In a two-room workshop that is dwarfed by the surrounding massive Meteora rock formations, 38 year-old Greek iconographer Dimitrios Moulas demonstrates admirable focus towards his subject – an icon that will soon represent Jesus Christ. With a delicate paintbrush in hand, he carefully draws fine facial hairs. After a few moments have passed, the hairs have been transformed into a wispy mustache. As I quietly watch the process from behind, it seems as though the artist’s and subject’s eyes are locked upon one another, in an intense gaze.
While strolling the historic village of Kastraki, escorted by a friendly ginger-haired neighborhood dog, we’d serendipitously stumbled upon Dimitrios’ workshop, set among Old Kastraki’s buildings. Happening upon him on the hilly streets that wind through the village, we asked him if he knew where our new canine companion lived. We wanted to be sure she returned home safely. Dimitrios was friendly and chatty with us, and so gentle in his sales approach, that he didn’t even mention that he had a icon studio just meters away. Instead, he was curious about our home country, and eager to share that his grandmother and many Kastraki villagers had immigrated to Boston and New York in the early 1900s, to later return to Greece in the 1930s.
After we parted ways with him, we glimpsed a hand-painted sign leading to a small studio of Byzantine iconography, something I had been hoping to visit in Greece. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, icons are an essential part of prayer. Unlike some of the icon workshops that we’d seen in nearby tourist mecca Kalambaka, this appeared to be an authentic, living studio. The whitewashed stone building seemed as though it’d be equally at home on a Greek island as it was in Kastraki. A small chair sat out on the stoop and a wall of icons with rich colors hung on the entryway’s wall, highlighted by warm beams of sunlight.
Spotting us by the entrance, the same passerby we’d chatted with earlier came bounding down the hill, eager to welcome us into his cozy studio. Jewel-toned icons that have been in his family’s care for centuries adorned the white walls, as did some that he acquired during visits to Istanbul and Russia. There were images of Saint George slaying the dragon, of Mary and Baby Jesus, of Jesus holding his right hand in such a manner that symbolizes the Greek letter for ‘Christos.’
We learned about the colors and materials Dimitrios uses to create the icons, some of which can take up to one week to complete. “Gold symbolizes divinity,” he said. Showing his palette and desk, Dimitrios explained, “I use all-natural materials such as egg tempera, which is a blend of egg yolk and vinegar. They are then gilded with 24 karat gold leaf.”
“In order to create the halos, sometimes I use pure-silver, and at other times I use a gesso technique.” (To achieve this technique, an artist uses a hard compound such as plaster of Paris as a base, giving three-dimensionality to a piece of work.)
I asked Dimitrios what he most appreciates about this art form that is so sacred in Greece, something that he has been practicing for 23 years.
“It is the mysticism,” he said. “When looking at the icons, one can see something that seems simple, but when you study them, you see that they have much deeper meaning.”
Dimitrios led us to his studio windows, eager to point out the 14th century hermit caves that are still visible in the formations not far from his workshop. In the golden hour light of the late afternoon, the setting seemed as mystical as the centuries old art form that Dimitrios is so keen on preserving.
Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.