Baltimore Sun attempts to navigate complicated world of Orthodox iconography

What we have here is a beautiful little feature story about a subject that is, literally, close to the heart and soul of any Orthodox Christian -- icons. The story ran in The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper that landed in my front yard for a decade, which means that it's about an Orthodox congregation that I have actually visited.

Iconography is a complicated subject on several levels, both in terms of the theology, the history and the craft itself. This story gets so many details right that I hesitate to note an error or, maybe, two -- one of mathematics (I think) and the other is, well, just a strange hole that would have been easy to fill.

First things first: Here is the overture.

As  Dionysios Bouloubassis picks up his paint brush at Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church early one morning, the large canvas before him is blank but for the outlines of an angel he has sketched in pencil.
Swirling on reddish-brown pigment, he brings its wings to life. He fleshes out a Bible, then two hands to hold it. By nightfall, the cherub seems alive, its eyes gazing down from heaven.
The angel, a figure from the Book of Revelation, is one of 16 that Bouloubassis, a master iconographer from Greece, plans to paint and affix to the 60-foot dome inside Saint Mary, part of a years-long project in art and worship the Hunt Valley congregation launched in 2013.

So far so good. However, the very next paragraph contains a crucial error of history.

If all goes as planned, Bouloubassis will leave the interior of the year-old church covered in icons -- mural-sized renderings of Christ, the saints, angels and other religious images that have been part of the Orthodox Christian worship tradition for more than 1,200 years.

Where did that reference to 1,200 years come from? After all, there are remnants of icons in the earliest Christian ruins and the hidden sanctuaries of the catacombs.

In fact, later on in this story, there is this:

Bouloubassis, who was born in Baltimore but moved to Greece as a child, is heir to a tradition born in the first three centuries after the death of Jesus. For much of that time, Christianity was banned in the Roman Empire, its followers persecuted. ...
Then Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313, and iconographers began developing the art. They incorporated saints and other religious figures as subjects, a practice that helped educate those who could not read.

So if, as I said earlier, icons were part of Christian life in the first centuries, where did the 1,200 figure come from? Even if you start the timeline in 313 that would give you a different number. Do the math.

Maybe this was a typo. Maybe it was misunderstanding of another note in the complicated history of this subject. After all, the reference to 313 is followed by this material, which includes one of many accurate uses of the word "veneration:"

... Many inside and outside the faith believed their veneration violated the Ten Commandments' stricture against making or adoring graven images.
The church overruled these "iconoclasts" in 787, after St. John of Damascus wrote a treatise defending the practice. If Jesus could draw human beings to God by taking on bodily form, the church father reasoned, his physical likeness and could draw people toward the heavenly.
"It's like a mother looking at a picture of her son," Bouloubassis says. "Is she worshipping the picture? No, she is showing love for her child who isn't there."

Note the detail that Jesus himself becomes the first icon from which all other icons flow.

This is complicated material, to say the least. In terms of getting the timeline right, it would appear that a misunderstanding of the 787 date led to the 1,200-year reference that needs to be corrected.

So what was the other error or, perhaps, a disappointing choice of words? There is this:

Bouloubassis, 49, is well into the project. It took him a year to create and hang the works that now cover the 27-by-36-foot wall behind the altar, including 45 life-size religious figures and 30 human-size angels in three sacred scenes.
He has spent the last 18 months completing similar icons he plans to affix to the dome in December. They include a 20-foot face head-and-body image of Jesus, the Pantokrator (ruler of all), which will look down on the congregation from above, per Orthodox tradition.
The scale of the job would not be atypical in Greece, where Orthodox Christianity is the state religion, or in other Old World nations with centuries of Orthodox tradition. But it's exceptional in Maryland, where masters of the art are far rarer.

What does the word "exceptional" mean? "Rarer" implies that there are others. Later on, this point is repeated:

Some experts say the project, once completed, would be a rarity in Maryland: a church decorated wall-to-wall like many of its ancient forebears, but appropriate to 21st-century worship.

Here is my question: Did members of the Sun team actually visit, or discuss, any other Maryland churches?

I ask, because my former congregation, Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, recently completed a similar, multi-year iconography project to cover the walls with sacred images. Since that sanctuary once belonged to Methodists, it doesn't include a dome. However, just about every inch of space available for icons has been used.

You can see the icon-covered walls in this video:

Now, the word "rare" implies that there are one or two other projects of this kind. Thus, I guess that reference is not in error.

"Rare" might include Holy Cross. Did the story need to include a passing reference to this other large-scale iconography project in the area? Maybe not. However, it says something about the health of these emerging Orthodox flocks in Baltimore that this kind of work is becoming more common -- or perhaps less rare.

In other words, what the Sun had here was a larger story than it realized. The result is a fine feature (with an historical error that should be corrected), that missed an opportunity to see the larger local story. Maybe a sequel is needed?

MAIN IMAGE: From the Antiochian Orthodox Church website. Bishop Thomas visits St. Mary parish in Hunt Valley.

Please respect our Commenting Policy