FORT WAYNE, Indiana — Standing on scaffolding about 10 feet above the sanctuary floor, Laurence Manos works on the time-consuming process of applying gold leaf to the halo around a depiction of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross at crucifixion.
The scene is one of several Manos, a professional iconographer, is completing during the third phase of his work at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 110 E. Wallen Road.
Manos, a New York City native of full Greek descent is one of only about five professional American iconographers working today.
The art form, known as Byzantine art, dates to the time of Jesus, but it began to flourish about 330 A.D., after Constantine the Great made Christianity the religion of his empire, said Manos, who now lives in Toms River township in New Jersey.
In the early church, iconography was used to communicate the Bible's gospels to people visually because many people couldn't read and very few books existed, said Nikos Nakos, a member of Holy Trinity's icon committee.
Originally an abstract painter, Manos has been painting icons since 1972.
"It was God's will for me to come back into the church," he said.
He began working in Greece after studying iconography at Orthodox monasteries there on Mount Athos. He returned to the United States in 1986, and since has worked at 35 to 40 churches around the country, including Orthodox Church cathedrals in Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland.
"It's my oxygen," he said. "Without art and what it's all about — the meaning behind it — it is part of me."
Orthodox icons differ from images of Jesus and saints in other Christian churches, where the art often depicts them in a more realistic Renaissance style, Manos said. Orthodox icons are intentionally slightly abstract so the faithful can focus on the religious meaning of the art rather than be distracted by physical features of people portrayed in the art.
People venerate the subject an icon depicts, not the image itself, Manos said.
Manos typically creates and installs icons for churches in phases.
He started work at Holy Trinity about 15 years ago, Nakos said. The first phase of work included several important images and scenes on walls behind the altar.
The second phase completed nine years ago involved the dome in the roof of the sanctuary, Nakos said. The current phase will complete all of the iconography in the altar area and on the walls beside it.
Manos started the current work in mid-November and hopes to complete it by Dec. 19, Nakos said. All three phases of iconography work have been funded through donations from congregation members.
After working out icon designs with Holy Trinity's icon committee and obtaining approval for those designs from the metropolitan, or regional church leader, in Detroit, Manos begins his work.
He typically sketches out people on canvas and paints them, either in his studio in New Jersey or on site, such as in the children's classroom he currently uses as a work space at Holy Trinity, he said. He normally paints buildings and other background images directly on the church's walls and then glues the canvas to the wall and finishes and seals the art.
In the future, Holy Trinity members hope to bring Manos back for a fourth phase of iconography, which would put art on the side walls of the church, Nakos said.
The art will feature four large scenes from Jesus' life — his birth, baptism, meeting with a group of children and ascension to heaven — plus icons of individual saints.