Thousands of miles and hundreds of years separate St. Mary’s Basilica in Livonia from many of the most revered cathedrals in the world.
On a recent Wednesday Vlasios Tsotsonis worked to bridge a continental divide as he brought the divine to the Wayne County church.
Perched high on scaffolding in the northern cove of the basilica’s sanctuary, in paint-splattered pants, Tsotsonis writ large the scene of the Passion of Christ. He is nearing completion of a years-long masterpiece of which his canvas covers hundreds of feet of walls and ceilings with Biblical iconography in St. Mary’s sanctuary.
“This art is a window to heaven,” Father George Shalhoub said, gazing up and around the church with a smile. “It is what we are expected to be and where we are going. All these icons are not worshipped, but they are honored and venerated to give us a taste of the kingdom of God here on Earth and in Heaven.”
He had searched the world over to find an artist who could create something worthy of the old world’s masters since the church opened in 2003. In that quest for the best, Shalhoub commissioned Tsotsonis, a Greek artist he calls “the Michelangelo of the 21st century.”
The artwork has been in progress for the past 12 years and is expected to be fully completed by December.
The altar was the first phase, completed in 2007. Next in 2014 was the dome fresco, 100 feet above the floor of the sanctuary. Tsotsonis returned this January to finish the final phase of his masterpiece, the majority of which will be done by June.
To this point, he has used an estimated 250 gallons of acrylic paint to brilliant effect, magnified by 24 karat goldleaf.
Tsotsonis, 67, has painted churches all over the world during the course of the past 45 years, including several UNESCO World Heritage sites. He studied fine arts in Athens and served an apprenticeship in Byzantine art and iconography and studied mosaics in Italy.
The process begins long before he arrives in Livonia. Tsotsonis draws his compositions first in small scale then in actual scale at his studio in Greece. He paints them there on an acrylic canvas before they are placed in crates and flown to the U.S. With help from assistants, Tsotsonis applies the painted canvas on the walls, and completes his work by painting details that can only be done at the church.
He notes he had already been working on this particular phase for more than a year at home and now, having painted each day since January in St. Mary’s, he feels some impatience to see the work completed.
“This is also what I do daily while I’m in Greece, so my routine hasn’t changed in terms of work,” he said. “This gives me the sensation that I’ve lived in this space for a long time. There’s the feeling of continuity in everything.”
His biggest challenge is to create in the accompanying architecture, a spiritual, almost metaphysical feeling to the believer, while his reward is the ability to praise God and show his devotion through his paintings.
“I believe that my artistic journey doesn’t begin from me, but from a necessity to serve something that has always been inside me since I was a kid, but I was never able to explain what that is,” Tsotsonis said. “My reward for all I did is the fact that I didn’t waste my life, I dedicated my life to creation.”
He hopes that the faithful that visit St. Mary’s and all of the places of worship in the world where he has left his imprint will see that he loved what he did, and as a whole, that he has translated centuries old Holy narration into contemporary work that serves survival of the spirit for modern man.
The iconography painted in St. Mary’s is a multi-million dollar project, for which Shalhoub said the congregation has been supportive.
The work is priceless, and has no real maintenance required, he said, with the gold sealing keeping it “bright and beautiful.”
Shalhoub reflects with sadness on the recent fire damage to Notre Dame, and mourns also the less-publicized destruction of Palmyra, San Julian Church, and Monastery Maaloula, all in Syria, thousands of years old, at the hands of ISIS terrorists.
St. Mary’s and it’s artwork is new, but he hopes, like the cherished monuments that have come before, it will be seen as a testimony to history and cherished tradition.
“There is a truth to who we are and what we value and what we believe in,” he said. “Historical treasure is no less than scripture, no less than the gospel itself… The world needs places where they feel connected to the almighty Lord. This place is a piece of heaven on Earth.”
Contact Susan Bromley at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @SusanBromley10.