Given the Greek origin of the word "icon," it is no wonder that the iconography of Greek Orthodox Christianity is omnipresent, highly expressive, and emblematic of that religious tradition. Many of the accoutrements of worship -- thrones, tables, pulpits, chanters' pews, and a host of smaller items -- are imbued with images and ornaments designed to lift the spirit. Perhaps the grandest of church icons is the iconostasion, the often ornately carved wooden screen that separates the altar from the nave, underscoring the mystery and unknowable qualities of the Divine. The size of these screens may range from 8 to 13 feet high and 32 to 56 feet long. Most prized are the hand-carved items crafted by one of the world's dozen-or-so remaining icon carvers.
Konstantinos Pilarinos was born in 1940 in the Greek province of Nafpaktos. Orphaned at 13, he was sent to Zannion Orphanage in Piraeus where at age 15 he was apprenticed to master woodcarvers George Kaloudis and Nick Apitsakis. At age 16, he won the orphanage woodcarving competition, and at 18, he established his own woodcarving shop. In 1974, he came to New York City, where he continued his woodcarving work, enjoying the appreciation of his art by American devotees. "I like people to see my work," he said. "I enjoy contributing to the Greek community so that they can see what they have left behind. You don't find this here. Even in Greece this is something special." Folklorist Ilana Harlow of the Queens Council on the Arts describes his role as craftsman and artist: "Mr. Pilarinos is both a master of his craft and a great artist. He is faithful to the Byzantine style of carving, which dates back to the fourth century, but his execution of traditional forms is also expressive of his own style and creative spirit. His art is extraordinarily beautiful." At his workshop, the Byzantion Woodworking Company in Astoria, Queens, he and his apprentices continue to spread knowledge and appreciation of his devotional art throughout North America.
Pilarinos's work is seen in both churches and museums. Churches in New York, California, Michigan, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Arkansas, Canada, and elsewhere have his carvings. He has crafted over sixty iconostasia, including a 56-foot-long piece that is among the largest in the Americas. His works have been shown in the exhibit Out of the Ordinary: Community Tastes and Values in Contemporary Folk Art that toured throughout New York State, including the New York State Museum and the Museum of American Folk Art. He was awarded the Archdiocesan Medal of St. Paul in recognition of his work in America and a New York Landmarks Conservancy Award for his restoration work. Dr. Robert Baron of the New York State Council on the Arts wrote: "He merits a National Heritage Award in recognition of his extraordinary artistry and remarkable dedication to his craft and community."