Ian Knowles' icon of 'Our Lady who brings down walls' in Bethlehem (Catholic Press Photo)

Our Lady of the wall

The Virgin who suffers for all, painted on a corner of the dividing wall in Bethlehem, where, for years, the Rosary has been recited every Friday. The work's author, iconographer Ian Knowles, speaks about it in the May issues of Tracce.
Anna Leonardi

He would never have imagined of bringing his art to the wall that, since 2002, has stretched relentlessly to separate the State of Israel from the West Bank. It seemed to him to somehow tame that wall, to make it bearable, and, ultimately, acceptable. Ian Knowles, a British iconographer and founder of the Bethlehem Icon School, arrived in the Holy Land in 2008 to restore the paintings in a local Orthodox church. He says that he changed his mind when approached by some of the local Christian community and asked to depict something on the wall close to the Emmanuel monastery. It is right there that, since 2004, religious people from different orders who live in Bethlehem meet every Friday afternoon to recite the Rosary: they walk a few kilometers along the eight-meter-high concrete blocks, asking for the gift of peace, the demolition of the walls, both physical walls and those of the heart.

Over the years, inhabitants of the area, groups of pilgrims, and many people of faith have joined the gesture. "I agreed to paint that image of Our Lady because I have always conceived my art as a service. The wall has generated so much suffering and hatred. Christians demanded that there be a sign of hope in that place. They needed to know that He was present even in that darkness," says Knowles, born in 1962, raised in the Church of England and converted to Catholicism in 1991. “The sisters overcame my hesitation and in that place so ugly, in some respects inhumane, I tried to introduce the beauty that icons bring in a unique way, and which I had first encountered in my youth.”

At the end of 2010 Knowles made 'Our Lady who brings down walls', also called 'Our Lady of the Wall' or 'Our Lady of Peace'. "She is a pregnant Byzantine Madonna, she carries Christ in her womb. But she is also deeply afflicted, as her right hand pressing against the temple suggests. She is sharing everyone's pain. She is a mother who suffers for her children. Along with her children.” Knowles was guided in his work by the speech that Benedict XVI gave to the Special Assembly for the Middle East that year: "I was very impressed that the Pope, retracing chapter 12 of John, remembered that Christ was born to have a body, to be able to draw everyone to himself, to bring humanity together. Mary, giving it to us, despite the pain, opened the earth to heaven. She is a prophecy to us Christians: in conflicts, in horror we can bring this new gift of life to the world.”

As well as the Pope's words, Knowles had to struggle with his own fears. "First of all, I had to deal with the fear of working all day very close to the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint. It is not a place where people willingly stop, where you feel safe. You know anything could happen. And then I had to use the stairs which are my old trauma, since, a few years ago, I had a very bad fall while fixing the lights inside a church.” Gradually it took shape, first the outline, then the colours, and finally real gold leaf which the sisters themselves applied. “Icons represent that subtle space where God comes close to us and their purpose is to make us pray,” he says. “This happens to the viewer, but it has to happen to me first while I work. I need Him to be there, in my effort and weakness. The icon first of all shapes my faith."

Today the image of the 'Madonna who brings down the walls' would need a little refreshing. The rain, sun and wind have faded its colors and it is slowly deteriorating. Meanwhile, Knowles has left Bethlehem and now lives in Italy, but would like to return to Bethlehem soon to restore it, though the war makes his journey more and more uncertain. He is comforted by the fact that she is there anyway. “She is there for the nuns. For the people passing by. For the prostitutes and drug dealers who have always had a certain freedom of movement in that area. And, before the war, she was there for tourists, who came to see her as they did with Bansky's works. Or for the pilgrims who confronted something more than the romantic idea of the place of the Nativity.” But above all she is there for all the victims.

"When there are these huge conflicts, the first thing people lose is the sense of their humanity. The victim feels defined only by their being a victim, but they no longer see their value, their nobility.” When Knowles taught English for a while at Bethlehem University he began one lesson with a direct question to his students, all Palestinians: “Who are you?” They immediately started to talk about Israel and its impact, such as the wall. “So I said to them, ‘Do not tell me about the wall, the occupation, the territories, the Israelis... what is your identity?' They were silent, and could find nothing to say: the fracture that was outside had entered inside them. They could no longer tell who they were, other than by reducing themselves to what the 'enemy' wanted them to be.” Through founding the Bethlehem Icon Centre, Knowles tried to help them bridge this human impoverishment. Not only with iconography, but also putting them in touch with their ancient history of which the origin of icons are an important part. "It is an important step to regain ownership of what makes us human, what the whole of humanity aspires to and which Christ embodied in Himself through His birth in Bethlehem and His death in Jerusalem. This spiritual warfare is reflected in the total laceration that is experienced throughout the history of the Holy Land since the coming of Christ, of which the wall and war are the latest tragic expression. If there is nothing left in me that somehow makes me feel like I belong to you, and vice versa, then we can only destroy ourselves.”

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It often happens that Israeli soldiers on duty at the check point a few meters from the 'Madonna who brings down the walls', look suspiciously at the Friday gathering for the recitation of the Rosary. There is always the fear that it may turn into a protest demonstration. They once raised their machine guns and told the faithful to disperse. Every time, the nuns try to explain what is happening, showing them the Rosaries. They reassure them by saying that they just want to pray and go before the image of the Virgin to end the prayer by singing the Salve Regina. Soldiers lower their machine guns, even the toughest soften. And there is always someone who asks, "Pray for me."