Onion Dome Fever: The Domes of Jeannette

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic church and clergy house, Jeannette

Come around the back, narrow your focus a little bit, and forget about how you got here. It doesn’t take too much imagination to feel instantly transported several thousand miles away–to Khmelnytskyi or Zhytomyr, Bila Tserkva or Ivano-Frankivsk.

The scene is something right out of a movie depicting a romanticized rendering of old world Eastern European rural quaintness. In all directions, hills rise with gentle grace, their trees a deep green in this wet summer’s lush glow. A simple old stone church, built for maybe a hundred congregants, rests aside its semi-attached, wood frame clergy house.

Saint Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church has a peaked roof, tiled in red shingles, with a single small steeple at the front. Atop it sits a glorious–if weather-worn–steel onion dome, accented by the Byzantine cross of the orthodox church.

St. Demetrius

It’s not alone. Jeannette had around 8,000 people at the time of the 1910 census. Likely most of them were working in the small city’s many glass factories–there were at least seven and there is a claim that at one time 70-85% of the world’s glass was made in Jeannette.

Yeah–that seems like a stretch. Regardless, the little boom town clearly attracted a fair number of these folks from old Russia as two different orthodox Catholic churches were constructed that same year, mere blocks apart.

cornerstone, St. Demetrius, 1910 (remodeled 1954)

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic Church, Jeannette, PA

St. Demetrius, the Ukrainian church on Gaskill Avenue, is the smaller and more humble of the pair. It sits in an otherwise unremarkable row of simple wood frame houses just a block off the railroad tracks that bisect Jeannette. It’s also a little ways downhill, so you won’t spot the gleaming silver-colored ornament until you’re relatively close.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius Russian Orthodox Catholic Church, Jeannette

The same can’t be said for Saints Cyril and Methodius. The eponymous brick Russian Orthodox church constructed in their honor decorates the absolute peak of Scott Avenue on the north side of town. The building’s distinct roofline, featuring multiple sky blue-with-gold crosses, is visible from just about anywhere in the city.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius is a magnificent brick-and-stone structure of multiple depths and angles, details and decorations, murals and stained glass. It also appears to be in spectacular shape, freshly repainted and bricks tightly pointed, on well-groomed grassy grounds. Catch it as we were lucky enough to on a cloudless day, gleaming in the hot sun, and looking resplendent against a perfect blue sky and even this atheist feels like he’s died and gone to heaven.

Cornerstone, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, 1910. We don’t know if the smiley face skull and cross-bones is original.

It’s doubtful anywhere in the area–heck, anywhere in America–has the per-capita domes of little Lyndora, up in Butler County. (Not to mention being able to righteously claim Poison’s Bret Michaels as a former congregant.)

That said, Jeannette’s lovely pair of orthodox churches, mere blocks from one another on the same side of town, are a feast for the onion ogler and an invitation to sidle out to Westmoreland County that should not be turned down. You can load up at DeLallo Foods, pace anxiously as two new microbreweries threaten opening any day now, and walk off that nervous energy with an old world constitutional. Recommended.

steeple view, Ss. Cyril and Methodius

Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill

sparkle Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David + heart on Forbes Ave.: one of two thousand, in and around Squirrel Hill

The little stars are made from glitter and felt, plastic and wood, popsicle sticks and laminated paper. They’re tied to the tiniest branches of street trees with ribbon, wire, and bailing twine; they rest lazily in boxwood hedges. The stars commune with other memorials left on handrails and steps, safety gates, and police barricades.

Overwhelmingly, though, each of the small totems–a six-pointed Star of David with a heart at its center–has been knit or crocheted by hand and attached to utility poles throughout central Squirrel Hill[1]. When you pass down Wilkins or Shady, Forbes or Negley, you’ll not miss the stars fluttering–dancing, even–in the breeze.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

October 27, 2018 may well go down as Pittsburgh’s 9/11–the remember-exactly-where-you-were date for a generation’s most horrific local atrocity. Me, I was in Bellevue, dressed in a stupid outfit, holding a trombone, and standing in the cold rain at the tail end of the borough’s Halloween parade.

