Ever since hearing about the Bethlehem Icon Centre, I’ve been very interested in learning more. I was pleased to have the opportunity to interview Ian Knowles, Principal of the Bethlehem Icon School. Check out the below interview to learn more about icons, how they are created, and how prayer is incorporated in this process.
Kate Frantz (KF): What is the Bethlehem Icon Centre?
Ian Knowles (IK): The Bethlehem Icon Centre is a non-profit company dedicated to the renewal of iconography in the Holy Land. It comprises an Icon School, workshop and visitors’ facilities.
KF: What is an icon?
IK: An icon is a piece of liturgical art– a liturgical painting. It is art that springs from and belongs to the celebration of the Holy Mass, making visible the unseen realities of the spiritual world. The liturgy is a wedding between heaven and earth, and the icons are objects of this meeting point. It is therefore important that when icons are designed and made they are done with an understanding of the theological and spiritual context in which they serve. In this way we can say icons are objects of prayer, and that prayer is an essential element in their composition. Every icon is the fruit of reflection and meditation on the subject, be that Christ the Incarnate Word, the Virgin Mary, or the angels or the saints.
Below is a photo of an icon by Ian Knowles along with his answers to a few questions pertaining to this work.
KF: How did you decide to create this icon?
IK: This icon of the Saviour was a commission from the Anglican church of All Saints in Rome. The Pope was making an historic visit to this church and the icon was the liturgical focus for the visit.
The church decided on the theme and gave the dimensions and precise location. It had an existing frame that they wished to use, so that determined the dimensions. There was also a very tight timescale which limited the complexity of the design and there was a budget limit.
I wanted an icon that would fit into the Victorian Gothic context of the existing building, and that would exemplify English traditions of liturgical art. I was particularly struck by the work of an English monk, Matthew Paris, who is a famous mediaeval illuminator of manuscripts. All of these elements I brought into the byzantine tradition of iconography, which is the mother of all iconographic styles whether that is Greek, Cretan, Russian or Romanesque, etc.
KF: Describe the technical process to creating this icon. e.g. if someone had never created an icon before, how would you explain the process?
IK: The icon began as a rough sketch, worked up into a cartoon which was then transferred to a wooden panel prepared with 12 layers of gesso. An egg tempera paint was created using an egg yolk emulsion and natural pigments derived from rocks. This was applied in many, very thin layers working from the darkest colours up to the light. This is the very same technique that has been used in Christian iconography since the sixth century, an art form that probably originated in the byzantine holy land of Palestine. The background is made from 23 carat sheets of gold leaf applied over a layer of Armenian bole, polished with an agate stone.
KF: How is prayer a part of this process?
IK: As a believer, you cannot sit in front of an image of Jesus for days on end without thinking of, talking to and reflecting upon the Person of Christ.
“As the icon is making Christ present in our world, so when the iconographer is a believer, it cannot be done other than through an awareness of and love of the Person of Christ, all of which comes under the definition of prayer.”
Most iconographers also have their own spiritual discipline, consistent with the church community to which they belong. If in a monastic community this will include fairly intense periods of ascetical discipline. If in an Orthodox community it would include the major fasting periods before Christmas and Easter. If a Roman Catholic community it will include the disciplines of Friday fasting. Some iconographers have a particular rule of life rooted in their icon work, for example fasting when painting the face of Christ. For myself, as a Roman Catholic, I include the disciplines of daily Morning and Evening prayer, confession, and Friday fasting as well as deliberate engagement with the subject of the icon in front of me. In this case I was intensely aware of the context into which the icon would be placed – the relationship between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, as well as the particular community of Anglicans at All Saints and I brought all of this into the dialogue with Christ during the execution of this item. Each working day at the Icon Centre in Bethlehem begins with a short common prayer and at midday we say the Angelus communally.
KF: What symbols are used in this icon?
IK: Western icons rely very heavily upon symbols within the composition, while eastern icons rely especially on inscriptions to make clear the identity of the person or persons depicted within the icon. This icon is inscribed with the traditional Greek letters that are an abbreviation of the words ‘Jesus Christ.’ The halo is also inscribed with a cross, unique to the Person of Jesus, and the Greek words ‘ho own’ meaning ‘he who is.’ He is adorned with a red undergarment symbolising His humanity and a rich royal blue garment made from the most precious of all minerals, lapis lazuli, symbolising His divinity. As is traditional, Christ has a face represented from two angles, one looks directly at us, one glances from the side. This represents the Merciful Christ and Christ as Judge.
KF: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the Bethlehem Icon Centre, icons or this specific icon?
IK: The Icon Centre primarily seeks to educate local Palestinian Christians in ancient art, but also welcomes international students to intensive seven-day courses, or to spend extended periods of time working alongside the local students. Prices begin from £230 per week.
A huge thank you to Mr. Knowles for taking the time to complete this interview. I know my knowledge of iconography has greatly increased and I hope you too have a newfound appreciation for this ancient art.
Be sure to visit www.bethlehemiconcentre.org.
Watch a video about a student’s experience at the Bethlehem Icon Centre: