Sometimes, it’s easier for artist George Filippakis to work lying on his back on scaffolding that crisscrosses the high sunlit dome at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church.
Filippakis, 64, of Woodbury, N.Y., on Long Island, is in the midst of mounting 24 bright canvases, or icons, he has painted, depicting Christ and other religious figures.
“I love to do it,” said Filippakis on Tuesday, as he supervised a crew working on the iconography project at the church at 7671 N. Lockwood Ridge Road. “It’s spiritually fulfilling.”
Filippakis said it’s important to believe in the tenets of Greek Orthodoxy.
“A lot of painters try to paint religious art, but they don’t have the faith, you can see it right away,” said Filippakis, who has done paintings, mosaics and frescoes for more than 80 churches and whose work can be viewed in other U.S. cities, Canada, Australia and Europe. “You have to believe, otherwise, you can’t do anything.”
Filippakis was born in Greece and first worked in iconography at Iraklion, Crete, when he was only 11 years old.
The Greek word “icon” means “image” or “portrait.” The dome of the Byzantine church represents the firmament of the sky covering the earth; iconography is not considered art in and of itself, but rather as theology in visual form.
“It plays an important part in the spiritual life of an orthodox Christian,” said the pastor, the V. Rev. Archimandrite Frank M. Kirlangitis. “They’re really like windows into heaven.”
He emphasized that the congregation of 350 families does not actually worship the images themselves, but reveres the icons.
Their cost is so great, the church itself could not afford to commission them, but each has been paid for with a donation from a parishioner, said Kirlangitis.
“They’re patrons of the church,” he said of those who contributed to the project, adding, “People so graciously come forward.”
Among the images planned for the dome are those of eight prophets, each measuring five feet in diameter and requiring a donation of $6,500, and four evangelists, each measuring more than eight by 10 feet, and requiring a donation of $15,000, according to the church.
Tuesday, plastic sheeting draped over the pews protected the church interior as workers climbed scaffolding that rose to the top of the dome. First, plasterers had been brought in to give the walls a smooth sheen, electricians installed new lighting, and now, Filippakis is supervising installation of the icons, which will be glued onto the walls and then sealed for their protection.
Filippakis said he expected to finish within a week or 10 days.
“We are excited and thrilled,” said Kirlangitis. “We know the final product will be spectacular.”