St. Nicholas restores icons painted by historic iconographers
JOLIET – One look at the plastic-wrapped icons leaning against the pews and Deb Cook burst into tears.
“Dad, come look!” Cook said.
Seventeen icons at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church on Barber Lane were removed from the iconostasis (icon screen) in early April in preparation for restoration. In addition, a large crucifix over the main altar area and an icon of Christ above the side altar were restored.
All the icons were returned and reinstalled Friday.
Art Cook, now the oldest member of St. Nicholas, watched the reinstallation process in awe.
“I helped build it,” Art said, referring to the iconostasis.
The Rev. John Matusiak, icon restoration project consultant, said the six large icons on the iconostasis that separates the nave from the altar, as well as the crucifix and large icon of Christ, were painted in egg tempura by Matushka Tamara Elchaninov of Paris.
Elchaninov was a European icongrapher who helped promote the return of traditional Byzantine-style iconography in the Orthodox church, as opposed to a style based on Western art, which had been popular in Europe for about 200 years, Matusiak said.
The six icons were commissioned and installed in 1955, when the Rev. Vladimir Borichevsky was pastor at St. Nicholas. Then, when the new church was built on Barber Lane, its current location, Elchaninov’s daughter, Matushka Maria Struve, painted 11 additional round icons for the iconostasis, Matusiak said.
But over time, Matusiak said, candle wax and incense smoke builds up on the icons, and the egg tempura dries and cracks. Many times, churches find it more cost effective to purchase new icons rather than restore the old ones.
“So many of her icons had disentegrated over the years,” Matusiak said. “I don’t think a lot of care was taken in other places to preserve them.”
What makes these icons valuable, said Matusiak, is that few, if any, Orthodox churches in the United States still have icons by these particular iconographers – and certainly not a collection of them. In fact, the icons at St. Nicholas may be the largest collection of Elchaninov/Struve icons in a single parish, he added.
During Lent, the parish made a decision to restore these icons and hired Parma Conservation in Chicago for the job, Matusiak said. The cost was $17,000, which was funded through donation sponsorships.
“In fact, the donations came in before the donor letters went out, Matusiak said. “People were really enthused about the project.”
Rev. John Kuchta, now retired, was pastor at that time. Kuchta was present on June 9 to watch the reinstallation. So was Rev. Mykola Bodnarchuk, who recently became pastor at St. Nicholas.
“They did an amazing job,” Bodnarchuk said. “Now you can see the details. They’re like completely new icons.”
Greg Grabavoy of Darien, parish council president, agreed.
“It’s amazing what people can do,” Grabavoy said. “To restore works of art: it’s a gift.”