Prayers in Paint

Preserving an ancient tradition in Bethlehem

by Nicholas Seeley

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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.

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