First printed in The Johnstown Magazine, December 2013
Praying with Paint
Article by: Beth Koop
Photos by: Alicia Pituch
For many faithful Orthodox Christians, iconography is scripture revealed. For Cheryl Pituch, time spent creating the beautiful works of art is like praying with paint.
“Prayer that’s made visible,” is how local iconographer Cheryl Ann Pituch describes the creation of Orthodox Christian iconography or icons. “It’s just not producing art like any other art. It’s a composition of prayer,” she says of her 28-year vocation.
In her two-story, brick studio in Jerome, which once was a company store for a mining company, Pituch creates both small, portrait-sized iconography on cabinet-grade birch and large murals on canvas for churches and monasteries. As each icon is created, prayer is the foundation for every step of the process. Whether it’s layering and sanding multiple coats of gesso to prepare the surface, working on the composition, or painting the icon, it’s about making the icon come to life through prayer. Prayer not only for the person or church that has commissioned the icon, she explains, but also prayer inspired by the subjects in the icon, which ultimately lead back to Christ.
Orthodox Christian iconography, which is traditionally never signed by the artist, is a completely selfless art. This tradition comes from the Gospel of St. John, Pituch explains. “Behold the Lamb of God. He must increase and I must decrease,” John the Baptist said after the baptism of Christ. “So too with the icon,” she says, “the iconographer must disappear. It’s not about the painter. It’s about Jesus Christ and His teachings and salvation.
Iconography should be “deliberately different (from other forms of art)” explains Father George Johnson of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Conemaugh. Iconography should encapsulate a particular Gospel story and reveal to the viewer the entire story. “The goal is to produce clarity, first and foremost, to the Gospel,” explains Johnson, who has been the church’s priest for 35 years. From the earliest times, Christians could not read, and written texts of the Scriptures were not easily available. People learned the Scriptures by hearing them and singing them. Iconography became a very important tool for spreading the content of the Christian faith and particularly the Scriptures. Those who had heard a particular Bible account would be able to stand before an icon and see the story revealed through all characteristics of the painting. Immigrants to the United States who came from Eastern Europe or the Middle East benefitted from this character of iconography, just as they did in earlier times. “In composition, in line and color it draws you to an aspect of the content of the Christian faith,” Johnson explains. “It is theology in color.”
Iconography is dictated by a predetermined form passed down through the centuries based on tradition and faith. “Liturgical artwork in the Orthodox Church, because it is derived out of specific content of faith, is prototypical,” Johnson explains. “An artist cannot simply paint what he feels.” Colors are specifically intentional; blue for Christ’s outer garment, which speaks to the heavenly realm; red for the inner garment, showing humanity; deep red for the Virgin Mary’s outer garment, which drapes her in human nature; blue for her inner tunic to indicate that she carried Christ within her. The iconographer purposely starts with dark colors and transitions to light colors to represent the dark sinfulness of our world, which transitions to the light of Christ. Halos are always seen around the head of Christ and the saints to show holiness. Icons will often include scripture or a quotation, which was spoken by that particular saint.
“Windows into Heaven,” is how many in the Orthodox Christian faith explain the purpose of icons. When an icon is finished, it should have a smooth, glass-like finish and be purposely only two-dimensional, showing only height and width. Pituch explains that a conventional painting should have three dimensions, including depth, to make the painting complete. Iconography, however, uses an artistic technique known as inverse perspective, where the vanishing points of an icon are placed outside the painting to develop an illusion that they are actually in front of the painting. The technique creates a sense of expansion of the painting in order to bring about wonder and reverence to the faithful that pray before them. The person standing in prayer before the icon becomes the third dimension of the depth that completes the icon. “We are made in the image of God, so it is actually the image of God in us that completes the icon,” Pituch explains.
