Brian Whirledge is bending over a 9-by-12-inch canvas, showing 16-year-old Max Salveson how to make a tracing of Greek letters that stand for Jesus Christ.
The canvas already bore a completed image of Jesus’ face, and now Salveson had only to put the finishing touches on it.
The young man, who created the image – an icon – with Whirledge’s guidance during a workshop, planned to take the canvas home and hang it in his bedroom as a reminder of his faith.
Whirledge says such icons are important among people such as him and his student who are part of the Orthodox Christian faith.
Most Orthodox have icons in their homes, he says. People buy icons of particular saints, or Mary or Christ and hang them on their walls. Some of them have a little shrine.
And, he says, the Orthodox also fill their churches with icons, sometimes exuberantly covering every square inch of wall, ceiling and floor with visual representations of biblical stories and the mysteries of their faith.
That is why, until recently, the small congregation of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church found itself in a bit of quandary.
About three years ago, the 12-year-old church’s members built a simple, rectangular church building with characteristic Roman arches on a windswept clearing amidst cornfields outside Goshen.
While a major accomplishment, Whirledge says, the building was, well, plain.
The interior had a lot of small icons, mostly reprints, but the walls were white, and the ceiling was white, and it didn’t quite work, he says. We just thought we needed something to dignify it – to say, This is a holy place. This is the temple of God.’
At first, the 28-year-old Wawasee Community Schools art teacher, raised as a Methodist pastor’s son in nearby Millersburg, might seem an unlikely solution. But Whirledge, a St. Mary’s member with his wife, Rebekah, had converted to the Orthodox faith in college, after a family trip to the Holy Land. It is there that he saw Orthodox churches for the first time and was drawn to their art.
Being an artist the icons were something that really contributed a great deal to my desire to join the church, he says. Coming into a church that was just filled with images was really striking and really appealing. It was just a really natural, organic way for me to fit in.
So, starting in 2007, Whirledge began serious study of iconography at a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Jackson, Mich. Then, he applied for, and received, a teacher creativity grant from the Lilly Endowment. It allowed him to study in Athens, Greece, and work with Tom Clark, a Greek-American iconographer originally from Chicago.
Part of that was he was painting a new Greek Orthodox church on Long Island (in New York). It was spending 16 hours a day on scaffolding, like Michelangelo, Whirledge says. It was intense. It was just an incredible experience.
Whirledge brought his knowledge and techniques home to finish the interior of St. Mary’s sanctuary. It now includes a richly colored 8-by-12-foot icon of the Virgin Mary, symbolically depicted with the infant Jesus in her womb, above the altar and a large icon of Christ as judge returning from the East at the center of the ceiling.
It is the Orthodox fashion to place Christ at the highest point in a worship space, Whirledge says. If we had a dome, that would be in the dome, he says.
There’s also another icon, of Mary watching over Jesus as a sleeping child guarded by a cross-carrying angel over the sanctuary door, a reminder of her role as protector.
Then there’s what Whirledge calls the sky.
The entire ceiling of the sanctuary has now been painted dark blue, with bursts of silvery white depicting stars. Whirledge says he got the idea after seeing a church with a similar design. But he took the idea one step further.
He found a map of how the night sky would have looked over Goshen on Dec. 25 in A.D. 1 turned it into a grid and enlarged it into a rectangle the size of the sanctuary and used it to mark the ceiling.
So we have the Big Dipper, the North Star, and Orion and Saturn and the constellations, he says.
Then came what those of faith might be hard-pressed to call a Christmas coincidence.
At the altar area, right above that, there’s a constellation called The Crater or The Chalice, Whirledge says, noting the chalice holds what Orthodox believe is the blood of Christ during the Eucharist. Right behind the altar area, there’s the primary icon of the Virgin Mary, and the constellation of Virgo, The Virgin is right around her.
Then, above the point where a icon-bearing wall representing the doors that the priest exits to bring Christ in the Eucharist to the people, there’s the constellation Leo, or The Lion, representing kingship. And the planet Saturn just happens to be right next to the icon of Christ on the ceiling.
Whirledge says he couldn’t resist giving the planet a face. So he’s looking at his Creator, he says with a smile.
Whirledge had help with the painting of the ceiling – several teens and young people from the congregation volunteered, he says. He completed the larger icons on canvas and affixed them to the walls and ceiling.
There were things we didn’t plan on and weren’t expecting, Whirledge says. But they turned out very appropriate.
The church’s priest and pastor, the Rev. Father Matthew Wade, says he was pleased with how the project turned out.
He’s been very faithful, he says of Whirledge. He’s perceived his faith very well, and I’m proud of that. The work that he did is wonderful.
Although part of the project was finished last year, this will be the first Christmas the congregation will celebrate surrounded by the completed effect, he says.
Whirledge, who is lives in Syracuse, says an iconographer has little creative freedom in depicting his subjects.
But he doesn’t mind.
I see icons as monk in the Middle Ages would have looked at copying Scripture. He doesn’t say, I can make this story a little better.’ He doesn’t put his own hand into it. That is not his job, because when you start changing things you can start changing meanings, he says.
It’s like the icons are a prayer, with paint and line and color as opposed to a prayer with words, Whirledge continues. I pray before, during and after (painting). It’s been a work of prayer.