The relentless weather that morning pretty much kept all of the expected crowd home, leaving just us obligated parade marchers to get the news all at the same point. I remember feeling useless and helpless–milling around on the vacant, closed-to-traffic main drag before heading home without even saying goodbye.

crochet Star of David with heart on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

By now, America has sadly gotten plenty of practice grieving for the victims of mass shootings and violent hate crimes. Even if you didn’t make it up to the Tree of Life synagogue in the days following the massacre, you know what the outside scene inevitably looked like. The victims here were all adults–so it didn’t feature quite so many teddy bears as your, yes, average school shooting–but the scene of an overflowing buffet of flowers and personal notes, photographs and mementos set against protective barriers and caution tape was all there.

In the two months since the Tree of Life shooting, most of these memorials have been relocated. But by mid-November a second-wave tribute–beautiful in its decentralization, variety, and spirit–arrived throughout pedestrian Squirrel Hill.

wooden disc with Star of David hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David made from postage stamps hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Right now, thousands of handmade Stars of David decorate nondescript public spaces and street-facing hedges and gates in the neighborhood[2]. They radiate out from the Tree of Life synagogue and populate Squirrel Hill’s business district along Forbes and Murray Aves.

The stars are the work of an impromptu online group called Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, started by two “craftivists,” Hinda Mandell and Ellen Dominus Broude, both from separate parts of Upstate New York. The Post-Gazette has an article and short video detailing that effort.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

Likely, most of those who experience the Tree of Life stars will only see them as brief flashes of color, twiddling in the breeze through the passenger-side window–their forms may not even be recognizable at any speed. The Orbit recommends ditching the car and taking a long contemplative walk around middle Squirrel Hill’s wide streets as the best way to inhabit the diffuse tribute.

golden wire Star of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Perhaps it should be no surprise but the totality of the experience is incredibly moving. The first, gut reaction to these handmade, intersected symbols of Judaism and love, sent from supportive crafters from around the world, is the most obvious.

“There is more good in the world than evil,” says Ms. Broude in the P-G video, “An assault against one is an assault against all.”[3] That message–something terrible happened here, but there is way more love than hate in the world–comes though loud and clear, ringing out from the branches and telephone poles.

crochet Star of David with heart on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

But it doesn’t stop there. So many of the knit stars–hung from a single point, stretched out by gravity, and curled in the weather–end up taking on unexpected anthropomorphic qualities. [Yes, there is one extra appendage in this representation.] The little bodies appear alternately huddled and triumphant, at rest and in play, lifted and weightless in the wind.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

This atheist goy had to Google “Jewish belief in an afterlife.” While the religion isn’t nearly as hung up on the notion of heaven as Christianity–preferring instead to value and emphasize life here on earth–it’s also not without its post-mortal coil fallback options. This description, from the Chabad site, seems to sum up the philosophy:

There isn’t anything after life, because Jews believe that life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.

crochet Stars of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Sure, it was a windy day when we visited and took these photos, but the rapturous lifting of these little forms–literally higher and higher off of their twig and twine moorings, flying up towards the sun–felt like liberation. Hopefully, for the victims, family, and friends of the Tree of Life shooting, they’ll find some peace in this beautiful expression of love.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA


[1] … and supposedly elsewhere. (But we’ve only seen them in Squirrel Hill.)
[2] Organizers estimate “around 2000” stars. Source: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2018/11/17/Jewish-Stars-of-David-Tree-of-Life-Pittsburgh-volunteers-knit-crochet-twelve-countries-crafts-facebook/stories/201811170055
[3] Ibid.

Color Me In Presston: The Front Yard Marys of McKees Rocks, Part 1

statuette of Mary with deer statue in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Going stag: Mary and uni-antlered deer on a front lawn in the Presston neighborhood of McKees Rocks.

You’ll not accidentally find yourself in Presston. No, those making the trip to the tiny residential neighborhood at the northernmost end of McKees Rocks either live there, are visiting someone who does, or–in the case of your particularly wayward author–are just dying to find out what’s on the other side of all those big factory buildings along the riverfront.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary and friends

The journey to Presston–yes, that’s spelled correctly with two S’s–involves a circuitous route over the little bridge at Chartiers Creek, down River Avenue, past Lane Steel and Six Star Service, and through the McKees Rocks “bottoms” [not “flats” like everywhere else] with its rows of worker housing and glorious trio of onion-domed Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches*.

