On the Icon Renovations of 1991

[Taken from the March 1991 edition of the 50th Anniversary Newsletter; it reads like a newspaper article, probably from the Woonsocket Call].

At St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the saints state down at you with renewed intensity.

The pastel reds, greens and golds of St. Catherine, Nicholas and Basil are brighter than they’ve been in years, the folds in their robes and the wrinkles in their faces are more luminescent.

This is no divine apparition, mind you, but the work of man.  or more precisely in this case, woman.

Mila Mina, 65, a Czechoslovakian-born religious artist, spent two months restoring the spiritual scenery that bedecks the walls and ceilings of the Harris Avenue church, finishing the work this week.

The church contracted for the makeover in honor of its 50th anniversary this year at its current home, according to the Rev. William Wojciechowski, pastor.  The celebration will culminate this fall with a visit by Ukrainian Archbishop Antony.

According to the pastor, Ms. Mina is no mere artist, and the images of Jesus and the saints are not mere paintings.

In the tradition of the Orthodox church, he said, the images are known as “icons” and are regarded as a sort of living link to the world of the spirit.

Those who create or restore icons, like Ms. Mina – iconographers – follow an extremely rigid set of visual rules that have their roots deep in the traditions of the Orthodox Church, according to Father Wojciechowski.

Characteristically, the figures do not show the influence of light like modern Western paintings.  That is, they do not cast shadows, giving them a two-dimensional look, something like the figures on a playing card.

Nevertheless, they seem to reflect light, making them appear as if they are the source of it.

They are drawn that way, said Father Wojciechowski, to remind churchgoers that, while most of us inhabit the three dimensions of Earth, there is another, “heavenly dimensions.”

“Icons are not simply decorations” he said. “They are visualized prayer.”

Good iconographers don’t just work for a living, either.  They really get into it, spiritually speaking.

For example, Ms. Mina, who has moved on to other projects in Pennsylvania since finishing up St. Michael’s, ate spare meals and worked 12 and 14 hour days while she was restoring the icons.  She never broke for lunch, said Father Wojciechowski.

“She would be here at 7 o’clock in the morning and would come back over to the house at 9 o’clock at night.”

Behind the so-called “icon screen,” the altar-like area from which the pastor says the Divine Liturgy, Ms. Mina created a new icon of the traditional Christmas manger, or Nativity.

She also ringed the entire interior of the church with a painted border that looks like the edge of a billowy tablecloth.  In fact, says Father Wojciechowski, the pattern is a symbol for the great “banquet” of life offered by Christ.

The “skirting” as the father calls it, is decorated with flowery crosses that were designed after wooden carvings that can be found here and there inside the church.

Also, Ms. Mina restored the tow main icons in the church, depicting the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and the Baptism of the Ukrainian capital Kievan-Rus around the end of the first century, thus marking the birth of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Father Wojciechowski said the images weren’t in serious disrepair but some of the plaster beneath them was chipping and the colors were fading.

The icons are about 40 years old, 10 years younger than the church, erected in 1941.  Father Wojciechowski said the roots of the 200-family parish in Woonsocket go back to the turn of the century.

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