ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Prayers in Paint

Preserving an ancient tradition in Bethlehem

In a cave-like basement a short walk from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, nine students huddle over Formica tables, patiently practicing their brushwork.

The bearded face of Christ takes shape in burnt sienna on a dozen sheets of white paper: a dozen variations with a dozen irregular sets of features. Some of the students are established artists, others have little or no artistic training, but this new craft is a challenge for all of them. They work through mistakes and false starts, scowling and sighing in frustration.

The instructor is patient, demonstrating the basics again and again — how to draw a line with a brush, how to mix the paint, how to find a face in a sheet of white. “Move the paper so it’s easier to draw,” he explains. “Work to your strengths, and know your weaknesses — which is a good spiritual principle! Because what you’re doing is learning spiritual life, really — in a very practical way.”

The teacher is Ian Knowles, a British iconographer who has been working in churches and convents in the Holy Land since 2008. As an artist, he creates extraordinary, vivid images. Though hewing fast to traditional styles and techniques, his pieces can feel strikingly modern, alive with spiritual purpose. It is this, as much as brushwork and technique, that he is attempting to pass along to his students.

“The purpose of the icon is prayer,” he says. “What you need as you paint Christ is to be with him, to experience him.”

Slowly, in a few places, the holy countenance begins to come to life on paper.

It is October 2012, and this is the first class of the Bethlehem Icon Center, an initiative to train students from Palestine in the ancient art of iconography. It is a project at once modest and ambitious. The classes are small and the curriculum, highly specific. But by helping students reach a high level of craftsmanship, the center’s founders hope to create something lasting and profound: not just the seed of a local craft industry, but an expression of the Holy Land’s ancient Christian culture and its role in the development of Christian art.

“Empowering local Christians, finding a way for them to rediscover their artistic, religious tradition in a very specific way — that’s exciting,” says the Rev. Timothy Lowe, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America and the rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which is a partner of the center, along with Mr. Knowles.

The first students are an ecumenical bunch; their number includes two Coptic Orthodox nuns, four students from the Greek Orthodox Church, two from the Syriac Orthodox Church and two Latin Catholics. Half of them are women. The project has already drawn significant support from the community — a temporary classroom has been provided by Bethlehem University in the basement of its Brother Vincent Malham Center, just off Manger Square.

The school’s patron is Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Joseph-Jules Zerey.

“I would like, if I were younger, to be a student,” says the archbishop. The school, he says, will help remedy a lack of trained icon writers in one of Christianity’s holiest places. And it may also mitigate one of the area’s other problems — a lack of jobs. “Many young people here, they have no work,” he says, “and many people, they love the icons very much. It’s a service to the city of Bethlehem.”

Two forces shape modern Bethlehem: occupation and tourism. Its geography is defined on the one hand by Israel’s separation wall, which almost entirely encircles the town, and on the other by the movements of the huge tour buses that support the town’s main industry. The main street is dominated by cavernous restaurants, designed to serve large tour groups at carefully scheduled intervals. Alongside these sit equally massive souvenir shops, selling figures carved of olive wood, jewelry and rosaries, postcards and baseball caps and other souvenirs &mash; and, of course, icons.

In shop after shop, the shelves are lined with mass-produced images of religious figures. Some are printed on canvas and mounted on wood, with highlights in gold paint.

Others are just cheap prints pasted on chipboard, sheathed in silver or gold or electroplated tin. Even the lowest quality likeness can be priced at $70 or more — though that can vary wildly.

The buses stop and disgorge their cargo of visitors for half an hour of commerce; there is virtually no walk-in business, and no comparison shopping. Different stores offer similar goods at radically different prices — whatever the market will bear. A few go to extremes: In one shop, tiny chunks of hematite and quartz — the kind children buy in science museums for $2 — are selling for $26.50, and a small string of malachite beads is marked at $500.

There is also a thriving trade in antiques, primarily 19th-century Russian icons painted on wood, which sell for thousands of dollars. Most of them were brought by the waves of Soviet immigrants who came to Israel beginning in the 1970’s. Unable to bring cash out of the Soviet Union, they would store their wealth in these antique icons, says Abu Issa, the antiques expert in one shop situated near the checkpoint marking the end of Bethlehem’s main street.

