Windows into heaven

Juneau's Charles Rohrbacher has painted hundreds of icons that hang in churches all over the West Coast

Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2000

Charles Rohrbacher practices an art that puts originality second and self expression third. What comes first is faith. Faithfulness to tradition and faith in God.

Rohrbacher is an iconographer.

"Icons make visible Christ, Mary and the saints, who are invisibly present," Rohrbacher said. "It's theological art, contemplative art."

People pray to icons, he said, but they don't worship the painting.

"The icon provides the image of Mary or Jesus, so you can approach them," he said. "It's like a window into heaven."

Rohrbacher is currently working on a series of more than a dozen panels for St. Nicholas of Ilya Byzantine Catholic Church in Anchorage. The icons will even be displayed somewhat like windows to heaven, high up on the walls.

Rohrbacher's friend Ken Melville said the artist's faith is inseparable from his work.

"That's really what drives the whole thing for him," Melville said. "He's not an artist in the sense that most people think of artists."

Rohrbacher has lived in Juneau almost 20 years, and serves as the education director for the Church of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Paintings, woodcuts and the stained glass windows he's designed can be found at the downtown church, the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and St. Paul's Catholic Church in the Mendenhall Valley. His work is in churches all along the West Coast, from Anaheim, Calif., to Kwethluk, on the Kuskokwin River. He's completed hundreds of pieces for Catholic, Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches. He's also done many private commissions.

"The reason I never exhibit anything is it's always going someplace," he said.


Mother of God: Charles Rohrbacher's painting, "The Conception of Mary," is based on Christian history.

Rohrbacher studied art in college and was already an accomplished artist when he first went to New York in 1980 to study with an Orthodox iconographer. He's also studied iconography with a master in France and a Byzantine Catholic Jesuit, and spent 14 summers teaching icon painting at the Mount Angel Abbey near Salem, Ore.

Icons are not simply religious paintings. They have a distinctive style, developed in the first millennium. It's a style that profoundly influenced Picasso and Matisse in the 20th century, and the heart of the style is presence.

"Everything is bent, literally, to make the icon more present. You can see the top of the head, the side, the profile and the full face, turning everything so it faces the viewer. Presence is maximized," Rohrbacher said. "The distortions are deliberate. It's not that the ancient iconographers didn't understand perspective and foreshortening. They weren't preoccupied with it."

The key figure is always the human being, Rohrbacher said. Icons also have only four subjects: Jesus, Mary, the saints and salvation history.

"The focus is on what's absolutely essential. Everything else is stripped away. If it's in a forest, there's just a tree. A city - just a couple of buildings," Rohrbacher said. Gold leaf is usually used in the painting to signify grace the image of God in us, made bright, he said.

"We wouldn't have icons but for the incarnation of Christ, of God being human," Rohrbacher said. "There was a prohibition in the Old Testament, the Torah, against the image of God. God could not be depicted. There's that struggle in the Hebrew scriptures against idolatry."

That changed, he said, when God took human form as Jesus.

In the Middle Ages, religious painting of Italy and Europe began to influence icon painting. Icons still had their place in churches, but Rohrbacher said iconographers' work became almost indistinguishable from their contemporaries, using three-dimensional, classical three-point perspective.

"I would argue it became less compelling," Rohrbacher said. "There's a sense of presence and power that's missing in the more Renaissance handling."

Over the centuries, soot from candle and incense smoke built up on the icons. By the 19th century, most people thought of icons as dark and gloomy paintings. That changed around the dawn of the 20th century, when churches began cleaning the paintings.

"They discovered they were bright and joyful and vibrant," he said.

That's what Matisse and Picasso found, and they incorporated stylistic elements from iconography into their work, forging the way for a revival.

"There's a tremendous flowering in icon painting in Russia, Greece, North America, Australia and Europe," Rohrbacher said. "I see myself and other icon painters we're little corks bobbing on this big wave."

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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