Sacred art, as was saved from Notre Dame, 'is needed in the world'

Mystic — On Monday afternoon, artist Grace Zazzaro was in her studio at her Mystic home, putting the finishing touches on the icon she was scheduled to bring to King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., later in the week. Zazzaro, who is the art coordinator for the Sacred Art Institute at Enders Island, was creating a 79-by-30-inch painting depicting Father Basil Moreau that eventually would be installed in a chapel at the college.

In the midst of her work, she went on Facebook. That's when she saw a livestream from Paris: Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire.

Her initial reaction, she recalled, was shock.

And, as an icon artist, she understood probably more than most how tragic it would be if the religious art inside Notre Dame were lost to the blaze.

Discussing the power of sacred art, Zazzaro said Thursday, “The subjects that are depicted are revered as holy, and the energy that they contain has been built up through reverence. Not only is the subject matter deep, but the reverence that these images (have received) through the last 5-, 6-, 700 years-plus builds up and creates energy, and the energy translates as holy and sacred. It’s living art.”

She added that, with sacred art, “what happens is the artist’s tendency is to remove their self out of the picture so that they can channel something from (what), for instance, the church would call it the heavens, or the Holy Spirit or the creator, so you become a vessel in creating an image. I think that happens with art in general; it doesn’t necessarily have to be sacred art. When you have an amazing piece of art that moves people, that phenomenon takes place. You become a vessel, a channel, to create beauty.”

Ultimately, most of the artworks and relics inside Notre Dame were saved and are being moved to the Louvre, where, according to French Culture Minister Franck Riester, they will be dehumidified, protected and eventually restored.

Zazzaro admitted she’s heartbroken that she never went inside Notre Dame in Paris; she walked by it when she was visiting the city when she was young, but her interest back then was fashion. In fact, she worked in hair and makeup at a big salon and then an independent contractor in New York City before she moved to Mystic about 25 years ago.

When she started living in Mystic, she said, “I happened upon the Sacred Art Institute and took my first icon workshop there.”

She said that the affinity she felt then for icon art “was unexplainable, honestly. When you have a calling, it is a propensity, you gravitate to it. I feel that it was because there was such depth and meaning in the work itself. ... I wanted to be someone who could make something like that art and then share it with the world.”

Zazzaro studied with a Russian master teacher, Ksenia Pokrovsky, who had fled from Moscow and settled in America. Zazzaro went on to apprentice with Pokrovsky and work with her for nearly seven years.

When someone is an iconographer or sacred artist, Zazzaro said, “You are part of the lineage, you learn from the master. That’s how it works. So you’re master to student, and then that lineage continues.”

She added, “It is truly a wonder. It’s been preserved throughout the centuries, the tradition of sacred art.”

Zazzaro eventually began working as art coordinator for and teaching iconography at the Sacred Art Institute. The institute’s mission is to educate, on a master level, people with an interest in sacred art.

Zazzaro had been raised Catholic and attended church in Queens, N.Y., where she grew up. That church, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was an old-world church: dark, with incense burning and statues everywhere.

“That was a comfort to me as a child, and it resonated with me,” she said.

Seeing people’s reaction to the Notre Dame fire this week resonated with Zazzaro, too.

While listening to the livestream, Zazzaro said she "saw another section of video that was showing young Parisians on their knees, praying the rosary and singing 'Ave Maria' while the chapel was burning."

At the same time, she was working on the Father Moreau icon, which was made with egg tempera and 23-karat Italian gold leaf on a wooden board, as was the other icon she did for King's College, of Our Lady of Sorrows.

“I knew all along that Father Moreau had a message for me," she said. "When I write icons — it’s called icon writing — usually what will happen is I will get a message of some sort from the saint. There will be some kind of message revealed to me, and it doesn’t always happen easily.”

She found herself inspired to look back at a book she had about Moreau's life. In the book, she said, he spoke about unity, and she believed his message to her was a quote from the book: “Together, we’re not alone.”

Even through a disaster, she said, “There is a promise of a renewal, and to me, it was very obvious the importance of sacred art to people. The reaction and the response to the cathedral burning was profoundly impactful, and my realization was that sacred art is needed in the world.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

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