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A church burns and, miraculously, much of its glorious Byzantine iconography survives

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The iconostasis icons glow even more brightly amidst the blackness that is now the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Basil in Chicago. And the icon of the Nativity in the north wall where the fire started was saved as if an invisible hand had extinguished the flames a hair's breadth from Mother and Child…

An icon and its stucco frame testify to the flames that miraculously stopped within a hair's breadth of Mother and Child. The Nativity, by Athanasios Clark, Saint Basil Greek Orthodox Church, Chicago, Illinois. (Crèchemania photos © 2013.)

The Mother of God "The Unburnt Bush," by Athanasios Clark glows as brilliantly after the fire as it must have when it was installed 25 years ago.   
The cornerstone of the church at the corner of South Ashland and West Polk Streets in Chicago's Greek Town reads, "Hellenic Orthodox Community of Chicago St. Basil E.S.T. [Established] March 1927 A.D."

But high up on this Greek Revival building, above the tall Corinthian columns, Hebrew letters are still visible, a testament that St. Basil's was built as the Anshe Sholom Synagogue, in 1910.

It's a magnificent structure now topped by a dome, and I wonder: how, after all my business trips and photo shoots in Chicago — and celebrations at its famous Greek Town — did I miss, let alone photograph, this Orthodox church just two blocks away?

But miss it I did, and I hear about it for the first time while in Rochester, New York, interviewing iconographer Athanasios (Tom) Clark.

"You wouldn't happen to have photographed for your book St. Basil's in Chicago?" he asks. "I did the iconography, and there was a fire."

So, a week ago I'm knocking on St. Basil's door, and the church secretary, Vicky Crosby answers. "I'm sorry, but Father Panteleimon has visitations today and is not here," she says. "But I spoke to the church president and you're welcome to take photographs. I've also let Father know you're here; he'll be calling you."

Vicky leads me past a makeshift basement worship space with its simple partition and paper icons, and I stop to venerate the silver-gilt risa icon of St. Basil that stands on an easel.

Vicki takes a right turn, walks up cast iron steps and through an air lock made up of heavy, interlocking plastic sheets. We're now in the narthex of the church with its small hexagonal white tiles. On the ceiling, three chandeliers wrapped in plastic resemble coocoons, and along the walls a frieze of Ionic columns and classical raised motifs — in black, not gold — are the first sign of the inferno that this Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα), March 18th, around noon, enveloped the church.

As Vicky opens the central crystal door decorated by a colorful tree of life and frosted spheres, snowflakes, and a dove, I see the church filled by a forest of scaffolding and shades of light gray to deepest black.

"Monday is my day off," Vicky says, "and that's when I got a call that the church was on fire. I drove here right away and my heart plunged down. All I remember was Father Panteleimon hugging everyone and saying, 'It's going to be OK. We're going to rebuild.' And when our Metropolitan Iakovos visited, his reassurance that we're going to get through this was most comforting."

She pauses for a moment, remembering the glorious church pictured in the photographs that hang in the church office downstairs. "I grew up here, I was baptized here, I was married here, my son was baptized here," she says. "I remember the Anastasis [Resurrection Easter] Service was always packed. We had room for 1,400 faithful, and yet people were standing on the side aisles. It was a beautiful church."

That St. Basil's is now reduced to a blackened shell. As my eyes are accustomed to the darkness — there's no electricity and no lights in the church, its grand chandeliers reduced to a heap of twisted metal on the floor — I see the iconostasis glowing with gold-leafed glorious Byzantine iconography.

Byzantine icons glow amidst a forest of scaffolding and a blackened church interior.   
"I'll be in the office," Vicki says. "Let me know if you need anything."

Ducking to avoid the myriad scaffolding bars, I approach the icon screen. Its tall, white, Corinthian columns are festooned by yellow "Caution" tape. Hanging on the tape tied across the Royal Doors is a page-sized printed sign: "Please respect our faith by entering through the side doors. Thank You. Fr. Panteleimon, Pastor."

"I wanted to preserve the sanctity of the church," says Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis, Presiding Priest of St. Basil, when he calls. "As you know, the central Royal Doors are reserved for the clergy, and we had so many workers here who wouldn't know that.

