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2015-07-15 / Family

Iconography adorns church: a ‘great cloud of witnesses’

By Michael Buettner
NEWS EDITOR


The Very Rev. David Arnold, archpriest at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church in Midlothian, in the recently painted sanctuary. 
James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer The Very Rev. David Arnold, archpriest at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church in Midlothian, in the recently painted sanctuary. James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer In the quiet sanctuary of a church, a bearded man applies paint to plaster, and an image of a haloed saint or a golden-winged angel takes shape at the tip of his brush.

It’s a scene that could have taken place anytime in the past two millennia, almost anywhere in the world, but this particular time it’s occurring in a small church west of Midlothian, where a 40-year-old Orthodox congregation is making its permanent home.

St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church built its facility on Huguenot Springs Road six years ago, after meeting in a variety of temporary locations in Richmond, but it was only last year that the congregation began the task of filling the blank walls behind the church’s altar with the complex images of holiness that are a requisite feature of Orthodox churches.


The iconography at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church was painted by Conor “Seraphim” O’Keefe, a convert to Orthodox Christianity. 
James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer The iconography at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church was painted by Conor “Seraphim” O’Keefe, a convert to Orthodox Christianity. James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer The images – icons in the original sense of the word – were designed and painted by Conor “Seraphim” O’Keefe, a convert to Orthodox Christianity who will be leaving in the fall to attend St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

Originally trained as a naturalist, O’Keefe said he began working as an icon painter while studying in the nation of Georgia, where he started by helping with restoration projects after graduating from high school. “In Georgia, I was given a little training,” he said. “I enjoyed doing the work.”

O’Keefe has also studied under masters of iconography in Russia and the U.S. Before coming to St. Cyprian, he was invited by Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, to paint icons in the nave of the church as part of its 20th anniversary celebration.

Orthodox iconography involves almost as much theological knowledge as it does artistic skill. The tradition dates back to a time in the Roman era when many Christians were illiterate, and the imagery of icons evolved as a kind of picture book of church teachings, O’Keefe said.

The particular set of images going up on the walls at St. Cyprian has one overall message, according to the Very Rev. David Arnold, archpriest/rector of the church: “We really tried to focus on the mystery of the incarnation, of God becoming man.”

That story starts at the center of the wall of the apse, the semicircular sanctuary where the church’s altar is located, where the dominant image shows the Virgin Mary in her role as Theotokos – Greek for “god-bearer” – with the infant Jesus sitting in her lap.

On each side are angels heralding Christ’s birth, while above is a row of images of Old Testament prophets and other figures whose words are believed to have prefigured the coming of Christ.

Below is an image of the altar, on which stands the chalice of the eucharist receiving light flowing down from Christ, while high above on the ceiling is an empty throne symbolizing the Christ who is to come.

Surrounding the image of the altar are a number of saints and fathers of the early church, including the eponymous St. Cyprian, a third-century bishop of Carthage

North Africa who was martyred during a period of Roman persecution of Christians in 258.

Still farther away are several Orthodox saints with connections

North America, mainly through service in Alaska when that territory was an outpost of Russia.

Until now, Arnold noted, the walls of the sanctuary have been adorned with small icons on panels, painted by Maria Struve, famous 20th-century icon artist born in Russia whose work has helped inspire O’Keefe. Those panels will still hang in places of honor around the church, including the “iconostasis” – a large wooden structure that partially screens off the altar area from the congregation.

Much more icon painting will be happening in the years ahead that, according to Arnold, will cover the remaining walls of the church with a “great cloud of witnesses.”

Members of the public are invited to view the completed work on Sunday, July 26, from 4 to 8 p.m. Light refreshments will be served, and a brief program explaining the iconography will begin at 6:30.

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