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A Romanian Renaissance

One nun writes a new chapter in the history of iconography

text and photographs by Andreea Câmpeanu

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“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.

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Tags: Sisters Art Icons Romania Romanian Orthodox Church