Icons are the only artwork found in the Orthodox Church. There are never statues or any other type of three-dimensional artwork found in the church. Icons are considered by Orthodox Christians as “liturgical art, not religious-themed artwork,” Johnson explains. Everything within the church, including architecture, should remind followers that, when they walk into the church, they are walking into the Kingdom of God. “When you walk into a church, regardless of what is going on in our lives, the experience that we have of the scriptures is that God does not change. And all of the attributes of God; God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion does not change,” he says. “The whole point of the Gospel is to “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.”
As a result, many iconographers and Orthodox Christians say that icons are not painted, but written coming from the Greek translation of iconography as image writing. Therefore, icons are not merely paintings, but scripture teachings. Johnson says icons should include not only our sense of sight upon viewing it, but our sense of hearing, touch, smell and taste. “God created man with five senses, so all senses are involved in worship,” he says. In Orthodox worship, the hymns, the scriptures, and the prayers, along with the visual theology conveyed by the icons, help to bring the worshipper into the presence of God.
Some icons, such as those of the saints, give a model to follow as a pattern for Christian Orthodox life. The holy men and women, who have gone before them, assist in leading by example toward a more God-like existence. Pituch adds that iconography should never attempt to copy the world around us. In portraying the saints, the iconographer must evoke “a sense of timelessness and grace,” she says. “The one portrayed is no longer the suffering servant of this world, but triumphant in God’s Kingdom.”
Icons are to be venerated by the faithful by kissing or honoring it upon entering the church. But Orthodox Christians are careful to explain that veneration is not a form of worship of the icon, but a means of communication and respect to the person or event depicted. If a person kisses a photograph of a loved one who has perhaps died, Pituch explains, “The believer loves and respects those in the icon who have been transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.
It was an icon veneration that led to controversy in the seventh and eight centuries. The Iconologists were a group of people who were wary of any religious art and demanded the destruction of icons. Iconographers were persecuted, tortured, and killed during this time. Iconoclasts considered themselves puritans and perceived any image of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints to be concealed idolatry. But in 787 A.D., the Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox Church restored the use of icons, stating that iconography was “Christianity’s guarantee that the incarnation of the Word of God was genuine.”
Pituch says she found her calling as in iconographer through prayer, although it was not a prayer that was answered immediately. Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, she was active in the Presbyterian Church. Through her marriage to her husband Gene, she was exposed to Orthodoxy and converted. “On the day I was received into the Orthodox Church, I asked the Lord in prayer how I could serve Him,” she says. “There was no immediate answer, just a deep inner peace that words can’t describe.”
Pituch admits that it took six years to understand the type of service she was to do. Her family was a part of a new mission church, St. Luke the Evangelist Orthodox Church, in Palos Hills, Illinois. She had painted a temporary road sign for the new church and the priest, who was an iconographer, noticed that she had a steady hand for painting. He asked her to help with the icons by filling in the background colors. After several months, he encouraged her to paint an icon on her own.
While working on an icon of Christ and struggling to paint the face, she says, “suddenly the prayer that was said six years ago came back.” The deeper inner peace that had embraced her then, returned once again with the strong feeling that she was seeing the answer to her prayer to serve. With no real art training and plagued by self-doubt, Pituch anxiously presented the icon to the priest the next day. He looked at it for a few minutes and then asked, “Have you done this before?” When she answered that she hadn’t, he replied, “You need to do this.”
Years later, she says there has never been a time that God has not sent a project to her door, even though she never actively searches for work. Pituch stresses that the work has never been about her, but about spreading the Gospel though line and color and the teaching of Christ. “It’s never been about me. It’s the Lord’s work through my unworthy hands,” she says. I’m very fortunate to do what I do. It’s a privilege and humbling to serve the Lord in this way.” JM
Cheryl Pituch, husband Gene, and daughter Alicia lend their beautiful voices to the Choir of Holy Assumption of Saint Mary's Orthodox Church in Central City, PA, where Gene is the Choir Director. Daughter Alicia was the photographer of Mom's beautiful and inspiring works of art, contained in this article. We thank the Pituch family for their continuing support of the Holy Assumption of Saint Mary's Orthodox Church. May God grant them many years !