by Ian Knowles, iconographer
St. Nicholas: Father of Beit Jala Iconography by Ian Knowles, 2008, for St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Beit Jala
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.
Stories depicted on the icon
Miracles from Saint Nicholas' time in Palestine
Click for stories
Deliverance from the storm
Opening of church doors in Jerusalem
Nicholas in Beit Jala cave
Miracles through the centuries
|Beit Jala was threatened by marauding bandits who came in from the wilds of the desert, stealing cattle, destroying crops and generally causing mayhem while the men of the village were away as conscripted soldiers. After the women and children of Beit Jala interceded for the village at the cave of St.Nicholas, the village was spared.|
|When thieves tried to steal the grape harvest, which was kept for safety on the roof of the church, a miraculous sea appeared around the church. Theft was thwarted, grapes saved.|
Miracles from recent times
|During the 1967 war between Israel and Jordan, Beit Jala was bombarded by Israeli troops. St. Nicholas appeared over St Nicholas Church, catching the bombs and deflecting them into the fields. Miraculously not one person was killed. The only injury was from a stone that flew up and hit a person's ankle.|
|One Sunday during the Second Intifada (2000–2005) the Orthodox community was gathered for Divine Liturgy when Israeli troops began firing shells at the church. The priest urged everyone to stay and pray with the assurance than St Nicholas would protect them. Everyone stayed and prayed and not one shell exploded. Everyone returned home without injury.|
|A Muslim man came to Beit Jala to shoot at the Israeli settlement of Gilo. An old man appeared to him, telling him to leave immediately. The man did so. Moments later a shell exploded on the exact spot where he had been standing. The man later identified the person who spoke to him as St Nicholas.|
|Another elderly Muslim man was deeply worried about his son who had been in an Israeli prison for some years. During the night before the man's birthday, an old man appeared at his bedside, telling him his son would return on the next day. When the man asked the visitor who he was and where he was from, he answered, "I am Nicholas, from Beit Jala. If you need to find me, just ask for me, everyone knows me there." The following day, the son returned. The old man set off for Beit Jala to share the good news with the stranger, and to thank him. Confused by the story, no one in Beit Jala could tell him who had visited him. Then the sacristan took the man into the Church of St. Nicholas, where he immediately recognised the icon of St Nicholas as the person who had visited him.|