COPLEY TOWNSHIP, Ohio — A plain white wall rose above the altar in the sanctuary at St. Demetrius Serbian Orthodox Church.
That was before its transformation.
Now that wall is covered in a brilliant blue that serves as a backdrop to a vibrantly colored icon of the Virgin Mary Mother of God with the Christ Child.
"The Mother of God's arms are outstretched, welcoming people to carry Christ with them in their lives," said Filip Subotic, who created the image using custom paint made from water-based pigments. The image, known to the Orthodox faithful as Platytera, is the focal point of the wall.
In addition to the traditional Byzantine-style icon, located in the domed area above the altar, Subotic created fresco paintings of two angels; six prophets (Enoch, Noah, Simon, Melchizedek, Aaron and Solomon) and an icon of Jesus on a cloth to represent the Shroud of Turin.
He also painted the words "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty" across the wall.
The church commissioned Subotic to complete the paintings by Easter, which was celebrated at St. Demetrius and other Eastern Orthodox churches May 5. Many Orthodox churches observe Easter, also known as Pascha, based on the Julian calendar. That date often differs from the Gregorian calendar, which is used by many Western churches.
The Rev. George Mileusnich said the completion of the fresco paintings brought added joy to the Easter celebration.
"This is inspiring. It has been an enormous spiritual lift," Mileusnich said. "Each Sunday, during the six weeks that Filip worked to finish the paintings, the people would come in and be amazed by the progress. They watched it go from a blank wall to this beautiful creation, and they agree that it has brought more warmth to the church."
St. Demetrius attracts an average of 60 worshipers to its service at 10 a.m. Sundays. About 30 children attend Sunday School at the same time.
The congregation traces its roots to 1918.
In 1933, the first church building, in Akron, Ohio, was consecrated. When the congregation moved from Akron to its location in Copley, Ohio, it brought the icon screen, or iconostasis.
With the completion of the Platytera and other paintings on the wall above the altar, the congregation is discussing the possibility of hiring Subotic to paint new icons for the screen.
"The icons are here to inspire us in prayer and to help us grow spiritually. It's amazing how no matter where you are in the church, the eyes of the Mother of God are looking directly at you. Her eyes follow you; I don't know how he did that," said Milorad Jovich, president of the church council. "We welcome anyone, anytime, to come in and experience what we have to offer. Our liturgy is all about the birth, life and sacrifice of Christ. But whether or not people choose to visit us during the liturgy, we invite them to come in after the service or anytime just to experience this beautiful artwork that Filip has done."
Subotic, who grew up in Belgrade and lives in the Chicago area, has traveled across the United States since 2003, painting images in Orthodox churches.
He said the paintings, similar to the artwork of Michelangelo, provide a way for him to combine his studies in art and theology. He earned his undergraduate degree in theology at St. Sava School of Theology and completed art school at Oakton Community College. Both schools are in the Chicago area.
Subotic grew up around artists and completed his first painting when he was 4 years old. His grandfather was an artist and his father, Vladan Subotic, was an artist who studied under Picasso and taught fine art in Belgrade (now Serbia).
When creating icons and paintings in churches, Subotic sketches out the images in charcoal before he paints them. He said he never paints a face until he feels inspired by God with a vision of what it should look like.
"This is holy work. The icons are pictures that teach theology," Subotic said. "As an artist, I want to help people know that God is the maker of everything."