Arts: Icon Maker is Devoted to his Orthodox Church

Nicholas Bobrovsky is not an artist by profession. He is a retired General Electric engineer. But the quality of the Byzantine-style icons that he produces is, in a word, professional.

And the fact that Bobrovsky is a parishioner at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Massachusetts who has devoted his time, passion, energy and love to make the church’s own icons shows that he truly is a special person.

Bobrovsky is Russian but he was born in Czechoslovakia. He and his wife Marina are elders of St. Nicholas, which recently moved to new and bigger quarters. His father was an architectural illustrator who also was an icon maker.

Bobrovsky studied icon making at the Ligonier Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania where he learned the basics. And to talk to him about icons is an education in itself.  For instance there are Greek-style icons and Russian-style icons. Greek icons have a softer palette, perhaps owing to the sunnier climate of Greece. Styles of beards have been a subject of much debate for centuries among icon makers. Proper Byzantine icons never have a ‘glint’ of light in the eyes. And to be properly disposed of an icon must be burned.

And Bobrovsky reflects common sense too. “You don’t want to make the icon face scary,” he says with a chuckle.

Icons were controversial in the early history of Orthodox Christianity with its roots in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey today).




Top, Nicholas Bobrovsky with St. Nectarios. Middle is a small Bobrovsky icon of the Theotokos with remarkable detail. Bottom is Bobrovsky's main Theotokos icon.

When the iconoclasts (icon opposers) lost out ideologically to the “iconodules” in the 8th century, it set off a surge of creativity in the icon format that recognized the wide popularity of pagan images in the Ancient Greek world more than a millennium before.

Today many American Orthodox churches are lining their walls and ceilings with icons depicting the history of the faith. The St. Sophia Greek Orthodox church in Albany, New York, which is loosely modeled architecturally on the monumental 6th century Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople, has an interior that is a striking example of icon fervor with a full-time iconographer on staff for the last seven years.

It is always important to stress that Orthodox Christians do not “worship icons”. They “venerate” the icon and through the figure in the icon – from the Theotokos to Jesus Christ to a line of Christian saints – they express their faith in a Supreme God.

Bobrovsky researches his subjects diligently. He recently completed a private commission of St. Nectarios. The client liked one image of Nectarios’ face – the internet has made research much easier – and Bobrovsky melded it with an accurate rendering of Nectarios’ official garb to come up with the final composition. He then adds many personal elements.

Bobrovsky estimates that he has produced 50 icons in his life including the 6-panel iconostasis (icon screen) at St. Nicholas, and even two door-sized icons for the Orthodox church in Cohoes, NY. He has produced many private commissions.

But don’t ever say that he has “painted” the icons. To an Orthodox scholar he has “written” them, according to the proper lexicography. The term “iconographer” is from the Greek “icon” and “graphis” and is translated as “image writer”.

This distinction separates Byzantine icons from worldly art, just as the icons are stylized with elongated faces and hands and special highlights, and use primitive perspective in order to put them in their separate realm. In the same vein Christian columns have spiral or corkscrew fluting to separate them from the vertical fluting of pagan Greek architecture.

Bobrovsky even has a printout page showing how to highlight hands in light and shadow. Thus the art of icon “writing” is steeped in centuries of tradition but leaves enough leeway for the artist to express himself.

Using techniques from the earliest days of the Orthodox church, Bobrovsky builds up his images methodically. These icons begin with the dark colors – several layers of acrylic paint – and then the highlights are added.  He is aware of the tempera process but it is a difficult medium and the egg yolk must be mixed with toxic cadmium pigments that Bobrovsky wisely avoids. Many icon makers had died from the cadmium exposure before its true harm was known.

And of course what icon would be complete without a halo of gold leaf, a delicate application technique that Bobrovsky has been working successfully for decades.

Bobrovsky is a genuine scholar of the history of the icon format. For instance he is somewhat dismissive of people who believe that an icon that is old is always valuable. “There have been good icon makers and bad ones,” he says matter-of-factly. And for those who have studied icons from the ages it is clear that Bobrovsky has a special talent using his modern awareness of history coupled to his perceptive and fastidious engineer’s mind.

He has worked on icons in his home for decades and he even cut a chunk out of his foundation to put a window into his basement for his elfin studio. But on larger works he prefers the dining room where he can spread out his work and where he has a flood of light from the glass doors leading to the deck.

Throughout the ages many icons have been made on wooden panels that have warped. So Bobrovsky works on a modern substrate, a very stable form of birch veneer plywood that has 9 interior layers criss-crossed to create a flat surface that never will warp. The birch also has a fine surface with little grain to disturb the image.

After applying and sanding eleven(!) coats of gesso, he “writes” (draws) the image on the panel and then incises the image’s lines into the gesso with an X-acto knife. The lines will remain visible through layers of acrylic. He then slowly and methodically adds color according to the lines, and then adds the stylized details like drapery folds and light accents as he progresses.

For St. Nectarios, the parish priest Father Barnabas Fravel has provided some actual relics. Nectarios was born in Greece and lived from 1846 to 1920. He is known for his prayerful life, his humility, his writings, as well as for the miracles he performed. St. Nectarios also is said to have had the gift of prescience.

Bobrovsky will attach the relics to the bottom of the icon and encase it all in a glassed frame, perfect for long-term display.

The price for the commission of St. Nectarios, which is 24 inches tall?

Bobrovsky asks only for the cost of materials and then asks the client to donate to the church whatever they see fit. Which is the way that a true Orthodox Christian would want to be compensated.

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