Peace, capitalism and the iconographer

"For sacred Scripture, contemplating the face of God is the greatest happiness: “You gladden him with the joy of your face” (Ps 21:7). From the contemplation of the face of God are born joy, security and peace. But what does it mean concretely to contemplate the face of the Lord, as understood in the New Testament? It means knowing him directly, in so far as is possible in this life, through Jesus Christ in whom he is revealed. To rejoice in the splendour of God’s face means penetrating the mystery of his Name made known to us in Jesus, understanding something of his interior life and of his will, so that we can live according to his plan of love for humanity." Pope Benedict, homily, January 1 2013.
Pope Benedict celebrates Mass outside the Bethlehem Peace Centre, 2009

 What better summary could their be than the spirituality of the iconographer, we who pass on the revelation of Christ's Face through our work as liturgical artists? We are servants of peace in a broken world, penetrating the cloud of ignorance by presenting Christ to others. One thing that always strikes me, is that long after I am gone, the icons I have made will continue to live on. People will have long forgotten any association with me, but the testimony of the images will speak as loudly as ever, because the images we write are 'epiphanies', true images that manifest the Truth about God and His Presence among us. That is why the ancient and venerable tradition about not putting our signatures (even dressed up with 'written by the hand of') on our work is so, so important - our naming is meaningless and any mention of us is a distraction from the whole point of the icon, which is simply to manifest Christ. As John the Baptist said, 'He must increase, I must decrease'. As we present the icon there should be nothing superfluous to its purpose: to manifest the Living God.

A little further on the pope writes something else which is pertinent to the life and work of the iconographer, especially in the light of the above:
Pope Benedict at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, 2009

"Although the world is sadly marked by “hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism,” as well as by various forms of terrorism and crime, I am convinced that “the many different efforts at peacemaking which abound in our world testify to mankind’s innate vocation to peace. In every person the desire for peace is an essential aspiration which coincides in a certain way with the desire for a full, happy and successful human life. In other words, the desire for peace corresponds to a fundamental moral principle, namely, the duty and right to an integral social and communitarian development, which is part of God’s plan for mankind. Man is made for the peace which is God’s gift."

As a professional iconographer I have to try and make a living from my work. This means being a part of 'market forces', in the 'marketplace' and having to deal with money, those who trade and with 'making a profit'. The art world, the ecclesiastical world, private art lovers and the devout all jostle around in my small world of making art that I need to sell. What is a fair price to charge? What is a fair price to pay? What is an ethical way of selling, marketing this sacred work? Should it be like any other part of the market place, or are their special rules? What difference should it make if the purchaser is richer or poorer? Should my prices be cheaper and so more competitive than some of my fellow iconographers, taking advantage of the fact that I don't have a family to support, or should family circumstances be irrelevant to the price charged for the work done? What are the consequences of amateur iconographers selling work far cheaper than those who must support themselves from their work? What are the ethical choices in commissioning an icon? Is it OK to go for the cheapest you can find? What monetary implications are their for an icon's 'spiritual ' value?

And should any sort of market activity, buying - selling, trading - be morally different than when it involves something sacred like icons? Is it ok to make a fat profit selling cars but not for icons? Does the necessity of goods or services for the poorer in our community demand that they pay less for some things than others? Does 'charity' demand the seller takes the circumstances of those he is selling to into account or are all 'equal' when it comes to paying the price? These are the sharp end questions about capitalism and our faith, which the making and selling of icons brings into sharp focus.

My own concern about this has an added focus. Part of the time I help to train new iconographers in Bethlehem. Part of my motivation is to renew the culture of the Christian community, and an integral part of that is reviving iconographer as a valued art form from which local Christians can make a living and support their families.

Perhaps there is no where else on earth where there is such a brisk trade in icons, given the million or so pilgrims that visit annually, and the large numbers of churches, monasteries and chapels which cluster in the area in need of liturgical art, especially as the Orthodox, Melkite and Oriental Churches predominate. Yet iconographer's are paid a pittance for their work - an icon selling for $1000 will have earned the iconographer $100, out of which he or she must also pay for the materials - the board, the pigments, gesso, gold, brushes etc. As a result of this minimal price, the quality of the work has to be rushed and use the cheapest materials available, and even then what family could live off $100 a fortnight, which is the quickest you could realistically produce a medium sized icon of medium complexity?

The shops which purchase these icons and sell them for ten times the price they bought them for, pay the tour guides who bring the shopping pilgrims to their shops 30% of the total amount purchased, and a further 10% for the bus driver, both of whom are already on decent wages and in secure employment. If the shops won't pay this 'commission' the guides refuse to bring their groups, and will take them elsewhere. And tour operators who refuse to allow guides to operate this 'commission' system find the best guides refuse to take their groups, especially if the tour operators are smaller, family owned businesses. But the net result of these 'market opportunities' is that the iconographers are paid the least of everyone and cannot feed their children, while the large shop owners live, literally, in palaces worth millions of dollars, with the tour guides and the bus drivers making as much in tips than they receive for their many hours of dedicated work.

What makes this all the more galling, is that the owners of the biggest tourist shops in Bethlehem, the very heart of the Christian world, are owned by Christians who are financially very successful, but whose success is made at the expense of the very subsistence of their Christian brothers. Using their market advantages a few Christians are deepening their own self-centred advantage at the expense of exacerbating the most serious cause of the mass migration of Christians from the Holy Land: economic hardship. It also seems somewhat bizarre that local Christians are literally building massive and ornate homes costing millions of dollars, while the local Christian community is heavily dependent upon Christian financial donations from around the world. Something is surely ethically dysfunctional in the Christian community to produce such a situation.If only the pope's words would be heard, which a bright beacon building peace the Bethlehem Christian community could be!

Nothing could more clearly illustrate exactly what the pope was saying as we begin this New Year, and it is right at the heart of the most ancient Christian community, and one which depends so much upon the generosity generated from a sense of solidarity from Christians around the world. Reflecting upon this message, it reaffirms my belief that this tiny venture to restore iconography as a living liturgical art in the Holy Land is a vital, essential, crucial contribution to the wider peace process - and also the very real forces which will do all in their power to ensure that this project, and especially the mentality behind it, is still born, withers and dies.

So, may I please ask your prayers, and those of your friend, for our tiny initiative? I think we really will need them in the year ahead, and indeed in the years to come.

You can find more about the Bethlehem Icon Centre at www.bethlehemiconschool.org


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