Passing On an Ancient Art

In the Summer edition of ONE, writer Nicholas Seeley reports on one man’s efforts to pass on the art of icon writing.

In the Summer edition of ONE, writer Nicholas Seeley reports on one man’s efforts to pass on the art of icon writing. Here, the author describes for us how he first got to know the man behind that project.

I first met Ian Knowles in 2010, in Jordan. I was working on a story for this magazine about how the kingdom was trying to capture a bigger slice of the fast-growing faith tourism market. One of the lesser-known pilgrimage sites I visited was the Shrine of Our Lady of the Mountain, in the northern town of Anjara. It was one of five spots in Jordan the Vatican had highlighted as important destinations for pilgrims, but it was far from a tourist trap: a tiny church and convent in a tiny town, struggling to make ends meet and to provide services to a community facing growing economic hardship.

But in the nave of the Anjara church hung a pair of extraordinary wooden panels — giant triptychs painted with scenes from the life of Christ. They caught my attention immediately. There was a vibrancy, a sense of intention and inner light to the stylized figures that smashed through the musty vision of iconography I had taken away from art history classes. Though the work was very traditional, these pieces felt new, alive with message. And, while I knew that the tradition of icon creation was most associated with Greece and Russia, these pieces felt powerfully Middle Eastern — from the choice of colors and tones, to the names in Arabic script, to the many tiny references to the sacred geometry that is the center of Islamic art.

As it happened, in the church that day there was also a man up a ladder, busily putting the first shades of burnt sienna on the figure of the transfigured Christ that would become the center of the third panel. I stayed to take some pictures and to ask him about the church, and we fell to talking for some hours about tourism, history, and icons. And that’s how I met Ian Knowles.

I learned that it was his third trip to Anjara; he had been coming since 2009, staying for two or three months at a stretch to work on the panels. Though most of his work as a professional iconographer was in England, he had spent much of his time over the past two years in the Middle East, teaching and volunteering: painting new pieces for churches here, or restoring old ones. In the creation of icons, he found a way to offer something spiritual to Christian communities faced with an increasingly difficult social and economic situation.

He described how visiting the region had reinvigorated his art, and nurtured his growing interest in the Byzantine period, and the origins of iconography. “I go back to the Byzantine period in the Middle East for a lot of my inspiration, because that’s when it was a truly Arab culture, but also a truly Christian culture; and rooted here; and of universal significance,” he said. “You wander around Beit Jala or Mar Elias, and you suddenly come across some fantastic Byzantine ruins. And they’re everywhere!”

And, of course, he mentioned his most ambitious idea: he was running a course in creating icons in Bethlehem, and he had the dream of starting a non-profit, a school where talented young Palestinian artists could come and learn the craft.

As he spoke about the essence of icon writing, I began to understand what was so powerful about his work. The icon is an object in which faith and prayer are made manifest, a physical expression of the religious context. Years on from that conversation in Anjara, it is truly exciting to see Ian Knowles’ dream of an icon school becoming a reality, and to have the opportunity to watch him pass along his remarkable gifts.

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