Restoration of St. Nicholas Icon by Greek Husband and Wife Art Conservators

October 20, 2021

NEW YORK – The restoration/conservation of an icon of St. Nicholas, in the context of the upcoming visit of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the United States, has been undertaken by two Greek art conservators.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America invited to New York the expert conservator of historical works of art Venizelos Gavrilakis and his wife, Vana Karagianni, asking them to undertake the preservation of the historical image that has been in the Archdiocese for many years.

The two conservators work day and night in the basement of the Archdiocese so that everything is ready at the end of the month, when the Patriarch will arrive in New York. The National Herald visited the Archdiocese for an up close view of the difficult work of the conservators on an icon dating from the late 18th to early 19th century.

“We came to America at the invitation of the His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, whom we knew from Constantinople, and he knew the quality of our work in restoration and because he trusts us, he asked us to restore the icon of St. Nicholas, which is located in the Synod of the Archdiocese,” said Gavrilakis.

“The icon came from a church in Pontus along with some other relics and icons. The icon dates to the late 18th to early 19th century, about 1780 to 1840. Its initial condition was quite bad and its main issue was that it had a lot of expansion from humidity and temperature and the painting was peeling, that is, pieces were falling off. Also, the icon had been re-painted in the past, that is, on top of the original image, they had re-painted the same Saint Nicholas. We also discovered that in the cleanings they had done before, some damage had been done and then they painted on top.

“For this reason we have removed the layers of re-painting and the original design has been revealed, but the face will be x-rayed and we will be able to see what condition it is in and it will be judged whether the revelation will be made or whether the re-painting will remain,” Gavrilakis told TNH.

He also explained the restoration process: “The first stage is the fixing of the painting surface, that is, we glue the pieces of painting with wood so that it can continue its course over time. Then the paintings are cleaned so that we can reveal the original layer of the painting.

“Then we move on to the aesthetic restoration part where after a crack is mended from joining the two pieces of wood and stabilized, the retouching will take place. We will use the same color, the same quality, the same dyes with some techniques used in museums so that the overall image of the work can be as it was originally done while maintaining its historical value.”

Vaia A. Karagianni, His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophos of America, and Venizelos G. Gavrilakis. (Photo: TNH/ Zafeiris Haitidis)

On the initiative of the artistic director of the Archdiocese of America, Nektarios Antoniou, in parallel with the maintenance, a documentary is also being made, which shows all the stages and the progress of the work, as well as the research that has been done, directed and filmed by Zafeiris Haitidis, who is also TNH’s photographer.

“The Archbishop in honor of the Patriarch and in honor of the new Saint Nicholas Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center that is being built at the moment maintains the icon and for this reason he gave us the invitation,” said Gavrilakis.

The Archbishop visited the conservators as they work intensively in order to complete the restoration in time for the arrival of the Patriarch.

“I went down to see the progress of the work. You have set up the laboratory here as an operating room. You have come a long way, well done,” said the Archbishop.

Venizelos Gavrilakis explained to Archbishop Elpidophoros in detail the work being done on the icon while the Archbishop recommended the radiologist Dr. Anthony Limberakis, who will also contribute by making an x-ray of the icon that will help further the work.

“We brought you because we trust you,” the Archbishop added to the two conservators.

The “Sacred Legacy”

Venizelos Gavrilakis was born in Thessaloniki with roots from Crete and Constantinople. He studied Conservation of Works of Art in Greece and abroad, and has worked for many years at Mount Athos on the preservation of icons by Theofanis and others. Since 2010, he has been collaborating with the Patriarchate.

In 2012, together with his wife Vana, they decided to leave Greece because of the crisis. They settled in Constantinople and opened their own workshop which they named Sacred Heritage. They also have branches in areas of Greece including Athens, Thessaloniki, Alexandroupolis and others.

The husband and wife art conservators/restorers Venizelos G. Gavrilakis and Vaia A. Karagianni working on the St. Nicholas icon in New York. (Photo: TNH/ Zafeiris Haitidis)

“We deal with all works of art, specializing in icons and paintings, but we also deal with other works. We try to raise the level of our work using scientific methods. We work with scientists, we do research to make the work more accurate, more documented. Our goal is for the people to understand what conservation means and to be able to sensitize the people and those in charge so that the relics can be preserved. It is the sacred legacy of our ancestors. In addition, we give a lifetime guarantee for the quality of the work we do,” said Gavrilakis.

The two conservators undertake the preservation of historical works of art around the world, wherever they are invited.

The couple has collaborated with the Patriarchate and the Dioceses, undertaking the maintenance of many icons and heirlooms. Their work is known in many countries of the world. Reuters, as well as Getty, have paid tribute to their work.

“Recently we are working in Prigiponissa, in Prigipo for an important icon of the Virgin of Mercy that is two-sided.

“A few years ago we worked on a painting by Aivazovsky, the famous 19th century painter, which is in a private collection, and his works are valued at many thousands of dollars or euros. I would say a 19th century Picasso.

“Also, one of the oldest works that we have preserved, also from a private collection and very rare, is a Fayum [mummy] portrait, it was 2nd -3rd century, there are few around the world, in museums and very few in private collections.”

Gavrilakis has been doing this work for the last 27 years and mentioned the projects that have stood out. “The most impressive work was definitely the preservation of the Fayum portrait, which was a great honor to come in contact with such a work. And the other, certainly the Aivazovsky painting, a fairly significant monetary value, but besides that, he was also a very famous painter. I have also worked on many important Byzantine and post-Byzantine works, such as those of Theofanis on Mount Athos, which are located in the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita.”

Conservator: The doctor of works of art

Gavrilakis speaks with love about his profession, which, as he says, is like that of a doctor. He is the doctor of heirlooms, of works of art. “It is a combination of science and art,” he noted. “That is, you combine scientific knowledge, technology, know-how in parallel with art, the handcrafted arts, the fine arts.”

“The conservator must enter the work, understand the work, understand its problems, what it needs,” Gavrilakis said. “So there is a secret code between conservator and project. I feel this many times. That there is a communication with the work, that it shows you that now I need this, now the other, here we start, here we stop, this is unbelievable. There is an indirect contact with the artist hundreds of years ago. With his brush, with his technique and all these years until it reaches our hands, we see all this journey, and this journey is what we try to bring to its most complete and original form with the appropriate respect in all the projects that we do, without altering and interfering with the work, and so we proceed through this secret conversation that exists with the artist, in the maintenance and restoration of the work.”

More information about the work of the Greek conservators can be found here: https://ieri-parakatathiki.wixsite.com/ieri-parakatathiki/home?lang=en.


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