From there, one must locate the only point to breach the massive concrete base of the McKees Rocks Bridge on Helen Street, hang a left on George, and then straight down Nichol Ave. You’ll run parallel with train tracks on one side and see the kind of enormous industrial buildings that don’t really exist in the city proper (at least, not anymore) on the other. This giant footprint is currently home to McKees Rocks Fabrication and Penn Waste Systems, PVS Nolwood Chemicals and Cargill Salt.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Gas Service: Meter Greeter Mary

Finally, tucked away at the end of this half-mile of corrugated steel, guard booths, and security fencing, is a pair of dead-end residential streets. Each is lined up and down with matching two-story wood frame double-houses. Behind you lie factory buildings and train tracks; ahead is brownfield and the Ohio River. You’ve ended up–the only way you possibly can–in Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

A historical plaque on the site informs us the neighborhood was built as worker housing by the Pressed Steel Car Company–which is presumably where it gets its name and double-S spelling. The uniform duplexes had been built by 1909 when there was a workers strike leading to the “‘Bloody Sunday Uprising’ where at least 11 people died.”

Pennsylvania state historical marker for Presston

Presston historical plaque

The marker goes on to state that the company sold the houses–we assume to private individuals–after Pressed Steel Car ceased operation in 1949. Like we saw at Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington and Donora’s Cement City, things get a lot more interesting when the company lets go of control and people get do to do their own thing with the houses they own.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Ain’t that aMARYca: patriotic Mary and big baby Jesus

We don’t know what the houses looked like when they were sold off in 1949, but now, seventy years later, there’s been a predictable divergence in styles and updates, adaptations and repair. Aluminum siding has been added to all but a just a few of the wood houses, porches reconfigured into front rooms, a couple of the duplexes were merged into single, larger homes. There are a few empty spots where fire or neglect have claimed some of the old houses, but for the most part, almost every lot is full.

What really impressed this outsider is how Presston’s residents have gone nuts with yard decoration. The little space in front of each house may only be a hundred square feet or so–that’s just not enough real estate to warrant keeping up a grass lawn. In a neighborhood where everyone simply must know everyone else, it also seems unlikely either theft or vandalism is a problem.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Squirrel Mary

At least that’s The Orbit’s hypothesis for why, house-for-house, Presston has an off-the-charts quantity of front yard ornamentation: tiny angels and garden gnomes, holiday displays and concrete statuary, repurposed toys and patriotic signs. It’s an exaggeration, but it feels as if nearly every one of Presston’s hundred-and-fifty-or-so little houses had stepped up to make a front-facing effort to greet the neighbors and express itself to the world.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary, garden gnome, and autumn friend

… which brings us to Mary.

Yes, the quantity of holy mothers standing guard and blessed virgins decorating and protecting the front porches, steps, and sidewalks of Ohio and Orchard Streets is staggering. The über-pious residents of Bloomfield and South Oakland–not to mention McKees Rocks proper–likely put in extra hail Marys just to try to keep up with the blue-robed wave of tiny Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

We’re gonna paint the blessed mother pink! Little pink house for Mary and me.

Why, it kills a nebby blogger that between the ticking of the clock, a lack of connections, and the fear of getting a boot in the keister, he just couldn’t make it around to check out the alley-side view of these houses. Given the opportunity, we may have found just as many–or more–Marys holding court around back as they had pointing street-side.

Sigh. The thought of another dozen loose Marys–getting it done between the charcoal grill and patio set, next to the garden hose, or in the shadow of the tool shed–is almost too much to bear…almost.

statuette of Mary in gravel front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

White stone Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Shy Mary

To the good citizens of Presston: we’re hooked. We know your collection of street-facing Marys is only one small detail in the rich story of a neighborhood that doesn’t just have a unique spot on the map, but promises a fascinating history–complete with strikes and conflict, economic upheaval and population change, pressed steel cars and, yes, a whole lotta Mary.

If you’ll have us, we’d love to know more about that history. Give us a holler. Until then, color The Orbit impressed with Presston.

statuette of Mary on front porch of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Hiding in the corner Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Solar light Mary


* In fairness–depending on which direction you’re coming from–one may skip these first steps by taking the Helen Street exit off the McKees Rocks Bridge. That wasn’t how we got to Presston, and it’s still one-way-in/one-way-out no matter how you get to Nichol Avenue.

