Thursday, February 21, 2013

In the Jordan

Thomas Xenakis, In the Jordan, 1997,  egg tempera and mixed media on panel, 27" x 21"
Thomas Xenakis, In the Jordan, 1997,
egg tempera and mixed media on panel, 27" x 21"
In 1996, iconographer Thomas Xenakis came to the LCAR studio as an Artist-in-Residence. Working patiently in the traditional egg tempera techniques, he made images of Jesus and the saints according to the time-honored canons of the Greek Orthodox Church in which he was (and remains) a faithful member.

Before Xenakis was an iconographer, however, he studied both biology and art at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. After obtaining a Master’s degree from the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine at John’s Hopkins University School of Medicine, he worked as a medical illustrator. 

He began to study iconography in 1987, eventually travelling to Greece, where he trained under master iconographers. In “The Task of Writing the Platytera” on his website at,  Xenakis writes

I have been blessed to write about 150 icons. As an Orthodox Christian the process to combine the "theology of art" and the "art of theology" is inherent in our faith. Our religious and spiritual heritage makes this an integral part of our being if we are to worship God and venerate God's creation. The use of our human creativity is serious and committed in visually honoring our Spiritual traditions. This is part of what I exist for.

While in residence at WTS, Tom began to explore the connections between iconography and contemporary art. Upon completing his residency with us, he went to the Maryland Institute College of Art Hoffberger School of Painting in Baltimore, Maryland, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree under the guidance of noted abstract expressionist Grace Hartigan.

Before he went to MICA, Tom left a painting that he called “In the Jordan” as a parting gift. “In the Jordan” is a very strange work. It began like any traditional icon of the Baptism of Jesus, with a wooden board carefully prepared with linen and multiple layers of gesso. The colors were laid in with patient strokes of mineral pigments hand ground into egg yolks tempered with vinegar and water, the figures glowing against a gold-leaf heaven. As in many traditional icons of this subject, Jesus stands in the water between steep river banks. Saint John the Forerunner pours water over him from one side, and ministering angels lean towards him on the other.

"In the Jordan" detail showing Holy Spirit
"In the Jordan" detail showing Holy Spirit

But here the resemblance to a traditional icon ends. A closer look reveals that the surface is not flat. Rather, it is rough, uneven, built up under some of the rocks on which John and the angels stand, as if trying to burst out of the picture plane. Behind John there is an unpainted area that reveals a map of the Middle East; similarly, the towel helpfully proffered by the red-robed angel in front turns out to be a page from a Bible or hymnal. Above them all, the heavenly gold is ripped open in several places, revealing the Holy Spirit not as a dove, but as a shimmering, jeweled, feathery presence that appears to have arrived from some other reality. 

"In the Jordan" detail showing water
"In the Jordan" detail showing water
Similarly, beneath the crossed doors of hell on which Jesus stands as if in an icon of the Resurrection, the wood beneath the painted river has been hacked away, replaced by a churning, unruly mass of copper wire, nails, and blue canvas that spills out of the lower frame as if to engulf the viewer. No longer are we in looking through a window into eternity. Rather, we are in the real, 3-dimensional presence of Christ, eternally being baptized, as well as dying, and rising all at once.

Thomas Xenakis, XPYSO #22, 2004, mixed media on panel, 30" x 23.5
Thomas Xenakis, XPYSO #22, 2004,
mixed media on panel, 30" x 23.5"
In 2005, Tom Xenakis returned to LCAR with a one-person exhibition. In my introduction to that show, I wrote
The works in the present show, XPYSO (which means “gold” in Greek), bring together in a new way the technical skill of the iconographer, the meticulous observation of the medical illustrator, and the personal vision of the modernist painter. These works begin like a traditional icon, with a gessoed panel surface, covered with gold leaf. In works with titles like “Emai (I Am),” “Theosis (Unification),” and “Zoe (Life),” the gold shines through the bright, swirling paint like a declaration of God’s glory, which is sometimes hidden from view but always present. Biomorphic shapes suggest the abundant, teeming of life in a puddle or a Petri dish, or the interior cells of some mysterious being. In some places, the edges of the gold leaf lift away from the surface, fluttering in any passing wind like a reminder of the Holy Spirit. In others, Xenakis gouges grooves and scratches down through the layers of paint, gold, and gesso, revealing the heart of the wood that supports the painting with delicate traceries that resemble footprints or the trail of a falling ember. This wounding of the surface adds to its interest and beauty, suggesting a parallel with the eternally wounded, eternally risen Body of Christ, broken for the healing of the nations, and eternally robed in glory.
Thomas Xenakis, XPYSO #23, 2004,  mixed media on panel, 30" x 23.5"
Thomas Xenakis, XPYSO #23, 2004,
mixed media on panel, 30" x 23.5"

Every day as I walk into work, I pass two of these astonishing paintings, which Tom left with us when the exhibition closed. And every day, I am filled with gratitude for these reminders of presence and grace.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I really admire his art. They draw me in.

  2. Thanks, Anne. I apologize for taking so long to realize that you had commented.