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The Baltimore Sun

Iconographer paints holy images at Orthodox Church of St. Matthew

Wayne Hajos stood before a piece of drywall, wholly — you could say "holy" — absorbed. Casting a near-angelic glow in the darkened narthex, he regarded the work in progress before him.

On this sun-dappled morning, the resident iconographer at the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew, in the Columbia village of Kings Contrivance, was in the early stages of infusing light and life into his latest effort, an icon of St. Herman of Alaska, the first American saint in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Outfitted in cutoffs and a faded red sweatshirt with paint splotches, Hajos leaned his right arm against a stepladder. His voice whisper-soft yet enthusiastic, Hajos seems not so much into iconography as iconography is into Hajos.

'"Before I start, I say my prayers," he said. "I ask that God would have mercy on me. I know it might sound funny, but I have to have the inner peace thing going. Just so there are no obstructions between you and God, because I'm just a vessel.''

"Icon" is a term now applied to pop culture figures from Elvis to Oprah, but it has roots in spiritual soil. It comes from the Greek meaning likeness or image.

In churches, icons are visual expressions of the Bible, serving as guideposts for finding and worshiping God and for venerating saints. Many Byzantine and Orthodox Christian churches are adorned with icons.

Hajos has spent the last three years "writing" icons (the traditional phrase) at St. Matthew's, transforming the church's bare interiors into something sacred.

The iconographer, said the 61-year-old Owen Brown village resident, attempts to portray a transfigured life that is beyond our full comprehension.

In Orthodox iconography, he added,''we don't paint anything black, except to portray a hellish place or chaos in general." And while his main tools are paints and brushes, Hajos and other practitioners write, not paint, divine portraits.

Although the Greeks are credited with composing the first icon, Hajos expresses himself in more of a Russian and Slavic style. There are differences, he emphasized.

"Byzantine iconography looks very stern. But in the Russian style, the iconographer puts more of a human, compassionate face on," he said. Images of Christ, for example, reveal "a face whose colors are softer, simpler and more transparent than in the Byzantine."

Before starting a job, Hajos said he takes time to study a drawing of the icon."I don't just read the text about it," he said.

When work begins, he leans toward the use of "'muted shades. They're not very electric colors. They're soft. They tend to have white already added, which makes them softer. I do not use purple. It's too electric.''

Crucifixion, resurrection

Inside the hushed sanctuary at St. Matthew's, Hajos' icons enrich walls on both sides of the worship hall. On the left side are imposing images of the crucifixion, the resurrection. On the right side of the room, you can become transfixed by the Nativity and by the Theophany, also known as the baptism of Christ.

The six icons that line the front of the altar are wooden, he said, and represent various scenes. There is one of Christ holding a Bible with scripture verses. Another wooden icon, called "The Holy Forerunner," displays John the Baptist. There are also icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.

Ensconced inside the illuminated dome is the image called Christ the King. As Christianity's high priest, Hajos noted, Jesus is always positioned above all, in a kind of hierarchy of Biblical characters. With piercing, all-knowing eyes, the icon appears to sweep his gaze on the angels, prophets, apostles, evangelists and local saints that dot the room below.

On the wall behind and above the altar, there's a striking depiction of Christ called "More Spacious Than the Heavens."' Hajos laughed and said that image was born in "somebody's garage, It's the only one in the church on canvas. And I used my wallpaper skills."'

In fact, Hajos, when he's not nose-to-nose with the Savior or Isaiah, is a professional wallpaper hanger. Wallpapering has been his work for 40 years, he said, and he believes it shares similarities with iconography.

Like iconography, "wallpapering is working with color. I really like color, line, form, texture." Wallpapering lets him change the look and feel of a room in short order. "'And there are so many possibilities."

But at 61, he realizes that age is creeping up on him and accepts the fact that his days hanging wallpaper are numbered. That, and a weak economy, has given him the freedom to connect more to his iconography.

Art has held Hajos captive since his childhood in Silver Spring. His fascination has included dabbling in painting, sketching and sculpture.

'In junior high, I did more drawing," he recalled. "I educated myself by learning everything I could about art and my favorite artists," which include Monet and Degas. '"I have always been interested in color and anything beautiful." (He is fondest of green, as it symbolizes rebirth.)

Few iconographers in U.S.

Only a handful of people practice iconography as a fulltime profession in the U.S., Hajos said. Some iconographers, he noted, travel to this country from their native Russia or Greece to "paint churches."

Hajos, who wrote his first icon in 1995, studied under Peter Pearson, a noted American icon painter and teacher. Pearson, who lives in western Pennsylvania, has written two books on the subject, "Brush With God," and "Brush With God II."

St. Matthew isn't the only church Hajos has worked on. He has also worked at Patronage of the Mother of God in Arbutus, Holy Savior in Delaware, and churches in Pennsylvania.

"Wayne is a true iconographer," said Father Constantine White, the priest at St. Matthew. "His writing of icons is his ministry — a ministry that has the potential to positively affect the spiritual journeys of thousands of people.''

White, who grew up Lutheran before converting to Orthodoxy, observed that Protestants do not typically include icons in their services. "Some would believe that there should be no religious 'decorations' in worship space at all," he said. "Many would have at least a cross or a crucifix. It really depends on the denomination.''

"Wayne knows the faith," observed Mark Bailey, a church member who has taken iconography classes taught by Hajos. "He knows the theological underpinnings, not just as an artistic expression. He can communicate it."

Hajos believes his creative ministry is meant to "encourage people to walk closer to God and to love God.

"A few of my contemporaries sign their stuff on the front. I don't approve. … People like flattering me, but I don't like flattery at all. I do this only to the glory of God.''

You can get an up-close look at much of Hajos' iconography during St. Matthew's Multi-Cultural Festival Oct. 1 and 2 at the church, 7271 Eden Brook Drive.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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