Dalia Hatuqa

Centuries-old art tradition resurrected in Holy Land

Bethlehem institute trains Palestinian Christians to produce fine religious iconography, not mass-produced souvenirs

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — In an old stone home on Star Street — believed to be the route taken by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem — a small group of students are practicing to draw and paint an icon of the face of Christ, also known as a mandylion.

The young amateur artists — four women and a man — work diligently, tracing figures on their easels. First comes a large oval, with a line bisecting it, then some shading depicting a swath of hair, but it is only when the eyes begin to take shape that the face becomes familiar.

Ian Knowles, a 52-year-old British iconographer, does restoration work on churches in the Holy Land and Jordan. He founded the first institute in the Palestinian territories to train young artists to produce high-quality iconography.
Dalia Hatuqa

The Bethlehem Icon Center, the brainchild of Ian Knowles, a 52-year-old British iconographer, is the first institute of its kind in the Palestinian territories to offer intricate knowledge of this ancient craft. 

The center has come a long way from its humble beginnings. What started out as a class at a space provided by Bethlehem University soon became a multiroom institute that would help bring the centuries-old tradition back to the Holy Land, specifically to where it is believed that Jesus was born.

“It’s a living place where a sacred, liturgical art that belongs to Christianity is being made,” said Knowles, the center’s director. “The students who are here today are training to be professionals, to produce work of the very highest quality.”

Knowles first went to the Holy Land in 1999 as a pilgrim and returned in 2008 when a friend from Beit Jala, a Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem, wanted some restoration work done for his congregation’s church. Knowles has been in the region ever since, working with churches in the Holy Land and in neighboring Jordan.

His vision to train Palestinians in the ancient Christian art was realized when a local businessman, an art aficionado and supporter of the center's work, offered him a space on Star Street free of charge for 12 years. A local organization that preserves cultural heritage refurbished the building housing the center.

Before the intifada of 2000, Star Street, which leads to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, was a magnet for pilgrims and tourists. The area was deserted when a large-scale Israeli invasion of the West Bank began in 2002, but with a more stable political atmosphere and after Pope Francis’ visit to Bethlehem in May, visitors have been trickling back.

Knowles is hoping these factors will help bring people to the center for exhibitions and lectures about iconography. He also wants tourists and pilgrims to interact with Palestinians who produce the icons.

“This is very much a resource to help people [tap] into the real Bethlehem, the real Palestine that’s been here for 2,000 years,” he said. “Here is a place where one can learn and see how icons are being made, can ask questions and interact with the people doing it. And it creates a relationship between the pilgrims and the people who live here.”

We want to push the standing of iconography in the Holy Land to the very highest level so this becomes a world center for [the art].

Ian Knowles

director, Bethlehem Icon Center

Knowles does not intend for his students’ work to be sold in shops or souvenir stores. He says the market is already saturated. Instead their pieces will be commissioned, marketed online and at the center or sold through word of mouth. The latest acquisition was made by a chapel in Birmingham, England.

“Most people think it’s about selling icons, about business, which is the antithesis of what we’re about,” he said. “We’re about the spiritual patrimony of the Holy Land ... We want to push the standing of iconography in the Holy Land to the very highest level so this becomes a world center for [the art].”

A Palestinian student at the Bethlehem Icon Center practices drawing and painting an icon of the face of Christ, also known as a mandylion.
Dalia Hatuqa

At the center, a flight of stairs carved in stone winds up to a courtyard where an icon of Mary holding the baby Jesus welcomes visitors. It is at this spot that Knowles and the students pray before class. To the side is a fresco of St. George, England’s patron saint, also revered by Palestinians as a local hero who bravely stood up for Christians in the Holy Land.

The courtyard gives way to a lecture hall with a vaulted ceiling where drawing classes and talks are held and an exhibition room that is being set up much like an art gallery to show the students’ work. A ramp leads to the workshop area, which is tucked away so students are not distracted by visitors.

Inside, several work stations are set up, and on display are iconography books and raw materials, such as gold and egg tempera, wood saw, gesso powder and rabbit skin glue, some of which are used to make the boards to paint on.

Only nonsynthetic materials are used for the icons, and the natural pigments are made in-house. A yellow emulsion, for example, is made using eggs, vodka and water. “We get rid of the egg white, extract the yolk and place it in a small container,” said Samar Sabat, 27, a student. “The mixture ensures it’s glowy and allows the pigment to catch onto the surface.” Rocks from around Bethlehem are ground to produce different colors, in what Knowles calls an “ecological, holistic process.”

Students undertake the three-year program through weekend seminars and can hone their skills throughout the week. For Vinny Talamas, an English teacher hailing from Belize, this was an opportunity to explore his Palestinian Christian heritage and to dabble with the art.

“The first thing we learn is ... to retrain our eyes to see nature, humans, through anatomy and theology lessons,” said Talamas, 27. “As you delve deeper into the subject, you realize that Bethlehem is the natural and theologically perfect setting for the rise of iconography and for its continuing existence.”

Over the years, Bethlehem has become encircled by Israel’s separation wall and a series of military checkpoints and roadblocks, affecting all facets of life there, including tourism to the revered city. Visitors are often taken on buses from Jerusalem and spend a few hours in Bethlehem visiting the Church of the Nativity and buying souvenirs. Shops mostly offer olive wood and mother-of-pearl knickknacks, rosaries and, of course, icons. 

But those are divided into several categories, said Asem Barakat, a Bethlehem souvenir shop owner: mass-produced ones imported from places like Russia or Greece or made in West Bank factories. The locally handmade pieces are few and far between or are generally of bad quality because artisans often don't have the means to use high-end materials.

“So you end up with mediocre stuff, which is sold simply to make a bit of money,” Knowles said. “And it feeds into this whole corrosive attitude that Bethlehem is just about making money from tourists.”

Local iconographers are shying away from the disappearing industry because of the low pay and the shop owners’ inability to sell the handcrafted pieces. Knowles cited a former student who said she was paid $150 for a John the Baptist icon she worked on for three weeks. Barakat said similar icons sell for about 10 times as much.

“How can that be just?” Knowles asked. “This is sacred art. This is Bethlehem. There’s a spiritual imperative to not act in this way. That’s why it’s important I give my students some protection from exploitation.”

With unemployment in Bethlehem as high as 25 percent, the center aims to support a local craft industry in one of Christianity’s holiest sites and to highlight the Holy Land’s role in developing this art, which has roots in the Byzantine era. Knowles believes that icon drawing flourished in Holy Land monasteries.

“Because iconography is the foundation for all of what we know as Western art from the Middle Ages through to the modern era, this would be something that Palestinians should know about and celebrate,” he said.

He has laid out an eight-year work plan; the center, run by a nonprofit company with a Palestinian board of directors and catering to Palestinian students, must eventually be run by a local, he said.

“Palestinian Christians are a peaceful people, yet they’re struggling against continual violation, violence, injustice,” Knowles stressed. “And it’s very difficult for people to believe in what’s beautiful. And we’re trying to make a beautiful world here. Even if it’s just a little oasis.”

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