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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Romanian Renaissance

One nun writes a new chapter in the history of iconography

“Writing an icon is liturgy,” says Sister Eliseea Papacioc, a Romanian Orthodox nun and world-renowned iconographer. “For the liturgy is the intervention of God through man, and in making an icon, one should transmit to people what God wants.”

The thin 42-year-old woman wears a long black skirt and matching sweatshirt. Her dark hair is pulled back in a single, thick braid.

Sister Eliseea lives and works in a simple house in the rural village of Bradetu, nestled in the heavily wooded southern foothills of the Fagaras Mountains (part of the southern Carpathian Mountains) in central Romania, 150 miles northwest of Bucharest.

On this afternoon in August, the sun’s rays shine through a large window, filling the living room and studio. The room is simple but modern. A plush rug covers the floor. Two armchairs are situated in front of a coffee table and television set. On one of them rests a computer. A worktable runs along the opposite wall under the window. An assortment of paint jars, brushes and books clutters the surface.

The nun sits at the table, hunched over a small icon of the Virgin and Child she just sketched in black. With her mouth, she wets the bristles of a small brush, gently twists them into a sharp point and dips it into white paint made from organic materials that she has poured into a plastic bottle cap. The paint, she says, rots quickly when wet but lasts a hundred years in an icon. With a surgeon’s precision, she then runs the paint-soaked bristles along the black lines of her sketch.

As the sun begins to set, Sister Eliseea takes a break. She stands, walks away and returns a moment later with a recently completed icon, roughly the size of an index card. Sister Eliseea holds it up to a window to illuminate its vibrant colors and fine details. It shimmers in the light, as would a precious jewel.

For months she worked on the piece, yet the soft-spoken nun explains its meaning as if were made not by her but by some other iconographer. The icon, she says, depicts the “Blessing of the Children” from the Gospel of St. Matthew. On the left, Jesus cradles an infant, wrapped in a light blue cloth; his disciples stand behind him while, on the right, a group of mothers and their children have gathered.

Sister Eliseea’s iconography has caught the attention of experts and enthusiasts around the world as much for its exquisite detail as for its unique style. From her studio in Romania, she crafts the icons for parishes and collectors — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — from as far away as France and the United States.

“What she is doing is different from what we generally see in Romania,” explains Dr. Alin Razvan Trifa, professor of sacred art at the Babe-Bolyai University’s Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Cluj-Napoca. “It is hard to be framed stylistically and it is not in continuity with the iconographic trends. Byzantine paintings are her starting point, but not her reference. Characters’ faces are reminiscent of the icons in Ohrid — the 11th century — and her style equates with secular art. The density of her icons is similar to contemporary Russian icons, while the overlapping of cold over warm colors shows her subtle refinement.”

More generally, Sister Eliseea’s icons and their popularity reflect the revival of the Orthodox Church of Romania since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nearly 90 percent of Romania’s 18.8 million people belong to the Orthodox Church. And for the past 15 years, these faithful have built churches at a rate of one church every other day. To date, the country is home to approximately 18,300 Orthodox churches.

Sister Eliseea shares Bradetu with only a handful of other villagers. Cars rarely pass through its narrow streets. If one does, its passengers are usually lost or on their way to the mountains’ scenic peaks. If not for an elderly woman standing at the wooden gate in front of her home, the village would seem deserted.

From inside the gates of Sister Eliseea’s home, however, appearances prove to be deceiving. The habitually serene house is uncharacteristically abuzz with activity. Her brother, who is visiting from Greece, lays concrete slabs near the gate. Two large dogs run across the verdant lawn and play among the well-tended flowerbeds and the many pines and apple trees. And another guest, Father Marcel Matras, meanders through the yard.

Though the shy 60-year-old monk now lives in Thessalonica, Greece, he spent most of his life in various monasteries in this region of Romania. He, too, is a celebrated iconographer.

Sister Eliseea was introduced to his work while studying painting in Bucharest as a teenager. She quickly developed a passion for his iconography.

Soon after, at the age of 19, she discovered her religious calling and entered an Orthodox monastery in the south-central county of Valcea. Brought up in a devout Orthodox family with a long lineage of men and women religious, her vocation came as little surprise. She and her three brothers are all involved in church life in one way or another.

Their uncle, Father Arsenie Papacioc, is considered one of the spiritual forefathers of the modern Romanian Orthodox Church. In 1958, he was arrested for resisting Soviet-led efforts to suppress the church. After his release, he continued to speak out against communism and to spread the Gospel, evading the authorities by moving secretly from one monastery to another. He inspired his niece and nephews immensely as youngsters, during which time their father — and Father Arsenie’s brother — was serving a prison sentence for political dissidence.

Since her first days as a novice, she knew she wanted to devote herself to iconography. In it, she saw a way to marry her love for both God and art.

