Story of faith New icons transform Mount Pleasant church

Artist Dmitry Shkolnik (right) talks with Father John Parker, rector of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, about how work is progressing on the dome’s frescoes.

A few years ago, Carol Oropallo, an art enthusiast, was drawn to the unique and dome-topped, yellow structure that sits in the residential Mount Pleasant community of I’On known as Holy Ascension Orthodox Church. She wasn’t searching for religion. She admits she was still figuring out her spiritual footing. So it was a shock to Oropallo when a curious stroll inside the church transformed her life, setting her on a new path.

“I was slammed by this palpable energy and instant understanding that it was a genuine sacred space,” she said.

That revelation swept over Oropallo as she stood glaring at a painting on the wall adjacent to the church’s altar. The painting is one of dozens of images that adorn the 2008 building. It was designed and constructed based on traditional orthodox Christian structures of the Byzantine era, with elements from both Russia and Charleston, to be a church of living tradition, according to the church’s priest Father John Parker.

That also includes the traditional iconography and frescos covering its walls. The church was designed with the intention of covering almost every inch of its walls. The latest project now underway is the painting of frescos on the ceiling of the altar’s dome.

Christ Pantokrator, which is a depiction of Christ, will be painted by two iconographers over the next two to three weeks. The diameter of the central dome is more than eight feet. Holy Ascension is part of the Orthodox Church in America, which is aligned with Russian Orthodoxy.

Dmitry Shkolnik, a Russian-born painter who has been living in the U.S. for the last 30 years is one of the premier iconographers in the country. He and Vladimir Grigorenko, a Ukrainian-born iconographer who spent the last two decades devoted to the art, have spent the last few days atop scaffolding of the East Cooper structure applying paint strokes.

The altar at Holy Ascension already consists of a large wooden templon, or barrier, that separates the nave and altar. It is decorated with panels and columns portraying religious figures painted previously by Shkolnik. The apse also portrays an impressive mural that covers the wall from floor to ceiling. It depicts three traditional scenes.

At the top, the Virgin of the Sign, an image from Isaiah 7:14, shows Mary and the baby Jesus in front of her chest, representing him at the moment of his conception in the womb of the Virgin. In the center, the Communion of Apostles pictures Jesus Christ distributing Communion to the 12 Apostles. The bottom portion of the wall shows the six main authors of the ancient liturgical services of the church. All were previously painted by 55-year-old Shkolnik, who has been painting churches and writing iconography since he was 18. He says it’s almost second nature to him.

“It’s important to believe what you are doing,” he said.” “It’s not just a pure art. It’s the way of your belief.”

Securing experienced and highly regarded painters and iconographers such as Shkolnik and Grigorenko was important to Father Parker who says he feels a spiritual connection through the images on the church’s wall that depict Christianity’s major figures.

“It’s a way to remember we are surrounded by the saints. This is heaven on Earth. For the worship service, when we walk in the doors, we’re leaving the world and coming into heaven” he said. “Our adornment speaks to the heart in ways words often can’t.”

It certainly spoke to Oropallo that day she wandered into the church.

“I burst out in tears. I couldn’t contain it,” she said.

Oropallo, who admits she knew little about the Orthodox religion, is now in the process of converting to Orthodox Christianity to join the church and says she feels a deeper connection to Jesus.

And to think this journey all started with a painting on the wall. “It was like a magnet,” she said. “I’m at home here.”