"I don't have the words to describe how I felt when St. Basil's burned. It was a tremendous shock. All I remember seeing was black. The church was full of smoke and I didn't, at first, realize how damaged it was. It was all a blur for almost a week, and my first order of business, after the fire was put out, was to find a place for us to have Divine Liturgy the following Sunday.

"Our congregation rallied together. The best testament of this is that the first Sunday after the fire we had Divine Liturgy in a hotel down the street, and we had 100 people more than a typical Sunday. Everyone wanted to show their support.

"The Parish came together, and we received tremendous donations. People have been extremely supportive, not just here but throughout the country. We have received donations from churches from the East to the West Coast.

"Thanks be to God, there wasn't structural damage. The walls are stable, the balcony is still safe. It could have been a lot worse. Unfortunately, two of our relics, the pandófles [slippers] of St. Gerasimos and St. Dionysios disintegrated in the fire, two stained glass windows were destroyed, our chandeliers, pews, our candle stands, our pulpit. But our chalice survived.

"We have lots of good, intelligent, hard working people, we're moving forward as best we can, and siga, siga [slowly] hopefully by Pascha [Easter] next year we'll be back in our church. God willing."

Christ Enthroned by Athanasios Clark: only charred columns, a darkened partition cloth, and a piece of restorer's masking tape denote the inferno that enveloped St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church, Chicago, Illinois.   
I say goodbye to Father Panteleimon and look about. Pieces of the plaster ornamentation of the balcony (known as γυναικωνίτης in Greek, or women's gallery) lie on the darkened floor. The horsehoe-shaped balcony still shows traces of gold gilt, and on arose band framed by laurel leaves in elegant Byzantine script are inscribed the words of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

"Ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται, ἡ ἀγάπη οὐ ζηλοῖ, ἡ ἀγάπη οὐ περπερεύεται…" ("Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth…"

As I read what is known in Greek as Υμνος της Αγάπης, the Hymn of Love, I am again facing the icon screen. To the left of the Royal Doors, in front of a purple cloth, the icon of The Mother of God, (the Theotokos — Θεοτόκος — in Greek), hangs in a recess created by two Corinthian columns.

The only signs that an inferno once engulfed the church is a small piece of masking tape with "11E," perhaps written by a restorer, and the outer layers of the columns that bubbled in the heat and peeled like the skin of an onion.

The icon of The Mother of God (see image, upper left) a reminder of the miracle that is St. Basil's: how else can one explain that this icon, and so many others, escaped the fire — and the deluge of water from firefighter's hoses — unscathed?

It's an almost life-size image, known in Western Art as the Virgin Enthroned, and in Greek as Παναγία Η Βάτος η Φλεγόμενη Και Μη Κατακαιόμενη, The Mother of God "The Unburnt Bush," (Or Unburning Bush). Fittingly, the throne of the Theotokos is formed by the Burning Bush that Moses saw on Mount Horeb.

In Byzantine iconography, the Church embraced this imagery of the Most Holy Theotokos who gave birth to Christ while remaining a virgin as the bush that was, "Burning, yet it was not consumed,” (Exodus 3:2). And in inspired hymns, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Mother of God the "Unburnt Bush," as the Kontakion (hymn) of the feast of the synonymous icon illustrates:

You showed Moses, O Christ God,
An image of your most pure Mother
In the bush that burned yet was not consumed,
For she herself was not consumed,
When she received in her womb the fire of divinity!
She remained incorrupt after her pure childbearing!
By her prayers, O greatly merciful One,
Deliver us from the flame of passions,
And preserve your people from all harm!

Christ raises Adam and Eve from the dead, "Trampling down death by death," who lies prostrate and vanquished — The Resurrection by Athanasios Clark, St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church, Chicago, Illinois. Smoke damage is seen, especially at the top portion of this large icon.   
And the Eighth Ode of the beautiful Akathist Hymn (also known as the Standing Hymn or Salutations, dedicated to the Mother of God), there's a reference to "Μωσής κατενόησεν εν βάτω," "Moses Perceived within the Burning Bush:"

The glorious mystery of your childbirth
Did Moses perceive within the burning bush.
Children once in Babylon prefigured this;
For standing in the midst of fire they remained unburnt,
O undefiled and all-holy Virgin.
And therefore we extol you in hymns unto the ages.

