Icon school creates opening for local artists to tap into ancient skills and challenge cheap tourist-targeting imports
BETHLEHEM - In a small old building made of Jerusalem stone, down an alleyway in the Old City of Bethlehem, a dozen local artists sit labouring over canvases, tracing delicate, winding lines that will eventually reveal the face of Jesus Christ in the style of traditional Orthodox portraiture.
The artists are all students at a new centre dedicated to reviving the ancient craft of Palestinian Christian iconography, the first of its kind in the Middle East.
The school and its students hope that their work will bolster pride in a tradition and a culture that they say is being increasingly marginalised by commercialisation as well as emigration spurred by the Israeli occupation and the political climate more broadly.
A ‘sacred patrimony’
Founded late last autumn in a refurbished 200-year-old building in this hill-top holy city, the Bethlehem Icon School instructs Palestinians from across the country in the ins and outs of this ancient tradition.
The courtyard of the Icon School in Bethlehem's Old City (MEE/Alex Shams)
Artists sign up for three-year courses and can attend lectures and seminars on the art form and Palestinian Christian history more broadly.
Although they pay for their materials, the school provides a means for the artwork they create to be marketed and sold, and the students take home 80 percent of the profit, far above the standard rate.
The school is thus not only seeking to encourage professionalisation in the industry, but also to provide a source of income for Palestinian icon artists and allow them to focus on their craft full-time.
The icon centre of which the school is a part has been operating since 2009, but the organised system of classes and the new building made of historic Jerusalem stone have given the school a major boost and a much higher degree of visibility.
Ian Knowles, the school’s British director and an iconographer himself, told Middle East Eye that despite the fact that Orthodox iconography is a vital part of Bethlehem’s “sacred patrimony,” the local market has increasingly relegated local icon artists to a “second-class status”.
Orthodox religious icons are ubiquitous in this city and in the other towns and villages where Palestine’s 200,000 Christians reside, spread between the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. But many of those on display in churches or for sale are cheap imports or knock-offs from Russia or Greece.
In the past few decades, strong growth and commercialisation of the Christian religious tourism market in Palestine has seen demand for such trinkets skyrocket.
“Icons have become things to be sold, to make a profit, and to rip people off. Those who take advantage of artists and tourists have no concerns for the wider implications of their actions,” Knowles said.
Local expertise has been largely sidelined throughout these shifts, as the decades-old Israeli occupation and rising right-wing Israeli extremism has limited economic opportunities and pushed many families to emigrate.
This process has been especially severe for Palestinian Christians, who in Bethlehem tend to be on average better off and more well-educated than the general population and thus can generally get permission to leave and settle elsewhere more easily.
Knowles said that even those local artists who have continued working in the field are taken advantage off. One of his students, for example, made $100 from an icon that was then resold for $1,000. Although he acknowledged that the rate was worse than normal, Knowles said that the standard prices weren’t much better.
“People who do iconography cannot support themselves, and as a result they cannot use the best material or hold themselves to the highest standards. This reinforces the idea that Palestinians are second-rate and do second-rate work.”
A spiritual art form
For Knowles, the implications of the issue reach far beyond individual artists and extend into the local economy as a whole, which is centred on religious tourism.
“Pilgrims only come here because it’s a sacred place. If you squander that and don’t respect its sacredness, then you’re undermining the whole base of the economy,” he said.
Knowles hopes the icon school will also serve as a centre for pilgrims, allowing them to better understand the craft and help support local artisans in the process.
Bethlehemite Nicola Juha is a student in the classes and has been learning the art of iconography for two years.
Although originally attracted to the icon classes by his interest in painting, Juha told MEE that through them he has come to understand the art’s deeply spiritual component.
“I used to think of this as just a normal kind of drawing, but once I started doing it myself I realised how different iconography is for me.
A student draws an impression of a Byzantine Orthodox icon (MEE/Alex Shams)
“I used to see these images everywhere but never imagined I could paint them. The details are extremely precise and intricate, but when you paint them and it all comes together, it’s as if it painted itself. It’s hard to believe that your own hands produced such fine work.”
For Juha, who is not a professional iconographer, the school is also an important symbol and reminder of Palestine’s Christian history.
“This art form emerged in Palestine and in Jerusalem and from here spread to Greece and Russia," Juha said. "But as the number of Christians decreased in the region over time and the importance of iconography declined, the number of schools declined. Four hundred years ago in Bethlehem there was an icon school, but eventually it closed, too.
“Instead, we now bring Greek and Russian icons here to sell to Greek and Russian pilgrims. They travel here and end up buying souvenirs from their own countries.”
The school is also a critical reminder of Christianity’s Palestinian and Middle Eastern history, pushing back against Eurocentric understandings of Christianity as somehow inherently “western”.
Knowles, the school’s director, told MEE that although the school itself was ecumenical and encompassed all of Palestine’s Christian sects - Greek Catholic (Melkite), Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, and Maronite - it based its understanding of Palestinian iconography in Byzantine history.
“Our work is based in the style found at St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, where half of all of Christian icons from before the 9th century can be found,” he said, adding that at the time the region was culturally a part of Palestine.
“This is part of the patrimony of Christian communities here, long before Greece or Russia were making icons.”
“We’re trying to bring to light Palestine’s Christian roots because people have a very short memory, and their sense of history does not go back very far.”
For Knowles, spreading the knowledge and know-how of what he called Palestine’s “glory days” during the Byzantine Empire was also an important reminder of the indigeneity of Palestinian Christians, underlining the fact that they are neither “foreign nor alien” to the region.
As Christians across the country find themselves marginalised by the Israeli occupation as well as Israeli extremism at home and the threat of Islamic extremism in the region, the Bethlehem Icon Centre and the patrimony it represents are symbols of a community’s continuing resilience and pride in its past.