ENGLAND – During the Summer of 2016, three Palestinian students from the Bethlehem Icon Centre (BIC) participated in writing two Icons of the Annunciation in Lichfield, UK. The Icons are displayed in the nave of Lichfield Cathedral, one of England’s prestigious medieval cathedrals.
The Lichfield Annunciation: Palestinian apostles sharing their deeply rooted Christian art
The project, entitled The Lichfield Annunciation, was brought to fruition as a result of the partnership between the Bethlehem Icon Centre in Palestine and the Very Rev. Adrian Dorbar, the Dean and Chapter of the Lichfield Cathedral.
The three Palestinians; Nicola Juha, Noura Sleibi and Loris Matar, all hailing from the city of Bethlehem, took pride in the Christian art that they brought from the Holy Land and were honored to contribute to the Cathedral’s 1,500-year spiritual heritage. “This project means a lot to me as a Palestinian Christian,” Noura explained. “There we proclaimed the word of God through the Icon of the Annunciation, which is now a part of the Cathedral’s heritage”.
Some were traveling for the first time; others had been abroad but only for short trips. Nevertheless, the new experience presented the BIC students and people of Lichfield the opportunity to learn about and discover each other’s history, culture and shared values.
“We were ambassadors with a message and there we told our stories and talked about our lives and identities as Palestinian Christians,” stated Nicola. “In return we felt the warmth and empathy from the visitors that used to come and see us work, especially from the Very Rev. Adrian Dorbar, the Dean of the Cathedral, who would go out of his way to make us feel at home.”
The place; Lichfield city in Staffordshire, England. A city known, among other things, for its three-spired medieval Cathedral and being the birthplace of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first dictionary. This is where the three students along with the Bethlehem Icon School director, Ian Knowles stayed and worked to produce a pair of 270cm x 72cm icons depicting the scene of the Annunciation.
The Annunciation: a logical choice where the Word becomes flesh during Eucharist
The icon of Archangel Gabriel was based on the “Lichfield Angel” limestone carving, which was discovered during excavation work in 2003 under the Cathedral floor.
The intention behind choosing the Lichfield Angel as a reference point was “to create icons which would be deeply rooted in the living tradition of the cathedral’s liturgical art,” explained Ian. “The Lichfield Angel gave a wonderful example of this from the very earliest origins of liturgical life on the site of the present day cathedral”.
As for the icon of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God is seen seated on an elevated throne weaving a cloth, which would be used as a veil of the Holy of the Holies. A red curtain stands behind Her in the doorway of Her house. “The curtain evokes the idea of the veil of the Temple,” the director of BIC said. “It shielded the entrance to the Holy of Holies where God’s glory dwelt. In this icon, the curtain is drawn back to indicate that the Lord is entering in, making the womb of the Virgin His dwelling place, making Her the Mother of God”.
The BIC students and their director did not fail to include patterns that are indigenous to the Palestinian culture. The colorful rug, which the feet of Mary rest upon, is decorated with Palestinian embroidery motifs, that are particular to the Bethlehem area.
After seven intensive weeks of preparing the boards, gessoing*, applying the bole, gilding, writing the icons and installing them in the Cathedral, the Dean presided over a Eucharist and gave his blessing. The mass concluded with the students recounting their experiences during their stay in the UK.
“The ceremony of the blessing of the two icons was a special event for me,” Nicola said enthusiastically. “One of the most surreal moments I had was when people chanted the hymn “O little town of Bethlehem” and prayed for my hometown.”
“I can’t describe how happy I was when I saw people sitting in front of the Icon and praying. This is why we came all the way from Bethlehem. Our mission was accomplished,” Noura added.
The Bethlehem Icon Centre: creating normalcy in a pool of negativity
Founded in 2010, the Bethlehem Icon School began its mission in creating an environment where Palestinian Christians can meet and reconnect with their centuries-old Christian art. In a city where high unemployment and restricted movement to neighboring Holy sites had become the norm, BIC is working relentlessly to instill collaborative work ethics, renew spirituality and produce skilled iconographers who would subsequently be able not only to have financial stability but also the means to grow spiritually through their work.
The Lichfield Annunciation is only the beginning of current and future projects that the BIC is working to realize. In January 2016, the Centre launched the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts Diploma in Icon Painting program, a two-year full time training course where graduates are guaranteed work as junior iconographers.
In the summer of 2017, another group of students will participate in the second part of the of the Lichfield project. The work will entail making a Cross (2.5 meters high) that will hang over the chancel around the altar.
*Gesso: a mix of chalk and rabbit skin glue
Article by: Saher Kawas
Photos: ©BIC – ©Chris Lockwood