Alms Race: The Front Yard Marys of Beaver County

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

ghost Mary, New Brighton

Mary. We’ve already talked about the blessed virgin/most famous mama’s ability to get around. This week, Mary makes it clear her home-anointing juju doesn’t stop at the Allegheny County line. No, not content to let metro Pittsburgh have all the fun, Beaver County enters the escalating alms race with a shock and awe campaign of heavy-duty religion and hardcore beatitude.

You’ll find her Maryness all over Allegheny County’s western neighbor–from Harmony to New Galilee, Shippingport to Vanport, Raccoon to Big Beaver. There are so many likenesses of Mary in the front yards, porches, and gardens of homes across Beaver County that each of its larger towns could easily supply a post’s worth all on its own. That’s an intriguing opportunity for the Mary-obsessed, but let’s face it–sometimes there’s just too much Mary…even for dedicated Orbit readers.

Like The Bible and Catholic mass, this post is going to be long on pictures and short on words, so let’s get down to it. Here’s a random sampling of but a few of Beaver County’s unlimited supply of front yard Marys.

Mary statuette in front of house with large aerial antenna, New Brighton, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Reception, New Brighton

Mary statuette on front porch of house, Beaver Falls, PA

front porch autumnal Mary, Beaver Falls

statue of Mary on pedestal in front yard, Ambridge, PA

chain link Mary, Ambridge

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

patriotic Mary, New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, Monaca, PA

Monaca

Mary statuette in back yard of house, Monaca, PA

voyeuristic Mary, Monaca

Mary statuette in front of house, Eastvale, PA

Eastvale

brick house with Mary statue in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette and dog statuette in front yard, Ambridge, PA

Mary with pet pooch, Ambridge

house with Mary statuette in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette on front steps of brick house, Ambridge, PA

Ambridge


Further reading:

How did Lent become fish fry season?

fish sandwich on styrofoam plate

Week 3: Fish sandwich bathed in the Italian flag-colored light of the Regina Elena Club, Sharpsburg

The plate is a standard-issue, eight-inch disposable picnic platter. On it is a large sandwich bun flipped open, both sides up. Across this bed of bread and extending way off its edges lies a gigantic piece of codfish, reclining leisurely like the most relaxed den dweller on a chaise lounge.

The filet is coated in a thick layer of Panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried until golden brown, and still-sizzlin’ as it approaches the table with its partner plate of macaroni & cheese. As is customary, there are no vegetable toppings for the sandwich but the supplies of tartar and hot sauce are ample.

Eleven months a year, this blogger stays away from religion, but he gives up atheism for fish fry season or, as the Catholics call it, Lent.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski, St. Max’s, Homestead (2017)

Catholic? No. But Catholic-curious…sure. Fried cod, mac & cheese, individually-wrapped slices of pineapple upside-down cake or pretzel salad for dessert–a cold beer to go with it if we’re lucky? It’s freakin’ delicious and enough to bring even the most ardent pagan back into the welcoming arms of the church…basement…at supper time.

But isn’t the whole point of the season supposed to be penance and sacrifice? “Having” to eat a giant deep-fried fish filet with a side of haluski or pasta olio once a week hardly constitutes a war effort. If this is The Vatican’s idea of fasting, sign me up for the hunger strike.

front windows decorated for Lenten Fish Fry, Angelo's Pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Angelo’s Pizza, Bloomfield

So how did we get here? Apparently this all goes back to Pope St. Leo who, in the fifth century, preached that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days.” (Again with the 40 days!) Traditionally the fasting ritual was much more severe, allowing only a single evening meal every day of Lent (just like Ramadan), and the rules were much more restrictive disallowing all meats (including fish), eggs, sweets, and “other indulgences.”

In the intervening centuries, the church and congregation have come to a strange compromise with the laity seeming to hold all the cards. The concept of a fast has gone from eating only one penitential meal a day to merely cutting out meat on Friday. [That fish doesn’t count as “meat” is a whole other discussion.] This “sacrifice” just doesn’t seem that painful.

large fried fish dinner on plate

Week 4, part 2: Fish, haluski, and cole slaw: Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

A couple weeks back, this blogger pulled the “Lenten double”–a sort-of Stove Top Stuffing ruse for the fish-obsessed. First, there was an enormous sandwich from Giant Eagle’s seasonal “Fish Frydays” for lunch followed by a full dinner spread at Church of the Assumption. It’s no easy feat–the ridiculously early hours the church suppers keep really requires you shake a leg to pack it all in.

