Master iconographer Miloje Milinkovic to complete St. Sava

Working on a scaffold that rises toward the chapel's ceiling, his brush strokes play gently in the singular light. Above him, below him - in stunning colors and searing hues - his frescos create a union between the undying past and visions of infinity. Miloje Milinkovic is painting heaven on Earth.

Milinkovic is one of the top Serbo-Byzantanic iconographers working today. His skills as a painter have taken him from monasteries in the Ukraine and Greece, to the largest Serbian churches in Chicago, Detroit and Washington D.C. Yet in 1995, in the midst of working on his grand national projects, he also began a relatively small but incredibly important mission - to turn the very first Serbian Orthodox Church in all of North America into a breathtaking work of art. After 12 years of visiting Jackson, his labors within the dazzling sanctuary of St. Sava are nearly complete.

Milinkovic first began painting when he was in theology school in Belgrade, Serbia. Becoming an iconographer meant not only developing his abilities with a brush on an ever-reaching level, but deeply immersing himself in Biblical study and the history of art. By 1986, his achievements in Europe made him the ideal candidate to paint many of America's thriving Serbian Orthodox churches. His strong ties to the Serbian community in Fair Oaks eventually led to his introduction to the priests at St. Sava.

"When I was asked to paint St. Sava, it was a huge honor," Milinkovic said. "Being the first Serbian church in America gives it a special history. I felt a deep obligation to do my very best. In the years since I've been working here, the congregation has treated me like a family member. Though I travel to different places, I now consider myself a member of this church."

Agreeing to paint St. Sava presented two major challenges for Milinkovic. The first was finding time to work on it because his presence was also being requested by other bishops. The second was coming up with a traditional fresco program that would work with the unique inner-dimensions of St. Sava. Throughout his career, Milinkovic has had long arches and looming domes to paint on - elaborate physical canvases big enough to tell many of the Bible's stories. Constructed in 1894, St. Sava was a church of the frontier. It has no dome or arches. Its modest, rectangular design is a testament to the lives of pious immigrants.

"Its walls are very unusual for a Serbian Orthodox church," Milinkovic explained. "There's certainly beauty in its simplicity - but it's also hard for an iconographer. The theological canon guides us on what stories the frescos should represent: we show the entire life of Jesus Christ through different images, from his birth to the Pentecost. Yet the icons also hearken back to saints and figures from the Old Testament as well - all working together in a special, inter-related design."

Space at St. Sava is limited, so a decision had to be made on which icons and images to use. "Then we also had to look at the story in its entirety, and I personally had to think about the beauty and composition of the paintings from different angles," he said. "The goal is always to breathe life into the walls."

Milinkovic began his work in St. Sava with the Ascension of Christ above the church's altar. Next, he focused on making the Pantocrator, which is the dominant image across the chapel's ceiling. Pantocrator is a Greek word that means "Ruler of All." In Greek, Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches, the Pantocrator is the central image which all other narratives revolve around. Typically, Pantocrators encompass the dome of a church or monastery. Though St. Sava has a flat ceiling, Milinkovic's Pantocrator inspires a staggering sense of awe through its massive size and lush, jewel-like colors.

While the artwork in St. Sava offers the same timeless story as all Orthodox churches, Milinkovic has celebrated its unique stature in Serbian history with frescos that are wholly original to it. His favorite among these is an image of Sebastian Dabovich, the missionary-priest who founded St. Sava 114 years ago, getting blessed by St. Simeon. Milinkovic has also rendered a mural of the ceremony that was held in Jackson last year when Dabovich's earthly remains were given to St. Sava and re-buried in a crypt under the church. "He lived an incredible life," Milinkovic said of the man who's now called the Serbian Apostle to the Americas. "He and all of the hard-working miners who built this community are an inspiration."

For the parishioners at St. Sava, the brilliant job Milinkovic has done in converting their church into one of the greatest works of art in the entire Mother Lode is an inspiration as well. "He's done unbelievably wonderful art here," said Triva Pavlov, a deacon at St. Sava. "It helps teach the story. It's natural sometimes for peoples' eyes to wander during a service. These impressive images bring them back to God and remind them why they're here."

Milinkovic agrees. "The whole purpose of the frescos is to make people feel at home in the presence of God," he observed. "People should walk in, see these images, and want to pray. If that doesn't happen, then what's the point? If you don't inspire people that way, you may be a really great artist but not a great iconographer. I love my work because it's a privilege to try to make people feel that. Like the priests, my job is to try to tell a magnificent story. The difference is I do my talking with my brushes."

Source: - Scott Thomas Anderson