Brush With Greatness

Jan 09, 2003 04:52 PM EST

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The walls of Johnny Andonieh's studio are covered with saints.

St. George and his friend, St. John, martyrs both. St. Sabas, a favorite in these parts, known for the mountain monastery he founded outside Bethlehem in the fifth century, one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world.

There are apostles on gilded canvas, with real gold mixed into the tempera paint. Apostles left faceless, for now.

Jesus is here, too, colored in rich hues, staring gently at onlookers, left hand raised in what almost seems a gesture of recognition. And Mary, holding her baby boy close.

Despite the considerable clutter - propped-up ladders, canvases rolled and stacked, jars of paint, bottles of brushes and tape measures coiled tight - there's a prayerful kind of calm here. Small votive candles burn next to the icons Andonieh has finished. They hang among others he has collected through the years.

But the mood of the place has more to do with Andonieh than with the icons.

Sipping a cup of tea in a chilly studio warmed slightly by a space heater, he says he once thought about becoming a monk, but decided against it. "I saw the life of a monk and what is he doing?" he says, taking a quick puff of a cigarette. "Saving himself only."

He says he hopes his paintings will help people focus when they pray, maybe even inspire them. "So maybe I can help," he says.

God knows there is plenty to pray about in Bethlehem.

For one thing, it seems that it will never stop raining. The weather adds to the gloom caused by day after day of curfew.

The day after Christmas, soldiers tossed tear gas into Manger Square as they began another sweep of the West Bank intended to round up suspected terrorists and other fugitives. Although the army pulled back from the basilica for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, its raids on homes in other parts of Bethlehem continued. Families stood for hours in cold stairwells while soldiers ransacked apartment buildings, never saying whose homes were being searched, or why.

Except for police officers, teachers and bankers, almost no one here has earned any money in months. A few get a handful of shekels for the few hours of work they can put in when the curfew is briefly lifted.

You'd think Andonieh's icon-painting business wouldn't be affected much by curfews, closures and fugitive raids. But he is among those whose income has been reduced sharply.

He is nearly finished with an extensive job in a church in Jericho, at the site mentioned in the Gospel where Zaccheus, a tax collector, climbs a tree to keep from catching Jesus's eye.

But Antonieh can't finish it, because he can't get a permit to go there to work.

It's a big project. The dome alone is huge. At its center is a Jesus, three meters high. The next ring is a host of angels, each playing a liturgical role from the celebration of the Mass. Then the apostles, Moses, Daniel, Elijah, Elisha. And at the corners, the Gospel writers; Andonieh calls them Mattheus, Lucas, Markos and Johannes.

"I cannot go to Jericho," he says. "If I go, I have to stay there."

Because the roads between Palestinian towns are closed and patrolled, movement is risky - even if you manage to sneak out of town, you may not find a way to get back.

"And I'll be worried about the family here. They've closed the roads. Sometimes I go through the fields, but that's hard. This is how we live here. And this isn't what life is about. We don't need just to work to make money. We need life, also."

Andonieh, 45, didn't start out as a professional iconographer. He worked in a hotel until the Gulf War killed the tourist trade in 1991. He had always retreated to Mar Sabas Monastery in times of trouble, and this time was no different, except that a monk there offered to teach him the trade.

He apprenticed himself to iconographers in Cypress, picking and choosing among their techniques and refining his own. (Left to his own, he creates images that are muscular and raw, a bit like Michelangelo's statues of burly saints.) He insists that good iconographers must re-create images that churchgoers will recognize, familiar images that have soothed souls for centuries.

"You can change things a bit, lift from five or six icons to put one image together," he says, "but you cannot change the face of Jesus. You want it so that when people come into the church and see an icon of St. John the Baptist, they'll know. And when they enter any church, he'll be recognizable. The same with the Apostle Paul. The same with Jesus.

You can change the colors, or the settings, he says. But never the faces.

It's the indelibility that he likes. He enjoys walking into a Greek Orthodox church and seeing the panorama of Christian history come to life around him.

"You can see the story of Jesus when you enter an empty church. You can see him on the cross. Sometimes people hear the stories but they don't remember. But with icons, you see the steps of Jesus, the miracles. You can remember the martyrs, the saints, our history. You can remember all of the Bible."

Andonieh reaches into a drawer, pulling out snapshots he took in Greece, of icons telling the story of the Apocalypse: Stars fall from the sky. Cities crumble. An angel blows an immense trumpet. And a woman tames a beast.

In Greece, he says, he even saw the Psalms rendered powerfully by iconographers to help worshipers.

Andonieh doesn't take his work lightly. Before he paints he prays and fasts. And he reads, about the lives of the saints he is painting, getting a "feel" for their lives and a sense of their own spirituality. He says he knows that people will pray at this icon, and kiss it, trying to catch hold of the "spirit of the saint," seeking help and intercession before God.

His medium is egg tempera, which he notes will last 500 years.

When he creates bigger images, on canvas, he often fastens the canvas to a church wall or column or to the iconostasis, the richly ornamented panel at the front of any Greek Orthodox Church, where Mary is always pictured sitting to the left of Jesus, and St. John the Baptist is usually to his right. The church's patron saint is often to Mary's left, and assorted apostles and other saints line the ornate panel.

For his dome in Jericho, Andonieh worked on a scaffold, sitting on a small stool, neck craned backward, able to see only little bits and pieces of the picture he was making.At last, he pulled the scaffold away and was able for the first time to feel the impact of the entire image. "Then I could look and feel like I did something," he says.

Lately, he says, it has been hard to get anything done. He has been depressed, preoccupied, obsessed by the troubles that seem endless here. He says he recently took his brother to Iraq for surgery, and when he returned, life here seemed worse than before.

He has begun working on a nativity scene on the far wall of the studio, but only the foundations of the grotto and the mountains show any paint. Mary and Joseph and Jesus are blank-faced, and have been that way for months.

Andonieh prays. In previous slumps he has sought out priests and asked for special prayers. But this time, he thinks, it may be that he just needs rest.

When he is able to work, he says, he works quickly, having done the preliminary work and thought out what he wants to do. You can see his work in the chapels of Mar Saba Monastery and St. George's Monastery. He did the dome at the St. Lazarus Church in Bethany, and some of his creations are in St. George's Church in Ramla, near Tel Aviv.

He also did large parts of the ceiling and walls of the Greek Orthodox Church in Beit Sahour, his home congregation, where he sometimes assists the priest, preparing incense and communion bread.

Two friends pound on the door and stomp in out of the rain, gathering around Adonieh's space heater to knock off the chill. The room has its own warmth, its walls a deep blue trimmed in red, window arches painted maize, with flowers painted inside, trellis-style, as you might see as a border along a wall in a Byzantine church.

He's modest about his talent. "In school, I was very good at drawing," he says with a shrug. Friends who know him from his years of working at the hotel are sometimes surprised when they see his work. "Johnny did this?" they ask.

Sometimes he seems to share their amazement. "I think it is a blessing from God," he says, taking another sip of tea.

By Albert H. Lee
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