work of Michelangelo, and his favorite, Raphael, but he frequently visited the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence whose distinctive octagonal- conical ceiling was covered with magnificent 13th Byzantine-style mosaics.
The images, including panels depicting the Last Judgment, are said to have inspired Dante’s Divine Comedy, and they made a great impact on Tonelli.
His studies and origins make him a son of the Renaissance, but his body of work and soul makes him very much a Byzantine man.
After becoming immersed working for the Greek Church in the early 1960s, he became Orthodox, “because it is so beautiful,” he said.
When officials of a major German company that specialized in artwork for Catholic churches in America saw his work, they invited him to join the company, and he joined them in Omaha, NE after completing his studies. In 1953 he created Tonelli Studios, Inc. (later Tonelli Fine Art Studios, Inc. and Byzantine Mosaic International, LLC).
He has been all over Greece and Turkey and to St. Catherine’s in Sinai and Jerusalem and first visited Constantinople in 1987.
There are many churches he would like to see – he wants to go to Russia – “but you can’t visit every one.”
When he first entered the Aghia Sophia he didn’t want to leave. Amazed, he went back many times.
He has two assistants in the Hamptons – he executed the icon in Italy and they install it here, but Tonelli has to be present to insure all goes well. Sometimes mosaics arrive damaged and he has to makes repair with the glittering cubes of glass called tesserae.
“The work is very complicated and they have to be well-trained. It’s hard to find people with this talent,” he said.
Sadly, he added that although there are artist who work in modernistic styles, traditional mosaic is a dying art.
Curiously enough – although it makes sense once the practical element of installation is considered – he creates the image in reverse (a mirror image) which allows it to be shipped in sections.
Tonelli explained some of the differences between working in fresco and mosaic. Both techniques are complex, but he said that while an artist can make corrections in paint, once a mosaic is installed and the cement dries, it is done.
His unique career has culminated in a rare honor. In 1956 he was honored by the Vatican as a Knight of Columbus and presented the Maltese cross, and he was later made an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. “He is the only person since the 13th century to hold both titles,” according to the Deseret News.