Romanian photojournalist Andreea Câmpeanu profiled iconographer Sister Eliseea Papacioc for the January issue of ONE magazine. Below, Ms. Câmpeanu shares her experience of meeting Sister Eliseea.
I ride a minibus along the bumpy road running from Curtea de Arges, which used to be the capital of Romania in the 14th century, to the small village of Bradetu. Every time we pass a church, all passengers — even young people — make the sign of the cross. This surprises me. In the northern part of the country, where I’m from, I see only old ladies doing it. I’m excited to be making this journey; after countless phone calls, I am finally going to meet iconographer Sister Eliseea Papacioc at her house in the mountains of Romania.
Being born in a country where almost everyone is Orthodox Christian by default, as well as being raised in an Orthodox family, I’ve seen icons for most of my life. I have a few in my house, and so do most of my friends. When I was young, I was taught to kiss icons when entering a church, and I did indeed kiss a lot of them. But, like a lot of Romanians, I became indifferent to their beauty. I never really paid attention to their aesthetics. But now, I am going to find out what a true icon is and what it takes to make one.
Sister Eliseea Papacioc — thin and tall, dressed in black — is waiting for me in front of the gate, playing with the two big dogs, and trying to hold them back, against their protective instincts at seeing a stranger approach.
While talking to her, I realize how much of herself she puts in her work.
“There are three types of icons,” she says. “First, there are the kitsch ones, those you buy as souvenir. They are sold by merchandisers or even monasteries.” Those are fine too, she states, because people put them in their car and remember God. “Then you have the nice, well-worked ones, but they often have no life. And in the last category are those icons that are alive, which send a message. Those icons are full of mystery and symbols, icons in front of which you tremble. And those are done with prayer,” Sister Eliseea explains.
The atmosphere in her house feels like the one you can sense in a more isolated monastery: that of peace and mystery. I learn from Sister Eliseea that an iconographer has to live a life of constant prayer in order to give to the world the real message of God.
Meeting her has given me a great deal of respect for these people who live a life of sacrifice, prayer and belief in order to give back to the world sacred images of the unseen.