“The Beauty of Thy House”: A guide to the icons of St. Andrew Orthodox Church

The text is mostly written, even without a contract with a publisher. The book will be expensive to produce because its whole purpose is to be a guide to the masterpiece icons of St. Andrew Orthodox Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, and therefore will contain more than 50 color images with nearly 100 pages of text.  The initial concept for a brochure-size publication was just a passing notion. There is too much to fit into a handout and adequately describe this monumental work created by Master iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky and her daughter Anna Gouriev between the years 1992 and 2006.

The text for this guide grew out of the need to educate not only visitors to St. Andrew with little or no acquaintance with Orthodoxy, but also, and perhaps primarily, St. Andrew’s own parishioners who desire a clear explanation for the subject of the icons and the liturgical and theological interplay between them in their placement within the temple.

A period of several months, September 2011 through January 2012, marked a serious effort to photograph these icons.  Many people for many years, awestruck by their beauty and content, have attempted without success to capture and reproduce decent images of the icons. The major obstacle to the task is light, not the lack thereof, but the presence of too much. First, the reflective light created by the large amount of gold covering the surfaces of the icons is extremely difficult to render without “hotspots” in the image and/or blackness.  Added to this difficulty is the blast of natural sunlight coming from the six man-sized windows, three on the North wall and three on the South wall of the nave. Because St. Andrew temple faces East, as do all Orthodox churches, sunlight floods the nave from rising to setting sun, making it impossible to manage image-making consistency.

To overcome this challenge, we engaged the services of the best art photographer in the region, Mary Rezny of MS Rezny Studio & Gallery.  The project was kicked off on September 4, 2011 when a team of three St. Andrew parishioners removed 12 festal icons from the upper tier of the iconostasis, and the large icon of Last Supper above the Royal Doors leading to the altar. The icons were carefully wrapped and transported to Rezny’s studio where she created optimum conditions for art photography.

The remaining and greater part of the project was to photograph the large murals on the North and South walls and the large icons on the lower tier of the iconostasis. The process, carried out on Monday, January 12, 2012, took more than eight hours to complete, which does not count Rezny’s editing time back at her studio, easily another day’s work or more.

Rezny’s plan for attacking the light problem was to overwhelm the light coming from the windows instead of masking it with black material or shooting the icons at night to avoid warring with the sun all together. For this she brought in her big guns, three 1600-watt-seconds lights mounted on extenders tripods that could be moved around the nave. She then built two portable 12 by 12 foot white walls out of giant paper rolls. These were used to block in the area to be photographed in order to concentrate imported light and harness ambient light to her advantage. The trick was to find the balance between the light she could artificially control and the luminescence of all that gold. Each group of murals required re-positioning walls and re-aiming guns.

The team that assisted Rezny (two persons from St. Andrew and one from St. Athanasius in Nicholasville) in moving the powerful light canons and the white walls from set-up to set-up also had to move the liturgical furniture out of picture, so to speak. Besides the baptismal font, bishop’s throne, chanter stands and lampadas, etc., the major pieces obstructing the camera’s eye were the massive oak pews that take up most of the space in the nave, which present another kind of obstacle: a barrier to the fluidity of Orthodox worship. The crew took advantage of the recent carpet replacement in the nave before the pews were bolted to the floor again. Instead of removing and returning each pew to its place, the entire row of pews in both aisles were laid down to provide a clear view to the icons. With the pews rested on their backs came a revelation: nothing is sacred or rather, even the sacred is sometimes approached irreverently. The bottoms of the pews were dotted with globs of gum in various flavor colors. As St. Peter has said, “The same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. (1 Peter 5:9)”

Now begins the task of joining image and text into one presentation.

Excerpt from the introduction to “The Beauty of Thy House”

We enter the temple from the West through a small anteroom called the narthex, which represents the fallen world and corresponds to the outer court, according to the pattern given to Moses on Mount Sinai for the tented-temple in the wilderness.  In the early history of the Church, and even during the persecutions of Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 20th century, the doors of the narthex were guarded to warn of violent intrusion and to prevent curiosity seekers from disrupting the peace of worshipers.

This intimate space is for spiritual preparation to enter the nave, the second and largest unit, which corresponds to the inner court. Immediately upon entering the narthex, the worshiper makes the sign of the Cross in recognition of transfer from worldly surroundings to the abode of heaven on earth actualized within the assembly gathered for worship in the temple structure.

First prayers are said in the narthex and candles lit. Here, the services of exorcism, infant dedications, baptisms, reception of converts, weddings and funerals begin and move reverently forward through the nave to completion before the gates to the altar, the third and final partition, which represents the Holy of Holies where only patriarchs, bishops, priests, deacons and altar servers are permitted because of special service they offer there.

Mary Kathryn Lowell