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St. Joseph Cathedral Nativity — and Stoyko Stoykov's remarkable restoration

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Framed by the Adoration of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds, The Nativity, in exquisite relief and color, again adorns the apse of St. Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls, South Dakota…

Framed by the Adoration of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds, The Nativity, in exquisite relief and color, adorns the apse of St. Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Mouseover the image to see the monochromatic relief that gifted artist Stoyko Stoykov would have seen before picking up his brushes and bringing The Nativity to life.

Conrad Schmitt Studios artist Stoyko Stoykov of Milwaukee used soft colors to create a fresco effect and gold leaf to for gleaming highlights. Shown seven stories up, the artist provides scale for this magnificent Nativity relief of St. Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The last time I climbed a scaffold to see an iconographer at work was in Santorini's Cathedral many years ago. I remember how my heart skipped a few beats, as I found myself surrounded with so much beauty — and Orthodoxy's treasured Byzantine iconography.

Now here I am, a world away, seven stories up on a different scaffold, in a Catholic Cathedral, but the same feelings flood my heart. Perhaps, it was unexpectedly hearing the word, "Kaliméra! [Good morning!]" in Greek, that took me back to the Aegean.

"Kalimera, Alexis! I'm Stoyko." A man in tan pants and white T-shirt with a Conrad Schmitt Studios logo greets me with a smile. He puts down his brush, shakes my hand, and says, "You're from Greece, right? I painted a mural in the new City Hall of the Athens suburb, Tavros, in 1984. I have friends there now…"

Isn't it a small world? I relate to Stoyko and Mark Conzemius (see A Community Treasure — St. Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls, South Dakota about my friend Christoforos Assimis who, when the Santorini Cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake he began painting the new church — every square inch — in his early twenties. He's now in his mid-sixties, and still isn't done.

Will this restoration be taking Stoyko anywhere near that long?

"Not quite, Mark says, laughing. "The demolition started in June, and Stoyko started painting in September. And now that, with the help of Bishop Paul Swain the palette has been chosen, it will be repeated throughout the Cathedral."

"The Bishop is here often," Stoyko says. "He points things out to me, tells me what he thinks, how he feels about my work, what he'd like to see changed, how something might be improved. His input has been essential."

OK, so it might not take him a lifetime to paint the Cathedral, but how does Stoyko feel about his work being here for at least the next 100 years?

"This is a big responsibilty," Stoyko says, "because this isn't a temporary job, where someone else might come in a few years and wipe it off.

In consultation with Bishop Swain, Artist Stoyko Stoykov developed his palette for the St. Joseph Cathedral Restoration.
"You know your work is going to be here for a century, at least. Thinking of all the tens, hundreds of thousands of people, all the generations, that will come to the Cathedral for a service, a concert, or as visitors, makes your responsibility even greater.

"Because this isn't just another building. It isn't even like any other church even: you don't see reliefs of this incredible quality every day. And they are beautifully executed, a difficult task on a flat surface, let alone on the curve of an apse.

"When I first saw The Nativity it was covered by just one color."

Please mouseover the image at the top of page to get an idea of what Stoyko may have seen — hard enough to appreciate The Nativity in monochrome on a computer screen, even harder from seven stories below.

"You couldn't see this beautiful, rich, Nativity," Stoyko says. "The reliefs seemed ornamental, more like the carved column capitals. But even the capitals of the columns tell a story, like the ones with the pelicans. The Cathedral is filled with such reliefs. Look at the angels in the Great Crossing, the Apostles lining the walls, the Stations of the Cross. And the most beautiful relief of all, The Nativity.

"Before, painted in one color, they were almost invisible. Originally, they were painted in different colors, but afterwards, perhaps in the 1950s or -60s, people wanted a more contemporary look, and they decided to wipe the color off.

"They wanted to simplify things, but a church should never be simple! A church is not like any other building. A church has to be rich, beautiful."

Stoyko is so right. Standing so close to the apse you have to be careful not to touch the relief with your head, The Nativity envelops you in a circle of exquisite beauty. The scaffold is a foot or so higher than the bottom of the great circular frame that surrounds The Nativity, and, literally, you feel the Divine world intersecting that of earth (see photo with Stoyko, above left.)

Come to think of it, just as it does in this magnificent depiction of the Nativity, as the heavens touch the stable.

And what a marvelous depiction it is, so overpowering, and not just because of its colossal scale. As the apse curves about you on all sides, you almost feel like an eyewitness at the Birth of Christ.

An Angelic Host, kneeling on wispy clouds, proclaims "Venite Adoremus Dominum," (Oh, Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord), and above there's the Holy Ghost in the shape of a dove, surrounded by golden rays.

