Bringing the altar to life

Bringing the altar to life

September 9th, 2017 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Mother Teodora Balaban wipes down portions of the iconography that she has been working on the alter of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. Katsaros was enlisted by the church to paint the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary her conception of Christ.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Gallery: Bringing the altar to life

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Mother Theodora Balaban is dressed head to toe in a black cassock and vestments so that only her face can be seen. When she pauses among the slightly larger-than-life-size images of six iconic saints flanking the image of Christ at the altar, she seems like a shadow or a silhouette among them.

She doesn't stand still for very long, however, as Mother Balaban is on the altar working. She has been at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Glenwood for about three weeks and will likely be there a couple more. Her task is to finish the altar iconography that was begun in 1979 by her mentor and teacher, Alias Katsaros.

Katsaros was enlisted by the church to paint the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary her conception of Christ. His work adorns the upper dome that is the back of the altar. The lower section and sides of the altar have remained unadorned with a neutral white paint covering the walls.

That is until the family of Vasiliki "Vicky" Mena asked that church members make a donation on her behalf following her death in January of 2014 so that the iconography could be done. The Mena family joined the church in 1985, and daughter Katy Mena-Berkley says the church meant a great deal to her mother.

"For Mom, it was always her dream to see the project completed and to see the saints on the altar. The Orthodox church was a big part of her life, right after family."

Mena-Berkley says more than $50,000 was raised for the project. While the work being done by Mother Balaban will take several weeks to complete, the total process has stretched into more than two years. That is in part because such assignments are not her full-time or only job.

Mother Balaban, a Romanian-born nun who leads the Holy Annunciation Hermitage in Westville, Ind., has spent years studying church iconography. The study involves not only technique but history.

"I studied art in Romania learning theology and iconography," she says.

She also has spent a good deal of time learning about modern technology. At one point, she pulls a smartphone from a pocket in her cassock, which creates a fairly amusing contrasting image of her in her garments. Seeing the surprised look on the faces around her, she says she has studied engineering and would be happy to explain how the phone works.

She has installed iconography in Orthodox churches around the world and has painted works on glass, wood, concrete and plaster. For the church here, she has used acrylic paint on canvas for the saints, and then those canvases are affixed to the walls. Canvas has become a medium of choice in many cases in the last 40 or 50 years, she says, because it will last longer than if painted on concrete or cinder block. Canvases also can be removed and taken to a new location should the need arise.

The background is 12-hour gold leaf sizing, which she painstakingly applied, then burnished. Because the material is so delicate, she has to work in the church with the air conditioning off. She's also worked around the church's schedule, meaning long days and nights for her.

The previous white wall is about 9 feet tall and about 40 feet wide. The saints and Christ figure are about 7 feet tall. To protect them during the installation, they have been covered temporarily in a wax-like material, which gives them a hazy, muted appearance.

Iconography in Greek Orthodox churches is as much a part of the worship services as the words that are spoken and the music that is performed, says Father Stavros Ballas, the church's presiding priest.

"Everything is part of the service and meant to enhance the spiritual experience," he says.

All of the images have a purpose and are based on specific guidelines, many of which were included in a manual of iconography by Dionysius of Fourna (1670-1744). Pedro Campa, the church secretary and professor of romance languages at UTC, has written books on Renaissance word and image, symbol theory and iconography. He says the Orthodox church allows for the depiction of specific saints and as many as two dozen can be depicted around the church.

Mother Balaban painted images of St. Spyridon, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, St. James, St. Basil and Cyril of Alexandria. Each is depicted holding a scroll.

"These are words from their writings or letters," Campa says. "If we were up North, they would be in Greek or Russian. They are in English here."

He says the saintly figures are not particularly grand in style nor are they especially beautiful, and that is by design. They are based on images rendered by relatively simple artists who would have had a closer relationship to the actual saints themselves, Campa says.

Ballas points out that the words on the scrolls are phrases or prayers used during a regular worship service.

Everything from facial expressions to clothing to placement of the hands must follow a prescribed form. Iconography artists are not allowed to impart their own imagination, personality or interpretation.

There are even guidelines on which images belong in which space around the entire church. Some Orthodox churches are covered floor to ceiling in iconography, and some have very little. It can depend on the will of the church members, and simple economics, as was the case with Annunciation here for many years.

"Everything in Orthodox iconography has a specific meaning and a purpose," Mother Balaban says. "Every single area of the church has a meaning, and we have rules for what goes where."

Where her artistic skill comes into play is in using the guidelines to make the pieces work in a specific space.

For the piece here, she was very mindful of the actual altar table and wanted her painting of Christ to appear to the congregants that he was standing at not only the painted one but the real one as well.

"It looks as if he can reach out to the altar," she says.

The work is done in the Byzantine Cretin style, and Mother Balaban used examples from around the world for the final result here.

"Everything has to be in its place and be soothing and not take away from the worship," she says. "We want people to enter into the presence of the icon. For me, am I able to bring it to life and speak to the people?"

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.