From his desk, Abu Issa produces the ledger where he records sales. Most of his icons are priced from $3,000 to $5,000 — but they move quickly. Dates are added in red pen next to pieces that have sold; there are dozens from the past month alone. The cheaper, mass-produced icons that line the shelves in the front of the shop move even better, Abu Issa says. The ones in his store come from a factory his family has set up in neighboring Beit Sahour. Other shopkeepers say they import theirs from Greece or Russia.

What is missing in this flourishing market is the middle: hand-crafted pieces made by local artisans. A couple of shops have a few stashed somewhere — created by nuns in one of the area’s many monasteries or by enterprising amateurs. But there is little sense there can really be a market for them. The quality is poor. Most are cartoonish efforts in garish acrylic, or imitation antiques. Shopkeepers specializing in the art of the rip-off try to sell them at aggressively high prices; the honest ones do not even try.

Shopkeepers see little value in local artists’ work, so they generally do not buy it — or if they do, they offer the artist a pittance. Several of the icon school’s students have tried working as iconographers, and have occasionally sold pieces to local shops. They say they may get $200 for a piece that took two or three weeks’ work to produce; the shop will then price it at $1,500 or more. More likely, it will sit unsold. The low prices and infrequent retail sales mean there is little work for artists, or incentive for them to develop their craft.

The economic goal of the Bethlehem Icon Center is to break this cycle.

The center is licensed to teach, but it is not a degree-granting institution. Its three-year program with two eight-week semesters per year is more like a professional training center or group apprenticeship.

Funded by donations, it is virtually free to the students, though most still have to hold other jobs. The classes are intensive weekend seminars, starting with basic skills — geometry, drawing, painting and paint-making. Mr. Knowles puts great emphasis on using only natural materials and pigments in icons, such as wood, hide glue, gold and egg tempera. “Iconography must be an ethical art,” he says, “starting with the materials it uses.”

Later classes include more esoteric subjects like gilding and wall painting. In between sessions, students are expected to practice and hone their skills on their own.

In some ways, the school resembles an ambitious internet start-up. The partners forge ahead, raising money mostly from private donors to keep the classes going for another year, then two. At the moment, they struggle to find a dedicated space for the school. The rooms provided by Bethlehem University have been a blessing. But since October the students have progressed quickly, moving from drawing to painting, and the space is getting too small. In the autumn, the school is planning its first show to display the students’ progress and to raise awareness of the center and its mission.

“There’s a whole spiritual component — engaging people in what’s going on here, and producing something and passing it on, making connections between the masses of pilgrims who come here and the local people,” says Father Lowe. Future visitors to Christ’s birthplace, he hopes, will find more than a mass-produced icon to hang on their wall, but a genuine encounter with the Christian community of Bethlehem.

Clearly, the center’s success will depend on the students’ motivation. For the young men and women in the first class, what drives them is a complex mixture of religious devotion, local pride and commercial aspiration.

“Drawing [was] a hobby for me,” says Linda Nissan, another student. “But I love Jesus, I love the Virgin Mary. I love the saints, the way of their lives. So I would like to paint them.” Nissan has been trying to create icons professionally for five or six years, and has faced the challenges of low prices and few buyers. She sees the center and its program as a way to really develop her skills, and also to get a fair price for her work.

For Mother Maria and Sister Esther of the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of St. Mary in Bethlehem, creating icons is a devotional task. “It’s monastic work. It fits with the monastic life,” Sister Esther says. “When people come to the monastery and want us to make an icon, we want to do something good.”

At the same time, both sisters have also made icons before, and described similar frustrations to Ms. Nissan when trying to sell them in the local market. For them, the class also represents a path to professionalism, a way to develop their work into something that can support their convent. Studying at the center has forced them to go back to basics, to brushwork and anatomy and geometry — but it is a necessity they have embraced.

Many of the students also assist in the administration of the school. The sisters do it by going to Jerusalem, which many of the students do not have the proper papers to visit. There, they can buy brushes and other professional materials that are not available in Bethlehem.

