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Saints Appear, In Full Color
by Allan Appel | Oct 24, 2013 2:45 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Visual Arts
An itinerant priest and painter, Father Theodore Jeruwicz, has been high on a scaffold in Westville, painting icons of saints and scenes from the life of Jesus. In the process, he has been transforming the Holy Transfiguration Church.
The result: a wall of glittering religious paintings that are considered a silent form of preaching.
“This kind of work is considered preaching the gospel,” said Jeruwicz, a painter and a priest who, like an itinerant holy craftsman from out of the Middle Ages, spends up to three weeks of every month on the road filling up the white spaces of Orthodox Churches throughout the northeast. he has spent the past few months at work at Holy Transfiguration, at the corner of Alden Avenue and Burton Street in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood.
He has made many visits to Holy Transfiguration over the decades, all when enough money is raised to pay for his highly skilled work. He comes at the invitation of Father Michael Westerberg, who has been shepherding his flock for 32 years.
Holy Transfiguration, which has about 150 families from the Greater New Haven area, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2015.
“Every time he comes, our church is in disorder. Every time he leaves, it’s more beautiful,” said Westerberg (pictured).
One weekday afternoon during the October-long sojourn of the icon painter, Westerberg showed a reporter around the church, while joshing with Jeruwicz high on the scaffold above.
Below, the painter’s assistant Irene Vassos was creating an outline, filling it with “size,” a glue-type ground that would hold the gold leaf paper to be applied.
She hails from West Stockbridge, Mass., and often joins Jeruwicz as his assistant as he makes his way throughout the Northeast as, to use his own phrase, “the iconographer of Interstate 90.”
The figures or icons of the saints are “windows into the kingdom of God. We see through an icon or enter into the icon. It’s always a revelation of the kingdom of God, holiness, sanctity,” Westerberg said.
From up on the scaffold, Jeruwicz said softly, “For Michael’s good: Obliterate the white! And let the light shine through.”
When Jeruwicz arrived at the beginning of October, the entire upper portion of the northern wall of the church was white. Other walls of the church are full of saints and narrative art, all done by Jeruwicz over the decades.
His first project, when the church began the painting program in the 1980s, was the iconostasis, the tall panel of icons separating the nave from the holier areas of the altar.
Among the icons Jeruwicz had painted in the northern wall’s niches in recent visits was the assembly of the saints of the North American Orthodox Church, beginning with St. Herman of Alaska (pictured in the center). Peter the Aleut (on the right) was a 16-year-old whom Westerberg described as the “first native American martyr.”
“He was tortured by Roman Catholic monks who said an Orthodox baptism is no baptism. They began by cutting off his toes, then his fingers. By the time they got to his ankles, he had bled to death,” Westerberg said.
Many of the saints being readied to be painted include congregation members’ patron saints. That’s a reminder that “people are also icons. There are always holy ones among us that we may not recognize. By our sins we obscure that [holy] image, but we cannot destroy the image of God in us,” said Westerberg.
When he’s not painting, Jeruwicz shepherds his own flock in Erie, Pennsylvania, has ten children, and many grandchildren; the painting is his unique calling, which he also executes with a self-effacing sense of humor.
He uses acrylic paint, even though historically icon painters used egg tempera. “I use these egg cartons to give people the impression egg tempera is being used,” he called down.
“He’s fooling no one. That’s tongue in cheek,” Westerberg called up.
What’s more, he added, “Don’t praise the work. It leads to pride and inflation of prices. And we have to keep him humble.”
Westerberg said his congregants are receiving the work with joy.
As the painting continued in the corner of the north wall, Westerberg’s eye traveled to bare white spaces high up beneath the dome and along the southern wall.
He squinted. “I told Father Theodore neither of us is authorized to die before the work is done.”
The iconographic art is visible during regular church service hours or by appointment with Father Westerberg.