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“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.

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