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Restoration continues on icons at Assumption Church

Some things are worth the wait.

This seems to be the case at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, where iconographic artwork destroyed a decade ago is still being restored.

A fire broke out in the church Dec. 20, 2002. Church administrator Joan De Ronne said it began in the middle of the day, just after a funeral. The family had gone into another room to have their lunch and noticed smoke coming out of the church. It was difficult to determine how the fire started, since all the candles had been extinguished beforehand, but the blaze caused about $4 million in damages to the church — $1.5 million in lost iconography, alone.

The fire burned the church down to studs, but De Ronne said they were fortunate that no one was hurt and that the fire was caught. But although restoration of the room itself allowed them to return to the church just a year later, having new icons painted has taken much longer.

“Iconography dates back to the very first church,” said De Ronne. “It depicts the life of Christ … and the history of faith. It’s a story, or a window, into the religion.”

The church hired world-renowned artist Vlasios Tsotsonis in 2006, but he was not able to begin work until 2009. He works in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where he is about halfway into a 16-year project, and at the Meteora Monastery in Greece, where he has worked for 17 years. He is also known as the “iconographer of angels” in Europe.

On his first visit, Tsotsonis installed two mosaics in the church entrance — the Dormition of the Virgin Mary depicting her death, which is the icon the church is dedicated to, and one of St. Nektarios, a 20th-century saint from Greece.

Also in 2009, Tsotsonis painted the altar area of the church and the icon screen separating the altar from the congregation. But this year, he has finished Phase One of the renovations: large icons spanning the ceiling arch over the dais in front of the icon screen, a piece in the choir loft, the baptistery to the left of the dais and the St. Nektarios Chapel to its right.

“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” said Father Michael Varlamos, who was assigned to the church by the bishop after the fire because of his experience with church reconstruction. He explained that, in times past when literacy was not widespread, “people would see, essentially, the Bible opened up.”

“It also reminds us that we believe the church is that bridge between heaven and earth. We’re worshipping with the saints,” he said.

The iconography completely covers the walls and ceilings of the church, where it has been completed — a big change from the cream-colored walls rebuilt after the fire. Walking in and looking at the altar area, it feels almost like an art museum or an Old World cathedral; the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and other saints and angels surround in a riot of color.

To complete Phase One, Tsotsonis has been working with assistant Niko Gaitanidis and apprentice Ilia Brako on the iconography from morning to late at night, six days a week, since September.

Tsotsonis is from Corinth, Greece, and is in demand throughout the world. Speaking through Varlamos, who interpreted for him from Greek, Tsotsonis said he has been asked to work in many churches throughout the United States but was already committed in Greece and Europe.

He chose to do the work in Assumption Church, however, because he “saw in the priest and the people not just the desire to decorate the church. It was to follow the artistic traditions of the church … and for teaching people through art.”

Tsotsonis said he saw in the church a challenge.

When asked which image is his favorite, Tsotsonis compared the work to the spine, saying that one vertebra cannot be loved above another.

Instead, he said, his favorite icon is the image of the finished church in his mind.

“It’s rewarding to see it come to fruition,” he said.

Next, Tsotsonis will head to Jerusalem to continue his work on mosaics in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He feels he was chosen for his work.

“This was nurtured from a very young age,” he said through Varlamos. “It’s something that is necessary for (Tsotsonis) to express as a gift from God.

“It’s not work, it’s a passion.”

The work will continue in the church in September 2014, when Tsotsonis will return for Phase Two. At that time, he and his understudies will paint more icons in the large dome of the church and finish the choir loft. Phase Three, with a date not yet determined, will fill the transepts of the church with iconography.

“It’s very different from what it was before,” said Varlamos.

About 1,000 families are part of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church. The pews seat 650 people.

Parishioners and families sponsored different icons, but Varlamos said he reminded them that, even with reconstruction, the church still had to be maintained, as did all of its ministries. Along with insurance settlements from the fire, those donations have paid for the approximately $700,000 cost of Phase One. Phase Two will cost the same, and the cost for Phase Three has not been determined.

“The people have been very, very generous,” he said.