St. Nicholas lived in a cave overlooking Bethlehem during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 3rd century. By tradition, this is believed to be the cave now situated beneath the altar of the Arab Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in modern day Beit Jala. This Arab Christian town, where roughly 80% of the Palestinian population are Christian, has a vibrant, living relationship with the saint. Many of the townspeople have stories attributing to St Nicholas a continuing involvement in their lives and the survival of their town during decades of war and hostilities.
Some stories are located in medieval times, others are more contemporary. However, they all give testimony to the presence of a man whose love for God and neighbour is enduring. The icon was written during my time in 2008 staying in the town restoring the Arabic style icons of the cupola and iconostasis.
While some of these stories cannot be verified, they are part of the deeply held local mythology of the saint. I spoke with local people who had been involved with some of the more recent miracles. The appearance of St Nicholas over the Orthodox Church, in particular, seems well attested to.
It is unusual to write icons about such events, so in some ways this is not a canonical icon, but nevertheless it is a liturgical expression of the living faith held deeply by local Orthodox and Catholic Christians in Beit Jala. It is thus not a universal model, but one which has a particular place in the living faith of the community that has gathered continuously around Nicholas’ shrine for seventeen centuries.