Sep 25, 2013

New Orthodox fresco in Calif. part of an old tradition of faith

Photo: Orthodox Arts Journal 

Fr. Patrick Doolan paints the dome of a church in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Inside the dome of an Eastern Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa, Calif., a priest is painting a fresco icon of Christ. He carries on the tradition of religious iconography, which Orthodox say goes back to St. Luke the Evangelist, and which captures the essence of the Orthodox faith.

Father Patrick Doolan is, according to the Orthodox Arts Journal, "the master of true fresco."

The work began at St. Seraphim of Sarov's in 1996 and is expected to be finished next year.

Edit: The fresco painting began in 1996. The dome is expected to be completed in 2014, but the larger work will continue after that.

The church is fairly representative of the history of Orthodoxy in America. It was established in Northern California in the 1930s, the parish mostly made up of Russian immigrants displaced by the revolution back home. There were, at the time, a few more than 100 Russian Orthodox churches in the United States. The tended to be fairly detached from the culture around them, distinct ethnic enclaves. They were also mostly detached from the broader Orthodox world and from each other. The turmoil in Russia had led the American dioceses to declare itself independent, and to transfer deeds to the individual parishes to protect them, legally, from a Soviet land grab. As a result, the churches were functionally "a loose and essentially voluntary federation of de facto independent parishes, each caring about itself, and it's 'interests,'" according to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a theologian and church historian.

Today, St. Seraphim's is part of the Orthodox Church in America, and is considered a "microcosm of Orthodoxy in America."

There are a mix of believers from various ethnic traditions in the parish, as well as a growing number of converts. The church tries to be a space where ethnic identities can be maintained, and yet, at the same time, to be a community primarily defined by faith that transcends ethnicity. It seeks to engage American culture, and be relevant to contemporary issues, and yet to resist the pressures to transform to the culture. Traditions such as the painting of icon frescos are continued, with the belief that the truth of such practices is timeless.

Icons are an important part of Eastern Orthodox traditionally spirituality. Theologian Vladimir Lossky writes that "icons, just as well as the Scriptures, are expressions of the inexpressible, and have become possible thanks to the revelation of God which was accomplished in the incarnation of the Son." Christ is considered the first icon, and the doctrine of the incarnation is central to the sacred art. Because God became a man, and yet was still fully God, these material objects, pictures, can be "meeting points between Heaven and earth," as an anonymous monk writes in instructional literature distributed by St. Seraphim of Sarov's.

With icons, the anonymous monk writes,
The Orthodox are championing the basis of the Christian faith, the incarnation of God, and, consequently, salvation and the very meaning of the Church's existence on earth, since the creation of the Holy Icon goes back to the very origins of Christianity and is an indelible part of the truth revealed by God, founded as it is on the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself. Holy Images are part of the nature of Christianity and without the Icon, Christianity would cease to be Christianity. 
For the church in Santa Rosa, the icon in the dome of the church is not merely a nice aesthetic touch, it's also part of the continuation of the faith.

Fr. Doolan, notably, learned the tradition from Leonid Ouspensky, a Russian émigré to France who, along with Vladimir Lossky, wrote The Meaning of Icons, a landmark in the theological study of iconography. Oupensky was a former communist who had persecuted Orthodox believers during the Russian revolution. He converted to Orthodoxy, by his own account, through the contemplation of icons.

According to The Meaning of Icons, that's the power of the sacred art, the power of possible illumination: "It is not the purpose of the icon to [merely] touch its contemplator. Neither is it its purpose to recall one or the other human experience of natural life; it is meant to lead every human sentiment as well as reason and all other qualities of human nature on the way to illumination."

For Fr. Doolan and the people of St. Seraphim's, that the purpose of the sacred art in the dome of the church, and the work of the church itself, throughout its history and in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Pictures of the work in progress can be found at the Orthodox Arts Journal.

Pictures of other frescos at St. Seraphim of Sarov's, as well as pictures of the construction of the church, can be found on the parish website.

Photo: Orthodox Arts Journal
The interior of the dome of St. Seraphim's, prepared for the fresco.