Bethlehem Icon Center keeps alive an ancient artistic tradition

Ian Knowles started the Bethlehem Icon Centre in 2010. Photo/Religion Unplugged

By Gil Zohar

Religion Unplugged

Tourists and pilgrims despairing about finding a genuine souvenir of their visit to the Holy Land that wasn’t mass-manufactured in China, India, Turkey or Egypt might wish to consider visiting the Bethlehem Icon Center — perhaps the only school in the Middle East that teaches the ancient Christian tradition of iconography.

Established by Ian Knowles in 2010 to encourage Palestinian Christians to stay and pray in Bethlehem and the adjoining cities of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, the not-for-profit atelier trains locals from the birthplace of Jesus to become professional artists specializing in the arcane field of painting Christian holy theme images.

To date, Knowles, 53, has accepted 18 trainees, 10 of whom are currently being trained. Two of those students are enrolled in a new diploma program offered in association with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. Tuition is free. Knowles guarantees graduates a job at his workshop.

Born in Cheltenham, England, Knowles is passionate about his oeuvre. “It’s sacred art,” he says matter-of-factly. “It needs to be done in a spiritual way.”

Uncompromising, he insists that his students achieve an international standard. Unlike copyists who churn out faux icons one can find in Jerusalem’s Old City and other tourist venues, students at the Bethlehem Icon Center learn to design and execute original works of art.

Classes — which are technical, theological and spiritual — are deliberately kept small so that each student gets individual training to build up their skill base and encourage their creativity. The curriculum includes anatomy, drawing techniques, sacred geometry and design, calligraphy, and the faces of men and women, as well as Jesus’ visage. Students progress from pencil sketches to monochrome studies in egg tempera.

“Icons are liturgical art,” Knowles explains of the art form shared by mainstream Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, as well as smaller Middle Eastern denominations like the Copts and Melkites. (Five centuries ago the Protestant Reformation rejected icons as idolatrous graven images.)

“Icons are art designed for space where Christians pray publicly. They make visibly present that which is invisible. It’s a way of praying with your eyes. When you put an icon in your living room, it’s like putting a little bit of a church in your home.”

Icons contain a code or symbolic language, he continues. For example, shadows are always depicted as a way of suggesting interior and divine illumination. “The light is coming from within,” he says.

Similarly, an icon must contain text, often written in Greek from the New Testament and sometimes inscribed in abbreviation. “Otherwise it’s just a devotional painting,” he adds.

The icon school is located in the picturesque Khosh Abu Jarour. The derelict 19th century courtyard on historic Star Street in Bethlehem’s Old City was restored in 2014 by Bethlehem’s Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation, with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

What about politics?

Knowles aspires to keep the Bethlehem Icon Center apolitical but can’t avoid the difficult position of the West Bank’s tiny Christian community caught between warring Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.

“One of the key things for the school is to be a place of normality with a sense of hope and trust,” he opines. “It’s very bizarre here with the wall and the occupation that has gone on for so long. And that has a corrosive effect on people’s spirituality.”

Currently, Knowles is working on a 2-meter-wide (6.5 feet) semicircular icon for the local Melkite parish. Before he can begin painting, he applies 12 layers of gesso — a white paint mixture — on a plywood board. He only uses traditional paints and materials, including a vivid blue made from lapis lazuli, and gold leaf. Commissions begin at 2,500 Israeli new shekels ($700).

Knowles studied under Aiden Hart, who now teaches iconography at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. The institution, established by Britain’s Prince (now King) Charles to encourage age-old craftsmanship, recently finalized a partnership agreement with the Bethlehem Icon Center.

Knowles attributes his work to being in the spirit of the earliest icon art which was created at the Santa Katarina monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. His icons, which are always left unsigned, reflect the influence of the Russian icon master Archimandrite Zenon, he adds.

The school’s work continues from the last of Jerusalem’s traditional icon painters, Khalil al-Halabi (1889-1964), who turned from religious art to secular painting, becoming one of the founders of Palestinian modern art.

Over the centuries icon painting has moved between naturalistic and abstract. The latter is currently in vogue among Greek iconographers. As well, throughout Christian historian there have been several iconoclastic movements that deliberately defaced religious art as sacrilegious.

“We’re continuing the traditions of the Holy Land,” Knowles says with a smile. “Here we are building something of hope, rooted in the revelation of God’s love, in a region where hope is something in very short supply.”

Gil Zohar was born in Toronto and moved to Jerusalem in 1982. He writes for The Jerusalem Post, Segula magazine, and other publications. He’s also a professional tour guide who likes to weave together the Holy Land’s multiple narratives.

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