Religious icons are "visual mysteries" and play a sacramental role in the church, according to The Very Rev. Joachim Hatzidakis, dean of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church.

He should know. Two new mosaic tile icons were recently installed at the church, 5335 Highland Drive, and now add to the feeling of worship there.The Rev. Hatzidakis says "neither God nor the Saints need the honor we offer them through icons; but it is only proper for us to do so. We should feel grateful to God and to holy men for their many benefactions to mankind."

Last Sept. 15, parishioners started meeting in the Prophet Elias church hall, while famous Italian mosaic artist Sirio Tonelli worked on "Christ the Pantocrator," the major icon inside the church's main dome, and "Prophet Elias," another mosaic at the main entrance of the church.

Tonelli completed the work a couple of weeks ago. Since then, the scaffolding has been removed, and worshipers can get the full view of the magnificent new icons.

Installing the tesserae (mosaic tiles) was the final step in a long, tedious process for the Italian artist. First, Tonelli came to Salt Lake to take measurements for his creations. He then returned to his studio in Italy to make the icons. After completing them there, he had them cut into several sections, numbered each one, shipped them to Utah, and returned here himself to piece together this giant jigsaw puzzle at church. The final process was to adhere them to dome and wall areas.

Tonelli has done considerable mosaic work in Greek Orthodox churches throughout the United States, and he continues to be in great demand. A careful look at the new mosaics in the Prophet Elias church shows why.

On flat areas, Tonelli uses larger pieces of tesserae. But for faces and small areas, he assembles small pieces to create a subtle gradation of color, which gives the illusion of realism.

His recent project is not the first Tonelli has done in Utah. He was commissioned to create the first mosaics for the church when it was newly built 12 years ago. He did the mosaics for the Icon of Platytera (Virgin Mary) in the apsis (apse) of the church. He also created several dozen smaller mosaics to go on the panels which stand in front of the apsis, and covered the interior of the dome with mosaics.

About a year after the first mosaics were installed, some of the pieces of tesserae in the dome area began to loosen and fall. The problem was attributed to a faulty adhesive, and some areas were redone. But not until this year was all of the old tesserae in the dome was replaced.

The Rev. Hatzidakis said that holy icons serve a number of purposes. "They enhance the beauty of the church; they instruct us in matters pertaining to the Christian faith; they arouse us to imitate the virtues of the holy personages depicted on them; they transform us; and they sanctify us."

He said that icons made with mosaics have been an important part of the Greek Orthodox Church since the fifth century.

The Rev. Hatzidakis has been the dean of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church for about 15 months now, replacing Father Andrew Mahalares.

Born in Greece, he came to the United States at age 26 to study at a theological seminary in Boston. Later, he received his bachelor's and master's degrees there. Currently, he is taking classes at the U. of U. to complete a second master's degree,

Serving with him at the church are two associate pastors, John Kaloudis and George Politis.

The Greek Orthodox Community of Salt Lake City - composed of Prophet Elias and Holy Trinity - serves about 1,000 families.

The Rev. Hatzidakis said he is grateful to be surrounded by such magnificent icons that "lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize; to a higher level of thought and feeling."