Let me tell you something: I’m going to need a serious weight-loss plan after all the fasting I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Catholics need to come up with a real season of penance and self-denial after the unhinged gluttony of Lent.

hand-made sign for fish fry, Church of the Assumption, Bellevue, PA

Of course, fish fry-hosting churches do a lot of their fundraising during the six Fridays of Lent and we see evidence of Churches consolidating and closing all the time. So in an era when the larger populace would no longer be described as “god-fearing” it’s an understandable economic necessity that churches need to relax some of the old-world doctrine and bring in some pew-filling carbohydrates.

catfish dinner from New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Pittsburgh, PA

Week 2: Even non-Catholics get into it! New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Larimer

Still, to stray so wildly from the original “reason for the season” (to borrow from another highly mutated Christian tradition) seems like a real lost opportunity–both for the church and its congregants. While it’s both bizarre and wonderful for us non-believers to look forward to Lent for its distinct church basement suppers, the tradition of voluntarily giving up something loved (or, at least, appreciated) to learn the value of sacrifice and everyday privilege seems like an extremely valuable exercise.

Maybe next year this blogger will have to give up all those fish fry calories, you know, for Lent.

fish sandwich with mac & cheese

Week 6: Harris Grill, Shadyside*


* The obvious addition of lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle slices would only come from a restaurant offering.

All Rite Now: Simeon Larivonovoff, Painter of Icons

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff holding a glowing icon of the Arcangel Michael

“An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured.” Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of “golden hair” Archangel Michael

Waaaay longer than most of us can conceive of. Longer than the United States of America has existed; earlier than the Europeans landing at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock; a hundred years before Columbus was born–let alone sailed the ocean blue.

Six hundred and fifty-nine years. That’s how long the continuous line of Russian icon painters goes back. For seven centuries, the ancient devotional practice of creating highly-formal prayer paintings has been passed from father to son [yes: they have all been men]. That uninterrupted legacy may come to an end here, in Pittsburgh, with Simeon Larivonovoff.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff sitting on a bed with a small dog on his knee

“You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” Simeon with one of his “doggies” in his bedroom/workroom.

A blast of sensations–I’ll warn you they’re not all pleasant–will arrive early and often. Visiting Simeon’s modest Polish Hill home begins with the raucous barking of his six dogs which completely nullifies any need for a doorbell. Simeon refers to these pooches with the diminutive “my doggies” or “my puppies,” even though they’re all full grown–several in a very big way. At least one member of the pack will be a constant companion–on the lap, by his side in the garden, or taken out on a leash sporting a jaunty kerchief as companion on Simeon’s frequent walks over the Bloomfield Bridge to the Shur-Save, or up Liberty Avenue.

The musky smell of animal fur–there are also a pair of house cats–mixes with the splinters of unfinished wood floors, stiff knotted area rugs, furniture polish, and antique brass. But it is the evocative omnipresent flicker of lamp light refracted through glowing cut glass and its partner aroma of smoking paraffin oil that will color your memory hours, days–weeks even–after departing. It may also be the best analog for Simeon’s world.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff lighting oil lamp

“Electric light is not needed,” Simeon lighting one of the dozens of oil lamps that light his home

The well-meaning speculative journalist faces a challenge photographing inside Simeon’s home. “Electric light is not needed,” he says while igniting the wick of an ornate, retractable, ceiling-mounted oil lamp–one of dozens of different models throughout the house–“these [lamps] are not in today’s society.”

Simeon is a member of the Russian Orthodox “Old Believers”–a sect of Greek Orthodoxy that preserves church practices going back to the 1600s, along with many of the lifestyle habits that go with it. “We pray in a pure 17th century style, before reform. We are non-conformists,” Simeon says. He further describes the group as “The Amish of Russian Orthodox.” The analogy–right down to the long beards and rejection of (most) modern technology–is pretty apt. On life in the 21st century: “I deal with the world, but I’m not influenced by it.”