As Mark mentioned about the angels of the Great Crossing, these Nativity angels, as well, are painted in ethereal colors. Their golden halos echo the gold of the two concentric rings that encircle The Nativity and frame the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

This small detail of the larger-than-life-size depiction of the Virgin and Child shows the St. Joseph Cathedral masterful relief — and Stoyko's masterful art.
From this height, The Nativity itself is below eye level. Joseph, cane leaning to his left, kneels at the manger. To the right, a cow is busily chewing stalks, and below, in a soft bed of hay a sheep and her lamb are resting.

And in the very center, asleep in a manger lined by a white cloth, is the Newborn Babe. The Virgin Mary kneels, holding one hand to her heart, and with the other is about to cover the Child.

How long have I been starring at this magnificent Nativity? Are Stoyko and Mark still here?

As I look around, my eyes again catch the glint of gold, and I realize that the manger itself is surrounded by the symbol of Christ's sacrifice, a golden cross.

"Everything is covered by 23-carat gold leaf," Stoyko says. "But to make the cross appear more three-dimensional — and therefore make it really visible from so far below — I had to create a contrast between it and the background.

"I accomplished this by glazing the background, and did the same for the halos of Joseph and Mary. The halos had to visually remain one unit, but that way, the cross and stars are made visible. I used the same technique with the symbols of the four Evangelists."

"I treated the two circular rings that frame The Nativity in the same way: I glazed the sides of each, leaving a middle stripe that, from below, will give the frame a three-dimensional, rounded, look. This is trompe l'oeil [To fool the eye] and it will make the frame of The Nativity match the other rounded architectural elements.

"To a degree, the colors of The Nativity, while darker than those of the angels, also had to be diluted, because I wanted this to look like a fresco, not painted statues."

Having held a paint brush or two myself, and having seen how a small patch on a wall might look perfect, but when a whole room is painted it can be a different story entirely, I wonder: how did Stoyko go about painting this monumental canvas?

"I experimented, of course," Stoyko, says. "But making a small sample is one thing — when you paint such a large Nativity, another…"

Yes, but just look at this immense apse: how does one approach such a epic scale?

"One brushstroke at a time," Stoyko says, as he dips his brush to his palette.

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of the Cathedral, shows the life-like rendering of the relief, including the veins on his hands.
Stoyko and I continue our conversation later that evening, in our home in the Cathedral District. Over Greek meatballs and spaghetti and sweet moscato wine we talk about his fine art studies in Bulgaria, his immigration to the United States, and his love of art and museums.

But most of all, we talk about his work, and the Byzantine icons that line the walls of our home and are so dear to my heart. "I'm Orthodox, too," he says, in front of an icon of The Nativity, adding, "I could paint this in a week. The Cathedral Nativity? That will take a little while longer."

Then he bids us goodnight early, because he'll be climbing the Cathedral scaffold at 5:30 a.m.

I have done so many times myself, for my pro bono documentation of the restoration of the St. Joseph Cathedral.There are many reasons for doing this, like giving back to my community: I'm Orthodox, but St. Joseph is my Cathedral, too.

But most of all, I did it because I was touched by the words of Bishop Swain: "I travel all over the vast area of our diocese," he writes on the St. Joseph Restoration website, "so I spend a lot of time in the car. Frequently I’ll pass by an abandoned farm house. You’ve seen them, too, as you travel this state. Each of those places once had life, families, vision, hopes and dreams. Now they sit empty, sad sights as they slowly deteriorate. We can’t let that happen to The Cathedral."

So I have returned to the Cathedral again and again. We're talking climbing, sometimes, seven stories straight up, with a rope tied to my waist so I could haul up my camera case, pneumatic (read "very heavy") tripod, lights, and scrims. Thank the Lord Stoyko left the huge helium floodlight there for me, so I din't have to haul that up as well.

After setting everything up, I would have to stand perfectly still, until the scaffold stopped vibrating. I was shooting at a very slow speed, and even my breathing, it seems, let alone my every step, caused all those seven stories of metal pieces to vibrate and hum.

As I waited for everything to be still, I found myself joining in, humming — ever so quietly — I Parthénos Símeron (The Virgin Gives Birth Today), the Orthodox Hymn of The Nativity.

Sometimes I would be on that scaffold for hours. There were so many lenses to use in order to capture the whole apse, extreme close-up details to photograph. Still, all the photos in the world can't do justice to the art of the restoration.

When Mark would call to say that more scaffolding was removed that allowed a more unobstructed view of The Nativity, I would return again and again.

I will always treasure the hours spent under the cocoon of the curving apse of The Nativity. I can't quite put it into words: I might have been standing on a platform high above the Cathedral — but I really felt transported to a whole different plane…

You'll want to read the moving Cathedral Restoration letter of Bishop Paul J. Swain on the St. Joseph Cathedral website. (On the site, mouseover "Restoration," click on, "Why is it being done?) On the same site you'll also find more images and news about the restoration.

The Nativity — a vast panorama in relief — unfolds in the apse of St. Joseph Cathedral.

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