By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2016
ATLANTA—David Adams has designed windows to heighten the beauty of church sanctuaries since the 1970s. But a just completed project at St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church tested his skill and nerves.
“It was daunting … but a joy also,” Adams said. It was a first for him to create a Byzantine icon—an imposing depiction of Jesus as ruler set on a gold background in the skylight high above the church’s wooden pews.
“I took 25 hours of art history back in the ‘60s, but that was a long time ago,” said the artist of the Llorens art glass company.
The 69-year-old created pencil drawings of Jesus, relying on art books, studying icons printed from the internet and even checking Wikipedia.
“As I did this, it became less Romanesque and more Byzantine,” said Adams, with details such as an elongated nose and combed beard and narrow fingers.
Eventually, Adams, the church pastor, Father John Azar, and Frank Llorens Jr. stood around a kitchen table at the church to fine tune the final pencil drawing.
The skylight arches over the seating area of the church. Plans to repair it began several years ago as the zinc holding the glass together weakened. Experienced glass workers took down the 40-foot-long skylight—all 10,000 pieces—for cleaning and repair and then reassembled it, using lead for reinstallation. A portion of the clear skylight was replaced with colored glass to create a series of five icons. The largest icon measures about six feet.
100-year-old mansion a house of faith
Before it became the Melkite church, this structure at 1428 Ponce de Leon Ave. was the grand Asa Candler mansion, now 100 years old.
The marble building was the family home of the Coca-Cola co-founder. Acquired by the Melkite community in 1955, the faith community, made up of 60 families, has worshipped for the past 60 years where the Candler family once hosted Atlanta society.
“The place was meant to be a Byzantine church because of its dome,” joked Father Azar, spiritual leader of the Melkite Catholic community.
In its religious incarnation, icons cover nearly every wall area.
The centerpiece of the skylight additions is called Christ Pantocrator, a depiction of Christ, his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding the Gospels. Smaller icons of the four Gospel writers surround Jesus. The icon’s title can be translated “Christ is the ruler of all.”
Father Azar said the icon, which holds a place of prominence in Eastern church art, shows Jesus sitting as judge as a “stern but gentle” figure.
This was new for Adams. He said during all his years creating church art he never created a stern-looking Jesus.
Icons as teaching tools
Vibrant icons, from the Blessed Mother to the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale, are everywhere in the church.
“An icon is not supposed to be a photo. Iconography is theology in color. It’s not a piece of art. It’s teaching,” Father Azar said. His goal is to incorporate more icons into the church, he said, as long as the depictions follow Eastern artistic tradition. “Slowly, we’re educating people on the tradition.”
Icons should appear otherworldly. Every feature carries spiritual meaning. The way Jesus holds his fingers can spell his name. The colors reveal majesty and humanity.
The skylight originally lit an inner atrium of the mansion and is now where church members sit.
The church planned to replace the vaulted skylight once worshippers found shards of its glass among its wooden pews. The $215,000 project was three years in planning and it took 11 months to replace, clean and strengthen the skylight’s thousands of pieces. Father Azar said an anonymous grant and parish donations paid for it.
There are about 200 pieces of glass in the Christ Pantocrator icon. The Gospel writers’ icons each have some 75 pieces of glass.
The artists weren’t the only ones antsy about the project. Father Azar recalled how he sat in the pews and held up colored glass shards to select the colors for the icon. Father Azar said he was so nervous about choosing wrongly, he lit a candle and prayed over the decisions.
Christ Pantocrator would traditionally be inside the dome of an Eastern church. Father Azar said the vault of the skylight is a good fit for the display.
“Light just floods the room, floods the space. Colors change,” he said.
Collaboration to last another century
The church relied on Llorens Leaded Art Glass to do the work. In fact, this family business installed the skylight 100 years ago. It was Frank Llorens Jr.’s grandfather, Joseph V. Lorens Sr., who put in the massive window above an atrium with pink marble and a mosaic floor. Frank Llorens Sr. visited the church in the 1970s. The then pastor called him a squirrel for his skill in maneuvering around the skylight to clean it.
Llorens is a third-generation family business started in 1912. One of its current projects is designing new windows for St. Helena Church in Clayton.
Frank Llorens Jr., 42, said the work broke new ground for the Winder family business, requiring art history lessons from the priest.
“It lasted 100 years. We think it’ll last longer now,” Llorens said.
Despite the initial jitters, folks at Llorens embraced the work and want to do more. Llorens credits Father Azar for improving the draft drawings leading to the finished work.
“It was a collaboration between everyone involved,” he said. “We learned something new about Eastern art.”