Accessibility links

Greek-American Artist Revives Ancient Byzantine Iconographic Tradition

  • Hilary McQuilkin

The fine art of mosaic iconography, which has traditionally been widely used in Greek Orthodox churches, has relatively few practitioners in the United States. But, for more than four decades, American artist Robert Andrews has been working with tiny glass tiles to create glowing frescoes on sanctuary walls and ceilings. As Hilary McQuilkin reports, he's helped revive the ancient Byzantine style in Greek Orthodox churches all over the United States. (intro is not voiced)

The Transfiguration Church of Our Saviour Greek Orthodox Church is an unassuming yellow brick building at the end of Father Sarantos Way in Lowell, Massachusetts. But once you step inside, it's a different story.

From eye level all the way to the top of the vaulted ceilings, the church walls are covered in mosaic icons, all the work of Robert J. Andrews, 80. "I'm a mosaic iconographer," he says. "That's what I specialize in. I've done it in 23 churches now. Not to this extent, of course." The artist's mosaic work can be seen in churches in California, Washington, Utah, Arizona, Indiana, New York, Washington D.C and here, in his home state of Massachusetts.

After extensive research into earlier representations, Andrews creates a full-sized drawing of the Byzantine icon. Thumbnail-sized glass tiles from Italy are matched to the design. Then, the artist cements them, section by section, into the church wall or ceiling. With more than 5,000 colors to choose from, he can create dramatic scenes.

He points to a large mosaic on the Transfiguration Church's arched dome, the Resurrection of Christ. "It depicts Christ's victory over death," he explains. "It shows him pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs to clear them of anything, and they're part of the souls that we connect with in eliminating sin in our lives. And these are apostles and kings that are watching and he's pulling them out of Hades. Down below there are chains and locks, the elements of Hell, so to speak, and he's thrown all those away. It's his victory over sin and over death."

Baptized Rovertos Andrianopoulos, Robert Andrews was raised Greek Orthodox. He studied sculpture in college, taught art, and made jewelry. Then, in the 1960s, he began to work primarily in mosaic iconography. Largely self-trained, Andrews has been working on the images in the Transfiguration Church for the last 42 years.

His mosaics have been funded by parishioners, something he says is very unusual. "There are very few churches that do this. They wanted to go back to past centuries and bring it into focus in their church. Any of the Greek churches would love to do this, but they don't all have the opportunity the way these people did. They made up their mind and drove themselves do to it (raise the money). It's symbolic of what they did many centuries ago."

Traditionally, statues and other 3-dimensional imagery are not used in Greek Orthodox churches, explains Father Chris Faustoukas, the pastor at the Transfiguration Church. "One of the 10 commandments talks about not worshiping idols. So you cannot use in worship anything that is 3-dimensional." he says. "The classical formula is that the honor or respect that we give to the icon passes on to the image depicted. We make a big distinction between worship and reverence. You can't worship an icon; you can only worship God. Reverence, we pay reverence to icons, and those pass on to the personalities depicted." He calls that a huge distinction.

Throughout the Byzantine Empire, which at its height stretched from Spain to Eastern Europe, icons were used to help the many illiterate parishioners visualize Biblical stories. Today, Father Faustoukas says, the religious pictures serve much the same purpose as they did more than a thousand years ago. He describes his favorite image, one he sees each time he leads the congregation in worship. "It's the Pandokrator, Christ coming, the second coming, coming to judge the world. And so when I look up at certain points, there are certain liturgical gestures I look up, and he is the one I see."

Virginia Kimball, who has written articles about Robert Andrews, says as far as she knows, "there is no other American-born iconographer doing mosaic icons of his vast, expanse of work that has been done already." The religious studies professor at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts praises the artist's understanding of the Byzantine style. "His technique is very pure," she says. "What he has done is become a master of mosaic, but he's also become the iconographer who works in the spiritual tradition. Every time he goes to work on an icon, he first has to pray and opens up his work to the work of God."

Although he works all over the country, and around the world, Robert Andrews says he will always think fondly of the Transfiguration Church in Lowell, Massachusetts. "This is my most complete work. I have an affinity to this church because I started here."

The artist is about to undertake a huge new project, in the 280 square meter dome of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco: what he says will be the largest Christ mosaic icon in the United States.