Joudeh Facouseh actually lives in Jerusalem, but travels to Bethlehem on weekends for the class — a long journey that requires passing through several checkpoints. As a child, he says, he was fascinated by the icons in the ancient churches all around him, particularly those in the Church of the Nativity. He could see their beauty through age and use and years of candle smoke. When one of his parish priests told him that, in addition to Greek and Roman icons, there had once been icons made in Palestine, he was hooked.

At 19, Mr. Facouseh is one of the youngest students. He is preparing to begin studying at Hebrew University for a degree in psychology and religion. However, he radiates passion when he describes his hopes that the icon center will develop an iconography that is distinctly Palestinian, build a name and become internationally recognized as a center of the art.

“I’m not looking at this as a hobby,” he says. “Basketball and other sports are hobbies, but not writing the icons. I’m looking to be a professional, and I’m expecting a lot from this school. We’re not doing something that everybody does; and it’s special.”

What he articulates is the combination of spirituality and secular aspiration that drives the students — the desire for a craft, for a career that is rooted in their faith and their homeland. To be a professional iconographer would be to create for himself a new kind of identity as a Palestinian Christian, a selfhood founded in worship and craftsmanship that connects him in a new and special way to his home, his history and his community.

At a ceremony to bless the icons, Archbishop Joseph-Jules delivers a powerful homily about what icons mean to him and his vocation.

“One day, my bishop, the one who made me priest … he was saying how much we have to venerate the icons … because we also find in the icons all the breath, le soufflé, de nos parents et grandparents — our ancestors, who for many years were kissing these icons. So the presence of the icon, in our church and our life, also puts us in real communion with all the saints before us, and also our dear parents who from them received the holy baptism.”

Mr. Knowles, too, waxes rhapsodic when describing how icons continue to fascinate Christians after so many centuries. “It’s a profoundly spiritual art. It’s not a secular art about a spiritual theme; this is actually in some ways an embodiment of Christian culture. … It’s a bit like a relic: You actually touch God, in a way — not because of what it looks like, but because of the thing itself. The whole process by which it’s created and made and fashioned and worked is within a profoundly religious context, so it sort of incarnates it.”

Icons are not things to be worshiped, he emphasizes, but the act of worship itself — prayers in paint.

The origins of Christian icon writing have been obscured both by time and by the deliberate destruction of icons over centuries, as debate raged in the church over whether it was appropriate to portray Christ or the saints at all. (Judaism and Islam, in varying degrees, have adopted a position of “aniconism,” forbidding the representation of divine subjects.)

The style of painting used for icons has ancient roots, influenced by images produced in the Hellenistic and Roman cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. But iconography itself, the distinctly Christian, incarnational art that Mr. Knowles describes, arose and flourished some time during the early Byzantine period, after the Roman Empire embraced Christianity.

Ian Knowles believes the first true icons were more likely created in the monasteries of the Holy Land, which for about 200 years before the Muslim conquest was a center of Byzantine commerce, spirituality, pilgrimage and art.

For his students, the idea that ancient Palestine could have contributed to such a central and enduring element of Christian tradition is a powerful one, which bolsters their sense of belonging and community. At a time when the number of Christians in the Middle East is shrinking, and many Christian communities are feeling increasingly isolated and divided about their heritage, the positive effects of reinvigorating an ancient tradition should not be underestimated.

Of course, no one expects the Bethlehem Icon Center to revolutionize the lives of Middle East Christians. It is a modest initiative, trying to bring a number of spiritual and social benefits to a small and economically struggling town.

“Whatever its impact, it will be slow, and it will just have to grow slowly,” says Tantur’s Father Timothy Lowe. But, he adds, simple projects with modest goals are often the most effective.

“I don’t know how to explain the power of an image, if it’s done correctly, to engage people. That brings with it a whole different kind of spiritual renewal and encounter. And like everything else, you never know what effects it has on people at a given time and place.

“Whatever causes any kind of renewal on a grassroots level, it elevates,” he says. “It will help, it will interact — who knows? — in ways that can’t be recorded. But it has an effect.”

Nicholas Seeley covers events in the Middle East.

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