Learning from icons

During a recent lesson, Ian Knowles, director and tutor at the Bethlehem Icon Centre, held open a textbook and, pointing with his finger, very enthusiastically described the scene depicted in a Russian medieval icon of the Presentation of Mary at the Temple.

The theme is a common one and can be found in most Orthodox iconography, notes Knowles, a native of Britain who founded the school five years ago after traveling to the Holy Land to help with restoration work on icons in the Beit Jala St. Nicholas Church, built above the cave where tradition holds that St. Nicholas spent part of his life.

“There are multiple perspectives,” said Knowles, 54, who is Catholic. “Mary is present twice. She is being fed and is at the top of the tower. You don’t want to draw a tower that looks like a tower but a representation of Mary saying she was there. The icon has to be brutally honest and not create the illusion of space. It is a piece of paint and wood.”

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Left, Madlen Manneh, 43, from Jerusalem, attends class in the Bethlehem Icon Centre, in Bethlehem, West Bank, February 14, 2017.. PHOTO: DEBBIE HILL

Knowles’ students — three local middle-aged Palestinian women and a French nun, who are part of the Icon Centre’s diploma track — sat in a wide semicircle around his desk, hunched earnestly behind drafting tables, books splayed open and covered with tracing paper and rulers as they measured out distances and angles.

These are theological images, Knowles told the women, not historical images. Because with God everything is eternally present, there is no beginning and there is no end. Instead, it is all in “the now.”

“An icon should be light-filled, not reflected light,” he said.

Rosette Qaabar, 60, among the first students at the school, said she chose to continue with the diploma track since all her five children live abroad, and she has time on her hands.

“When I was young I always went to church and loved the icons. It is something you feel, they are special. They make your faith stronger,” said Qaabar, who is Greek Orthodox. “You feel God’s love.”

The school’s start

Though there are some Christian Palestinians who make icons in the modern Greek Orthodox style for the souvenir shops, they have never been formally trained. As a result, every time Knowles came to the Bethlehem area and people saw his work, they asked for lessons.

Those lessons eventually evolved into the Bethlehem Icon Centre, which today is the only school of iconography in the Middle East, where the Christian art form is believed to have originated. Tradition holds that the first icon of Mary and Jesus was drawn by St. Luke.

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Ian Knowles, Director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre, ( He will become the principal of the school on April 1) works on a drawing in the studio at the centre, in Bethlehem, West Bank, February 14, 2017. PHOTO: DEBBIE HILL

Though the majority of the 30 students now studying in various tracks at the school are women, when the center opened its doors in 2012 — in what, most fittingly, was an old stable — most of its seven students were men, Knowles said.

Today the Bethlehem Icon Centre is located in a renovated building owned by a Christian Palestinian living abroad who is allowing the school to use it rent-free.

Knowles discovered his own passion for iconography when he visited Greece as an 18-year-old and came into contact with icons in a small Greek Orthodox chapel. He later went on to study theology at Oxford University and, in his mid-40’s, began an apprenticeship to perfect his skills in iconography.

Now he has set a 10-year time schedule for the development of the school. Following his original goal, he plans to eventually turn its management over to his students so it can be locally maintained, providing employment for Palestinian Christians.

It has not been easy putting the necessary procedures into place conforming to various Palestinian Authority regulations as a nonprofit organization, Knowles said, especially one which until now has allowed them to use their bank account only for withdrawls but no deposits. Being a non-Arabic speaker makes it even harder, but Knowles remains jovial and positive despite the bureaucratic challenges.

On April 1, he will step down as director, taking on the title of principal and handing over the reins of the directorship of the school to former student Nicola Juha.

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Nicola Juha, who will become director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre on April 1, works on an icon, on Feb. 14. Photos by Debbie Hill

This is our story

“It is appropriate that we are reviving the art of iconography here,” said Juha, 28, who was among the first students to study at the school while also training as a lawyer. “Everything started from here in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem.

“The icons are our identity of our work as Christian Palestinians,” he added. “Everything happened here, and I, as a Palestinian Christian, am telling that story of what happened here 2,000 years ago. Our work is not commercial, it is spiritual. We don’t paint and put it on shelves.”

Their work also is ecumenical, and commissions have come in from different denominations. Recently three students went to England to the Anglican Lichfield Cathedral to install a 9-foot-tall icon of the Annunciation, which they created together with Knowles. The students incorporated their own identity as Palestinian Christians into the icon, so while the icon of the Virgin Mary is depicted wearing Anglo-Saxon style clothing, the carpet on which she stands is embellished with traditional Palestinian patterns, and her eyes are painted in Palestinian style.

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Juha details an icon at the Bethlehem Icon Centre, in Bethlehem, West Bank.

“This is spiritual art. It talks about my God, my belief,” said Juha. “When I went to England, I felt like I was telling them, ‘This our story.’ It is sad we lost the art for a period. Now we are bringing it back. What really makes me happy is that all the churches are adopting the icon. When the Church was one they all used the icon.”

The school currently has 12 commissions, and, at the end of February, Knowles was in Rome with another icon that was blessed by the pope during an ecumenical service in the first papal visit to an ordinary Anglican community.

“Making an icon which ends up being the central liturgical event with the Holy Father in Rome is really a validation that this is our charism within the life of the Church,” said Knowles.

Proceeds from the commissions are divided, with 20 percent allotted for the center and 80 percent allotted for the students, following Knowles’ plan of making the school also a source of income for local Christians.

Different tracks at the school include a weeklong class for international students, an evening class for students and the yearlong diploma class, which follows the British diploma curriculum of The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.

A prayerful place

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An Icon in the courtyard of the Bethlehem Icon Centre, in Bethlehem, West Bank, February 14, 2017. PHOTO: DEBBIE HILL

The St. Luke tradition notwithstanding, said Knowles, historically, iconography can be traced to the region in the sixth-century Byzantine era, when the territory that is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories was an international cosmopolitan area, including Byzantine Christians who had come to the Holy Land to touch the places where Jesus walked and venerate early relics of the young Church, who lived side-by-side with Samaritans, Jews, pagans and Arabs, he said.

It was these early Christians who developed Christian culture as liturgy and as a public act, he said.

“It is highly probable that what we understand as the iconography style emerged here in a sixth-century monastery, maybe in St. Catherine in the Sinai,” says Knowles. “Half of the icons that continue to exist from before the ninth century exist in that monastery.”

At noon, the centre pauses its lessons and Sister Esther, originally from France and a member of the Community of the Beatitudes outside of Jerusalem, prepares candles and leads the class in the Angelus prayer. They started their day with morning prayers in the Greek Orthodox tradition.

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Sister Esther from the Community of the Beatitudes lights the lamp in front of icons in the classroom of the Bethlehem Icon Centre in Bethlehem, West Bank, February 14, 2017.. PHOTO: DEBBIE HILL

“In my community we love icons,” she said. “In France people are not used to venerating icons. Because in the Holy Land Jesus was here incarnate ... so we can represent him in icons painted from the heart of our religion. It is beautiful.”

In front of them in a niche in the wall is the Our Lady of the Holy Land icon designed by Knowles with Mary and Jerusalem in the center, the Carmel mountains and Mt. Nebo on either side, and the Mediterranean Sea underneath.

In her hand, Mary is holding an almond-shaped mandorla — an area of light usually surrounding a figure in religious art which is a sign of the divine light and glory of God — and within it is an image of the new Jerusalem and the Christ child.

“This is a prayerful place,” said Knowles. “Prayer is important when you are looking at the face of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.