Feb. 6, 2001
'Hour of truth' brews for reverend
By TARA DOOLEY
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle Religion Writer
A moment of truth is not hard to come by in a beer hall, especially when staring at the bottom of an empty glass.
The Rev. Andrey Davydov encountered an "hour of truth" this weekend -- in a brewery.
For the Russian Orthodox priest and icon painter from Pskov, this truth did not involve sloppy declarations of love or slurred commitments to self improvement.
No, the hour of truth he encountered has been shared by centuries of fresco painters. It is the time when the artist faces wet plaster and knows he must cover it with color before it dries. For the icon painter, it is the time of connection between artist and saint taking shape from the tip of his brush.
"There is a moment when ... you are not working on the fresco, the fresco is working on you," Davydov said.
At Saint Arnold Brewing Co. this weekend, the hour of truth was closer to 19 hours as Davydov and his son Philip -- Orthodox priests can marry -- labored on the wet plaster of a 7-foot fresco of Arnold, said to be the patron saint of brewers. In total, the project took about 50 hours to complete and took him from his wife and the rest of his family who stayed behind in Pskov.
Any story that starts with a priest in a brewery sounds like a well-worn joke. But the tale of how Davydov -- artist and Orthodox priest from Russia -- arrived at an industrial strip center brewery involves fate, family, tradition and two men's
passions -- one for the spiritual and the other for spirits with a higher alcohol content.
Its outcome confounds even Saint Arnold's founder and brewer Brock Wagner.
"That he would agree to come all this way, you could say I'm a little blessed by it," said Wagner, who calls himself spiritual but not an adherent of organized religion.
Brock primarily owes this "little blessing" to the alignment of fate, family and the lure of Houston.
Since founding his business in 1994, Wagner longed for an icon painting of Arnold, the namesake of the company he considers not just a business but a passion. He was spurred to action by a New York Times story last year about Davydov's work on the fading and destroyed icons at his home church, John the Baptist Nativity Cathedral in Pskov.
"I've always wanted to have an icon," Wagner said. "It brings good luck to the brewery; it is a blessing on the product; ... it brings good karma, to mix religions."
So Wagner e-mailed Davydov at the address printed in the paper.
He was not the only one.
Hundreds of messages from the United States flooded Davydov's e-mail account in response to the story, his son said. Each contained a request for an icon painting.
"I didn't have time," Andrey Davydov said in an interview translated by his niece Nina Altaev. "But all of a sudden I noticed that one letter among them said, `Houston,' and I thought, maybe, it was fate."
Fate was a chance for Davydov to visit his sister, Elena Davydova, who lives just outside Houston in the Clear Lake area.
"He looked up to me as if I was his spiritual guide," Davydova said, translating her brother's words and quickly pointing out that as a child she had no idea of her effect.
Elena Davydova and her husband, Alex Altaev, both work for a company that provides translation and interpretation services to NASA. Davydova teaches Russian to American astronauts, and Altaev translates and interprets for shuttle missions from the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control.
"Father Andrey is trying to bring people closer to heaven, and I'm trying to make people feel comfortable in the heavens," Alex Altaev quipped.
The brother and sister had not seen each other for at least five years, since Elena visited Moscow to see her family and continue her Ph.D. dissertation research.
The priest had not seen Altaev and the couple's 26-year-old daughter, Nina, since the family left Russia 11 years ago. He had never met his grandniece Alisa.
"It is a happy reunion," Davydov said.
A family visit may have been the initial motivation for the trip from Russia to Houston, but it was not the only reason to take the assignment. Tradition and passion also brought the businessman and priest together.
For Davydov, the idea of working with the committed owner of a microbrewery was appealing. The collaboration represented the meeting of two ancient traditions: beer brewing and the art of fresco and icon painting.
These were traditions that had met before in the monastery breweries of Europe, where a seventh-century French bishop eventually became Saint Arnold.
"As a priest, I think it is very natural and normal and kind if a person, before starting anything, calls on God and asks for a decision to take the brewery job.
"By the way, the beer is great," he added.
The tradition of icon painting reaches back to the early centuries of the Christian church. It caused great struggles within the Byzantine church in the eighth century but remained an important part of the Eastern Orthodox church after it split with the Western church in the 11th century, said the Rev. Janusz
Ihnatowicz, retired professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas.
In the Orthodox church, icons are religious depictions -- usually of Mary, Jesus or the saints -- executed according to rules set by the church, said Ihnatowicz, who taught classes on sacred art. In the Eastern church, an icon is not simply a painting created for its beauty or inspirational qualities, he said. Instead, an icon connects the believer directly with the saint it depicts.
"It is a window onto the heavenly world," Ihnatowicz said.
Typically, these icons are painted on wood and placed in churches or homes.
"It is very unusual for an icon painter to do something like this," Janusz said of the Saint Arnold project.
In his work, Davydov paints with techniques nearly unchanged since the Middle Ages. Even the color is not synthetic, but often derived from rocks and minerals such as lapis and gold.
"It is not because we are some kind of snobs and we need what they had in the Middle Ages," Davydov said. "The result cannot be reached with any other technique."
Though time-consuming and tiring, the work is ultimately a spiritual pursuit, the 44-year-old priest said. Trained as a painter, Davydov was eventually drawn to icon painting, and it was that artwork that drew him to the priesthood, he said.
"It is a very interesting and exciting process, which brings you closer to what you believe in, because when you paint an icon it is like you are praying," Davydov said.
In Pskov, he combines his artistic and spiritual callings as he renovates a 12th-century church that had been used by the Soviets as a secret police garage. He pays for much of the work with commissions from around the world.
In addition to his duties as a priest celebrating the Orthodox liturgy, he creates icons for the church and has set up a school to teach the methods.
For 36-year-old Wagner, brewing is also a calling.
"I look at our beer as being an art," said Wagner, who left a career as an investment banker to start the microbrewery. "When it is a passion, the beer has soul."
Adding the icons to oversee the soul of the beer is not paid for by passion alone.
Wagner paid $1,200 for the icon painting of Saint Arnold and $4,000 for the fresco, a price that included air fare and materials.
But it has already brought luck to the brewery.
Since the first of two icon paintings of Saint Arnold arrived at the brewery last month, January profits jumped by 38 percent from the same month last year,
Was it the spiritual connection to Saint Arnold?
"I don't know," Brock admits. "I got it, and our sales went up. Who am I to say it was or it wasn't?"