At the heart of Bethlehem's old city sits a school training local Palestinian Christians to become icon painters - some of them to a professional standard. Unique in the Middle East, the Bethlehem Icon School is best known for ‘Our Lady of the Wall’, a large-scale, striking image of the Virgin Mary painted onto the Israeli security barrier.
Its founder is a British icon painter, Ian Knowles, who aims to help Palestinian Christians reconnect with a nearly lost part of their spiritual heritage, and give some of them a skill that may feed a family. Bethlehem has lost much of its Christian population through emigration, and it has the highest unemployment rate anywhere in the West Bank.
Mark Dowd visits Ian and his students at their studio in Bethlehem as they learn the art of icon painting, or ‘writing’, as it’s sometimes known. We hear what it means to them to study this ancient Christian art form: painting the holy face of Christ, says 29-year-old Nicola Juha, brought him close to his subject in prayer. The icon, he says, became the door through which Christ came to him.
Away from the school, we meet some of the students' families and local traders who sell Christian crafts (such as olive wood carvings) to find out more about what it means to be a Christian in Bethlehem today. And we hear how, despite all the economic hardships, preparing for Christmas in Bethlehem is still special to Nicola, who takes Mark on a visit to the Church of the Nativity.
Real sense of place, and the despair of the people and value of the work became very clear. Nice tempo, which reflected icon painting well. The mention of the Israeli guards near the icon on the wall gave a very strong sense of the place, and there was just the right amount of such political background in it. Great for Christmas. Everything about it was right