Shortly after her arrival at the monastery, she convinced the abbess to invite Father Marcel to give a workshop on iconography. Recognizing the young woman’s talent, Father Marcel took her under his wing, mentoring her artistically and spiritually. He taught her the intricacies of iconography and introduced her to mysticism.

“Eliseea’s icons are requested because she manages to transmit the sacred message,” says Father Marcel. “They reach such a high level that people can read them.”

The property in Bradetu in fact belongs to Father Matras. Eight years ago, he offered it as a refuge for Sister Eliseea where she could focus on her iconography. By then, clergy and collectors in Europe and North America were commissioning her work on a regular basis. With the money she earned, she rebuilt the property’s dilapidated house, which required a new foundation.

“I can live a monastic life outside the monastery. And I work much more here,” says the nun. “What is more important is the way you live with God.”

Before settling in Bradetu, Sister Eliseea served as the abbess of Sts. Peter and Paul Monastery in a remote, hard-to-access area in the northern foothills of the Fagaras Mountains, about a mile outside the village of Cartisoara. Cartisoara and Bradetu are situated on opposite ends of the famed, north-south Transfagarasan highway, which traverses the range.

She and another nun, Sister Siluana Ciupitu, came across the property two decades ago. Once the site of a bustling medieval Orthodox monastery — later destroyed in 1761 under orders from the Austrian general Nicholaus Adolf von Bukow — the property languished until 1991. “When we came, it was just a little house in the woods,” says Sister Eliseea.

Today, a large structure dominates the sprawling grounds. Its white stone facade and copper-gilded rooftops contrast majestically with the virgin wooded hills surrounding it. The compound’s apex — the chapel’s main tower — rises several stories. A stout stone wall, crowned with iron-rod fencing, encloses the premises. The landscaped gardens inside are lush with greenery and masterfully maintained.

Under Sister Eliseea’s direction, the monastery became an eminent center for contemporary Romanian iconography. Most of its resident nuns write icons.

“The church was built with money we made from the icons we wrote and sold in Romania and abroad,” says Sister Eliseea.

In the early days, she and Sister Siluana nurtured close ties with members of Romania’s Ministry of Culture. With the ministry’s assistance, the two nuns traveled extensively, particularly in Western Europe and North America. Over time, the nuns received more and more commissions for icons — enough to construct and sustain the monastery.

As an abbess, Sister Eliseea was by all measures a visionary leader. She had hoped to open an iconography school and museum on the grounds. However, she also wanted to devote herself entirely to writing icons. In the end, this desire won out, and eight years ago she appointed Sister Siluana abbess and moved to Bradetu.

Iconography did not come easily to Sister Eliseea. In the beginning, she struggled with the authenticity of her writing.

“Once I understood that these icons should only be made with never-ending prayer, I realized I could not write them, because I could not pray. And I was a nun,” she admits.

“Your prayer becomes the icon, and the icon becomes prayer again for the one who has it in his home and prays in front of it. It’s all mystery, a real and continuous link to God,” she explains, as she sits in her workroom’s red armchair and sips a cup of tea.

Now, when Sister Eliseea writes, she prays nonstop. She follows a simple daily routine, which begins and ends in prayer. Each morning, she wakes up at dawn and reads from the Psalms. “That’s where I get all my sap, all my spirit,” she says.

Afterward, she writes icons, which she does until the sunset. She often continues into the night, sometimes until as late as 2 or 3 a.m. However, she only uses colored paints in the daylight.

Sister Eliseea usually begins a new icon with a sketch, but then lets God and her prayers take over. She never knows what she will write, nor which colors she will use in the final stages.

“I am trying to put the unseen world in the visible one. I never think when I write. Everything flows by itself when I start praying,” she says. “Iconography is full of symbols. It’s scripture in images and if you don’t understand the message God sends you, you can’t write.”

These days, Sister Eliseea works mostly on commissions from overseas. Every icon takes months of prayer and work. No matter how high the demand, she never compromises her unequivocal connection to divine inspiration or her meticulous attention to detail when writing them.

Despite the global recession, Sister Eliseea continues to receive commissions. At the moment, she is backlogged. She and her mentor, Father Marcel, paradoxically attribute the influx of orders to the current crisis. In uncertain times, they believe, people try to get closer to God. “During crises and wars,” says Father Marcel, “people have always built churches and adorned them with sacred art.”

Sister Eliseea would like to teach iconography, perhaps take on an apprentice. “But,” she says, “it is really hard to teach something like this.” For now, she shares her knowledge in other ways, often speaking at conferences and universities across Europe and North America.

Above all, the iconographer wants the divine message in her works to reach as many people as possible. Most recently, she restored a local parish’s historic icons. And whenever the occasion arises, she loves to write icons for ordinary Romanians to install in their homes.

“I would like my icons to get to places where they can be seen, where their message can be read,” she says. “I want to transmit the divine message I am receiving.”

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