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St. Saint Nicholas National Shrine Iconographer Speaks to TNH

October 31, 2020

ΒΟSTOΝ – As construction progresses rapidly on the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine in Manhattan, the iconography is being curated at the same time. This great work has been undertaken by the renowned iconographer of the Orthodox Church, the priest-monk Lukas from the Holy Monastery of Xenophontos on Mount Athos, who has been a member of the Monastic Brotherhood there since the age of 21.

The Holy Monastery of Xenophontos is a genuine center of Orthodox monasticism and spirituality headed by Abbot Alexios, who is known for seriousness and his devotion to the Mount Athos ethos and the Neptic Tradition. Its Brotherhood consists of 55 monks.

Father Lucas came to New York, where on-site study and planning was done for the sacred icons with the contribution of Bishop Joachim of Amissos, who is an authority in the field of the history of Byzantine Art.

In a telephone interview Fr. Lukas told TNH that “the portable icons of the iconostasis and several of the murals have already been made. Now that I have arrived, we’ve just discussed whether some changes can be made to make the program more complete.”

Asked about the icons he has crafted, he said that “on the iconostasis are Christ, the Panagia, the Holy Forerunner, Saint Nicholas, and the two Archangels at the north and south gates of the Holy Alter, and the two parts of the Royal Door that will depict the Annunciation, one will show Archangel Gabriel and the other the Panagia.”

Regarding the frescoes, he said, “at the Holy Altar, there will be the Panagia Platytera, below that the Communion of the Apostles of the Body and Blood of Christ, and below that the hierarchs. A little further away will be the Ascension of the Lord. On the other walls will be the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and there will be other Great Feasts such as the Nativity, the Baptism, and Pentecost, and below will be various themes from the life of Saint Nicholas.”

Father Lukas said that he follows ‘the Macedonian School of Iconography or the Paleologian, to put it better, of the 14th century, but we also add our personal data.”

When asked where and how he learned to paint icons, he said “from the older fathers. In 1985, when I started, I found in the Monastery some fathers who knew iconography, but I also tried to learn from others who had a greater reputation on Mount Athos. I received instruction and learned the elements that are needed in iconography.”

When we asked him how he feels when he paints, Father Lukas said that “the key is this sense of creation which is very strong, because from an inanimate thing, from lifeless wood, an image for veneration is created, which the faithful will venerate. They will pray to Christ, the Panagia, and the saints they depict, and will have a personal relationship with them. And all this is something very important, and it burdens us with the responsibility that we do what we do with awareness and with every possible reverence for the saints.”

“When you paint Christ, the Panagia, do you speak to all the holy ones?” we asked him. “Definitely, and because we paint every day, this relationship is at the level of breathing. The sense of communication with the saints is something spontaneous,” he said.

Regarding when the entire iconography project will be ready, he said that “of course it depends on the construction side of the issue, I believe that by November 2021 we will be able to complete enough subjects.”

Regarding the cost of the iconography, he said: “we will see about this. We have not yet decided. We will see what changes will have to be made and how they will be made, but at this point I cannot estimate the cost. We will see about this in the near future.”

 Asked if he began to work on such an ambitious project without having any idea about the cost, Father Lukas answered: “Of course not. We are almost fully oriented about this, but it is a subject must be addressed after the discussion we just had. We will have some results in the coming days but I still cannot know. I believe that around Christmas we will have a better picture and we will be able to answer.”

When we asked him why he chose the Monastery of Xenophontos to live in, he said that “I have known the Elder (Alexios) since I was ten years old. My brother became a monk ten years earlier, when the Elder was still in Meteora and I used to go to Mount Athos in the summer. I learned iconography and from a young age I felt this attraction to monasticism, and when I turned 21, I was able to fulfill my calling.”

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