That said, Old Believer practices also seem to overlap with that other locally-familiar brand of strict orthodoxy, Judaism. There is a weekly day-long, sundown-to-sundown sabbath in which no work may be done. “To cook a meal, to sew a button…no. A lot of people won’t answer the door on Sunday,” Simeon says of his fellow Old Believers. There is also a Kosher-like diet that forbids many of the same food sources: shellfish, eel, and octopus, pork and blood sausage.

partial icon for St. Praskevia with only the face and hands painted

“We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us.” St. Praskevia icon (in process)

A visit with Simeon falls somewhere between Sunday school and Psychedelic Shack; as much Waiting for the Sun as waiting for The Son. “An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured,” Simeon says of the goal of his artwork. “You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.”

Simeon began painting icons at the age of nine, born into the family practice. “My father: you were his student,” Simeon says, “You had to learn a lot–prayers, colors.”

in-process icon of St. Kazanskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“Our Lady of Kazan”, Kazanskya icon (in process)

There certainly was–and is–a lot to learn. There was the practice of grinding his own paint pigments from natural sources [the tan color in the photographed icons comes from sycamore bark] and learning to read and write in church Slavonic (aka old church Bulgarian) with its 63-character alphabet. Icon painters must have “a library of icons in their head–the mind, heart, and hand are on the same level.”

Iconography follows a strict canonical representation of each saint. “You don’t dare deviate from the form,” says Simeon, “theology does not change.” Small details and colors may be chosen by the individual painter, but, according to Simeon, the main outline of an icon may never be altered between versions, renditions, and artists. Finished icons are never framed because “You cannot put God in a box.”

Certain details are crucial: the relation between forms or seemingly small elements–the number of curls in a beard or an eyebrow raised, finger positions or the clutch of a scroll. “How you portray hands on icons is very important,” says Simeon, “The hand of Daniel is very big to show you the prophesy.”

icon of St. Petrovskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“An attainable salvation.” Icon of St. Petrovskya

Simeon’s knowledge of Russian church history and the world of iconography runs very very deep. So deep it’s no small challenge for the interviewer to keep up with the artist’s barrage of names, dates, liturgy, and riddle-like koans that densely fill each conversation like the icons that decorate his walls.

In our multiple meetings, I took a bunch of notes from Simeon’s monologues on subjects like St. Sergius Radonezh, sabbath practices, and The Schism. But with bon mots falling like beeswax drips from a prayer candle–“Falling in the mud is one thing, being of the mud is something else” or “An icon is a pilgrimage from one holy place to another…between heaven and earth to see glimpses of paradise” or “We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us”–well, you should probably go to the history books when you’re really ready to dig in.

wall with dozens of traditional Russian Orthodox icons painted by Simeon Larivonovoff

“The wall of icons are witnesses interceding to God for you.” Simeon’s bedroom/workspace.

Simeon’s own history gets a little murkier. When and why he emigrated to America was dismissed with a wave of the hand, “You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” [I believe this was analogy about religious persecution.] The dates and ages that get thrown around freely are a little squishy, too. That 659 years we mentioned above was a mere 647 years in a previous meeting. The very precise histories of antique oil lamps and furniture? Well, they’re all plausible. An ancient Russian prayer book of psalms or “chants” may or may not be in demand from The Smithsonian.

Regardless, Simeon is absolutely devoted to his craft. “This is the sole reason for my existence–to paint icons,” he says. And paint he has. Simeon estimates he’s painted between three and four thousand icons in his lifetime for an audience both within his local communities and around the world–some devotional, others are private collectors. Now he’s down to creating around 50 a year with eight or ten in process during our meetings. “I’m getting old,” Simeon says.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of St. Hodogitria

“You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.” Simeon with icon of St. Hodogitria, “She who takes you by the hand, she who shows you the way.”

As strict a regimen as Old Rite Russian Orthodoxy seems to this outsider–its denial of compact fluorescents, crab cakes, and rock-n-roll seems like a heavy price for salvation–that’s not the way Simeon sees it. “We are a joyful religion…sunset is a new day beginning,” he says.

It’s a lovely way to look at the world–the early extinguishing of light in these darkest December days as not the trigger for seasonal affective disorder, but rather the beginning of a new possibility. That we are of the mud, transfigured, and on our tip-toes, trying to get one of those glimpses of paradise. Just don’t mix your cabbage with peas.


Bonus material! Back in 2011, local filmmaker Julie Sokolow made a short film of Simeon where you can see the man in motion. The lamp-lighting, dogs, and challenges of shooting in a home without electric light are all there.