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Culture news, 28.04.2004 13:38

New Brunswick frescoes built to last for ages

Philip Davydov When churchgoers leave George Street and enter St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Harry Hayden hopes they feel they are entering a spiritual realm.

To help encourage that feeling, Russian artist Philip Davydov has turned a white ceiling above the church's altar into a colorful religious vision, creating a fresco expected to last for ages and that Hayden hopes will transport worshipers to a different place.

"It adds the ability to enter into a world that perhaps isn't the kind of world that we live in," said Hayden, pastor of the church. "Icons and frescoes are windows by which the world beyond our world enters into this world and doorways by which we can enter that world."

Working tirelessly for three weeks, Davydov, 28, has created a vision of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist -- the church's patron -- in vivid reds and blues in a style consistent with the Christian traditions of medieval Western Europe.

He has worked tirelessly. After one recent presentation, Davydov returned to the church at 10 p.m. and worked until 2 in the morning, Hayden said. He has often shown up at the church at 6:30 in the morning to get to work.

"I'm not a hero," Davydov said. "I do my work and try to do the best I can."

But Davydov must work quickly because his ancient technique uses plaster that can only be painted while wet, giving him a two-day window for each section. After that the plaster adheres to the paint, making it last for centuries. Frescoes dating from the 6th and 7th centuries that used this technique are still vibrant, Davydov said. But because of the plaster's durability, errors cannot be fixed.

"You can't make mistakes on the wall," Davydov said.

The son of a noted Russian painter, Davydov, of St. Petersburg, Russia, has painted frescoes and religious icons for 12 years, but this is his first project in another country.

From making his own plaster mix to designing the work to fit with the building, Davydov has had his mind and hands on the project at all times since arriving in New Brunswick.

The process, however, began even earlier when Hayden sent Davydov photos of the church, giving the painter a chance to think about what would fit best. In his mind the location, art and architecture of a church must all fit together.

"It's evident that the architect of this church tried to make it a very harmonious building. It's very important to follow the forms," Davydov said.

Hayden found Davydov on the Internet about a year ago as he searched for icon painters. The two became friendly via e-mail and the church eventually commissioned Davydov to create the painting.

He will return to Russia at the end of this week, but his work will be dedicated in a May 8 ceremony including Bishop George Councell of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey.

Hayden said the artwork will serve as a connection not only to the spiritual world, but also to other parts of the everyday world.

"(It will) remind our congregation that whether we speak English or Russian that we all are of the same faith in Jesus Christ," Hayden said.

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