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THE MAGIC OF MOSAICS: ITALIAN BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO DYING ART FORM

Published: Sunday, Sept. 1 1991 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sirio Tonelli was born a millenium too late. He should have lived during the Byzantine Empire, when mosaics were the major decorative art form.

But today, there are many people who are thankful Tonelli wasn't born until the 20th century. He has created mosaics for the local Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church and about 100 other churches throughout the United States and Canada.No need to visit Ravenna, Italy, or Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Tonelli has brought Byzantine mosaics to us.

On four occasions over the past 20 years, Tonelli has traveled to Salt Lake City to install his mosaics. In 1971, he created a number of icons for the iconostasis, a screen separating the chancel (sanctuary) from the space open to the laity; he decorated the apse (the semicircular area behind the sanctuary) with large images of the Mother of God and the Christ Child as well as smaller scenes of the Birth of Christ and the Annunciation; he also installed a large mosaic of the Prophet Elias above the second set of wooden doors at the entrance.

During his second stay in 1976, Tonelli was faced with the difficult task of creating a huge portrait of Christ the Pantocrator (Ruler of the Universe) inside the dome. He patiently glued tesserae (pieces of colored glass) to this huge area until the mosaic was completed.

However, in 1988, a few of the pieces became loose and fell. Concerned, Tonelli returned to Salt Lake City. "After carefully studying the work, I felt I should remove all the mosaic pieces in the dome and start over."

Scraping off the old tesserae and replacing them with new ones was both time-consuming and painstaking. But upon completing the project, Tonelli said, "I was very satisfied with the way it turned out. Study the eyes! Notice how they look at you no matter where you are in thenave."

On June 1 of this year, Tonelli and his two helpers returned again. This time they had planned to add even more mosaics to the interior of the church before its consecration on July 21 by Archbishop Iakovos, Primate of the Greek Orthodox churches of North and South America.

It was a challenge to complete all of them before the deadline, but when I interviewed him three weeks before the consecration, Tonelli said, "We're on schedule." Of course, staying on schedule required the three men to work 14 hours a day, six days a week.

Tonelli briefly explained the mosaic process. First, he draws the design in reverse on heavy paper. He then glues the tesserae onto the paper with wheat paste. He then turns the design over and draws lines across the paper's surface; these lines serve as registration marks. He then cuts the design into sections and numbers each one. All of these steps are done in his studio.

When he arrives at the site, he covers the wall with an epoxy that is compatible with both the wall and the tesserae, glues each tesserae section to the wall and fills in the spaces between with concrete.

During his most recent visit, Tonelli added a pulpit and two proskinatarios (veneration stands); a beautiful mosaic in the the narthex of Christ beckoning the little children to come unto him; the angels Gabriel and Michael on the glass doors at the entrance of the nave; and an eagle and two fish images in the floor of the solea.

The crew also created six large mosaics along the north wall of the nave.

The Very Rev. Joachim Hatzidakis, pastor of Prophet Elias, explained how these Old Testament stories tie in with the New Testament stories recorded in stained glass on the opposite wall: Hannah praying in the temple and the An-nunciation; the vision of Isaiah and the birth of Christ; the parting of the Red Sea and the baptism of Christ; the sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Christ; Jonah and the whale and the Resurrection of Christ; and the hospitality of Abraham and the Pentecost.

He pointed out that these icons are not created for decoration alone. Their primary function is to teach the people.

The Rev. Hatzidakis said that mosaic artists must be familiar with symbolism and the placement of images. For example, Christ is always to the right of Mary, and John the Baptist to the right of Christ.

"That's one reason we never ask for a second bid on our mosaic work," the Rev. Hatzidakis said. "We might get an artist who's not familiar with the church's dogma. Instead, we contact Tonelli, because he's extremely knowledgeable about this."

Although the church has now been consecrated, that doesn't mean Tonelli's work has ended. He has partly completed a new altar. And plans are under way for a baptismal font, a large mosaic in the choir area of Christ entering Jerusalem, sculptured bronze doors to replace the wooden outside doors, and two mosaics in the niches on either side of the main entrance.

Born in Italy, Tonelli began his ecclesiastical artwork when only a teenager. He attended art schools in Florence, Milan and Rome. In 1949, he was granted a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago.

His popularity began when he won an art contest in 1953 - but not for a mosaic. The award was for an oil painting of the head of Christ. Since that time, more than 300,000 reproductions of this work have been sold. Tonelli is also an expert in working with marble and bronze.

In 1956, Tonelli was honored by the Vatican as a Knight of Columbus and presented the Maltese Cross. Later, he was made an Archon by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the only person since the 13th century to hold both titles.

Now a U.S. citizen, Tonelli lives in Chicago. Recently, he was appointed as adjunct professor of arts at Georgia State University.

The Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church is located at 5335 S. Highland Drive. Church services are held every Sunday at 10 a.m. Anyone interested in viewing the mosaics is invited to attend the service or stop by immediately after the service at 11:30 a.m.

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