Ian Knowles discusses the Bethlehem Icon Centre

Bethlehem is a place laden with expectations, presumptions and mythology. From carols to political demonstrations, from declarations of peace on earth to endless years of war and violence, this tiny place has struck a big chord over many long centuries.

I arrived in Bethlehem back in early 2008 when I came as a volunteer to help restore some wall paintings in an Orthodox church, and very soon I had a number of people wanting to be trained as iconographers. However, there was no opportunity to do that to a reasonable standard, and, even if there was there was, no way to make a reasonable living from their work. The expectation was you should be able to learn to paint an icon in 6 months and then start selling through the tourist shops, where artists receive just 10% of what they sold for, so it was difficult to expect people to invest their time in proper training.

For centuries there had been icon workshops in Bethlehem where people were trained as an artist’s apprentice, but these had withered away and disappeared altogether by the 1940s. There was thus a need to establish a school and a workshop where iconography could be taught properly, where icons could be made to a high standard and sold for a fair price, and the Palestinian Christians given something of their spiritual heritage back.

But was I the right person to do this? The sad fact was that while I might not be the world’s most talented artist or most knowledgeable iconographer, there wasn’t anyone else able or willing to share their skills, and no one with a vision for a School of Icon Painting. Many local people, when I mentioned the idea to them, rolled their eyes and said: ‘You can’t do that here because…’ and out would come a long list of discouragements. Others, however, were very enthusiastic about the idea, especially back in the UK. I thought and prayed about all that I heard, discussed it over with several people much wiser than I, dismissed the gainsayers, while noting some of the more realistic observations, and in the end couldn’t see anything that said it wasn’t worth a try.

I have always had the conviction that if God wants you to do something for Him, everything necessary is already there, we just have to go look for it, a bit like a treasure hunt. In looking for it, we have to be like the disciples sent out two by two, with no spare tunic. Stripped to the bare necessities, God has the freedom to work with us on His own terms. And so God’s kingdom bursts through the cracks and fissures of our lives, bringing His light and love into our broken, needy world—often through our broken and needy selves.

It certainly took me far beyond my comfort zone as I began to explore what it would mean to get the idea off the ground. I tried to keep my expectations low, and to set things up so we would be able to survive, if necessary, on a wing and a prayer. Some of the most enthusiastic supporters came up with some money, not so much but just enough to make it possible for me to survive while spending time teaching. I had to go without health care, and as of now I live in my very pleasant, if a little cramped, office. I have cut my overheads in the UK to a minimum, getting rid of my car and so on. Without too many financial pressures I have been able to navigate our development to be an authentic spiritual experience rooted in the Gospel and our relationship with Christ, His Blessed Mother and the saints without compromise.

The Icon Centre has become something I could never have envisaged five years ago. With 35 students, the Centre has become an oasis for locals weighed down by the situation here, while we have also attracted religious people from various communities, some local, some from further afield. We are just about to welcome our second hermit this year! We have a relationship with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, which enables our students to study for their certificate in icon painting, and our first two students should graduate this Christmas. Hopefully, in the New Year, we will commence the final development stage by establishing the workshop, with these two students working alongside me on our fortunately long list of commissions. This will be the transitioning from students to junior iconographers, and in time to being iconographers in their own right.

I had no clear idea at the start as to what the Icon Centre would be like, and I have been surprised by all the different elements that have come to make it up. We have our buildings, which are rent free, provided by one of our supporters who is committed to shoring up the dwindling Christian presence in Bethlehem. We have a cafeteria, a chapel on the ancient route into Bethlehem used by Mary and Joseph that first Christmas night, we are a registered company with the Palestinian Authority, we have the patronage of the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, the support of the Prince of Wales, and have made icons for churches and people all over the world. We have one commissioned by an Anglican church in Rome to be blessed during the first ever visit of a Pope to an ordinary Anglican community, and have taken students to paint in residence at Lichfield Cathedral for a whole summer on a major commission, which will be repeated again next year, God willing. Who could possibly have thought all this would have been possible?

The vision long ago took on a shape of its own making, as Christians from all backgrounds, including those who have lapsed from attending the church’s liturgy, find a place where faith is central but with the freedom to be honest to themselves and others about what they do or don’t believe. The Icon is our Creed, and the Presence of Jesus, his Mother and the saints is tangible as peace and beauty radiating out from this holy city and its deep spiritual patrimony. This vision is now being taken to heart by local people, with our company board all comprising Palestinians except for me, and the post of Director taken over by one of my former students. We have the support of the Minister of Culture, who intends that we play a significant part in Bethlehem being the Arab Capital of Culture for 2019. Increasingly, we are being known among the local church communities and trust is being built, not least through the priests and religious people studying with us.

I gave myself ten years as a realistic timeframe within which to establish the Icon Centre, and to see it passed into the hands of others, preferably local Palestinian Christians, and to instill in them a great love for this precious treasure of their ancient culture. Half way through, I remain amazed at what God really had in mind, and humbled at how much has, in reality, been achieved despite many challenges and setbacks. I thank God, with amazement, that he has done this, and absolutely certain that, really, I have just been a guy on the sidelines caught up is something absolutely marvelous, and far beyond anything I could have earned or deserve.

If you would like to know more then please visit our website—www.bethlehemiconcentre.org—where you will also find details of how to become a Friend of the Icon Centre, and about the intensive one-week courses we offer twice a year especially for people abroad to come and study with us. There is also information about the Holy Land Iconography Trust, which is a UK registered charity dedicated to supporting us financially. Please do mention us in your prayers.

Ian Knowles is Principal of the Bethlehem Icon School