(I would very much like to express my sincere thanks and acknowledgement to Hieromonk Seraphim Dedes for the inspired, poetic, and most of all singable translation of "The Service of The Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos" from which the above hymn has been excerpted.)

When I turn to the left, where the fire started, the devastation is even more severe. Just about everything is destroyed by the blaze, including all of the icons on the left, small, iconostasis, and the large icons that used to adorn the North wall: Jesus In The Garden of Gesthemane, The Raising of Lazarus, and The Annunciation.

My heart jumps when I realize that one of the icons on this wall is The Nativity. It lower third seems pretty much intact, but the flare caused by bright light coming in through large stained glass windows on either side prevents me from seeing what lies above Joseph and the bath scene (see image, top of page).

It isn't until later that night, when looking at my images on my computer, that I feel a shiver down my spine: my camera has captured what my eyes couldn't see: while the upper part of The Nativity is totally charred, the blackened canvas unfurled downwards, the destruction has stopped just short of the halo of the Mother of God. Likewise, while the upper right half is similarly charred (see image, top of page), the flames stopped short of the infant Jesus.


It's Tom Clark, speaking to me on the phone from Rochester, New York, where he's putting the finishing touches on the iconography for the Holy Spirit Greek Orthodox Church.

"Realizing that icons I had put my whole heart and soul into were gone," he says, "was like the death of someone in the family.

"It seems like yesterday, but it was 25 years ago when I first stopped by the church to see my friend, Father Chris Kerhulas. This wasn't a priest-iconographer meeting, but a visit by old friends.

Iconographer Athanasios (Tom) Clark in front of the icon screen of The Holy Spirit Greek Orthodox Church, Rochester, New York, 2013.   
"But soon enough, Father brought up iconography, saying that someone had donated an icon for the North wall, and that he wanted to commission me to paint it. I was a young iconographer, just starting back then, so this was a great opportunity. 'We'll start with The Nativity,' Father said, 'and see what happens.'

"I remember when I walked in the church that first time with Father Kerhulas that I could smell smoke. They had had a fire, and I remember the Renaissance-style [Nazarene] iconography darkened by age, candle soot, and smoke. So, among these rather dark icons, my Byzantine Nativity with its bright colors and gold leaf stood out. The people liked my Byzantine icon, and it seems they jumped into doing new iconography with both feet.

"Donors started coming forward wishing to participate, and in a few years I had finished the side walls, the iconostasis [icon stand], and the Creation on the pulpit, which is about one of my favorite icons. Did you get to photograph it?

"Father Chris was very creative and theologically minded, the Mother of God of the Unburning Bush was a theme dear to me, and so I began with that icon. These were huge icons, a lot of canvas. It was the largest commission I had received up to that time, and I was painting these six large icons simultaneously. All that gold leaf!

"This was a very important commission, and it still holds a lot of emotional feeling for me. It was my first opportunity to work in a church, and I was very grateful of that. I always think of St. Basil's very fondly, because it opened the door for me to become a professional iconographer — and it happened in Chicago, my home town.

"Father Chris and I were trying to make it as full an iconographical story as possible. I was new to iconography, but Father Chris had the vision. I was trying to do something special. We were a good team: I felt the energy of Father Chris, and his belief in me, and I was inspired. But behind everything is the Holy Spirit.

"A few months ago, when I flew into Chicago for a day to visit St. Basil's, after the initial shock I realized that the fire also represented a new opportunity. I did that iconography 25 years ago, and I have matured as an artist and my mind was filled with ideas. It's exciting to think that I could be working again in that church, marrying my new work with what I have done before. Amidst a feeling of loss, I realized that God, perhaps, was giving me a new opportunity."

About a third of Athanasios Clark's "The Creation" was destroyed, and this icon that curved on the pulpit has been removed from St. Basil's for conservation. I hope to photograph it next time I'm in Chicago — after Easter next year, I hope, when Tom's St. Basil's beautiful icons once again glow in the candlelight.

This may have been Athanasios Clark's first church commission, but this detail of the lower intact portion of the icon of The Nativity, St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church, Chicago, Illinois, testifies to his gift for Byzantine iconography.

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