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Iconic Installation

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SARASOTA COUNTY — It’s an incredible sight, for sure.

At the center of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church’s sanctuary stands a massive structure of metal and plywood — custom scaffolding that stretches 65 feet to the church’s dome. The monstrosity has been surgically erected around the pews; its feet placed between rows and in aisles.

“I joked that its like I’m at the Manatee County Jail with all these bars,” said the Very Rev. Archimandrite Frank Kirlangitis of preaching last Sunday.

But the temporary inconvenience promises to yield one of the most beautiful sights the St. Barbara congregation has ever seen.

For the next two weeks, New York-based Byzantine iconographer George Filippakis is installing a massive iconography project in the St. Barbara dome. Called the Pantocrator, the piece depicts the omnipotent Christ in the top part of the dome with four cherubim angels surrounding him. The artwork also will feature eight prophets and the four evangelists. The portion of the artwork featuring Christ is 16 feet in diameter alone.

“It’s amazing to see how large this really is,” Kirlangitis said as he watched Filippakis and his assistants working.

The installation of the dome project is the culmination of three-and-one-half years of planning and preparation. The church replaced all the dome windows and repaired a leak before work could begin.
Before he started the piece, Filippakis took precise measurements not only of the dome’s size but also its curvature. Because the dome walls are round, the painting must account for those curves so that it will appear correctly once installed.

Filippakis then painted the piece on several different panels of a special canvas at his New York studio. When complete, he packed each panel in huge PVC tubes that accompanied him on the plane to Florida.

On Monday, Filippakis and his assistants began the installation by cutting out each portion of the piece. Then, Filippakis will take each piece and fit it into place like a puzzle, securing the artwork to the dome with special glue. He’ll also put finishing touches — including the gold leaf surrounding Christ — while on-site.

Although it is called iconography, the piece isn’t meant to be worshipped, Kirlangitis said. Rather, the piece will serve to enhance the beauty of the church, to instruct its congregation and remind them of their faith. The images help uplift the congregation and create a setting in which worship can take place.

“We have reverence for the icon, but we worship only God,” Kirlangitis said.

Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].

George Filippakis is one of the most well known Byzantine iconographers in the world. His work appears in about 90 churches throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.

Born in Greece, Filippakis began his apprenticeship at age 11 under master iconographer Stylianos Kartakis at the Cathedral of St. Minas in Iraklion, Crete.

“It was a large church — three times bigger than this,” Filippakis said as he stood in St. Barbara. “I just wanted to learn. I was young, but I said, ‘Please teach me.’”

Later, Filippakis attended the School of Fine Arts in Athens for four years. During that time, he got the opportunity to paint his first church alone on the island of Aegina. He was only 19 years old.

Filippakis immigrated to the United States in 1969. Now based on Long Island, N.Y., Filippakis owns a studio with an 11-foot-tall wall — large enough to create pieces such as St. Barbara’s dome project.

“You have to love the work, and you have to have faith,” Filippakis said. “God gave you this talent, but you have to believe it. I always pray to God for each piece to be a success.”


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