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Nicola Juha Interview

Nicola Juha Interview, september 2023 (Konstainos Tsivos), journalist ...

Could you elaborate on your journey from being a lawyer to becoming a hagiographer in Bethlehem? What factors or inspirations led to this significant transition in your career path?

I was a full time lawyer before iconography, and Icon painting was only my habit but later  when I developed my skills in iconography things became more complicated and difficult for me of doing both together , both needed much efforts but each has totally a different way and work but I found my inner peace and spiritual moditation in iconography, then I was loooking forward that this should be more than a habit beacause it gives me my inner peace, it was a hard period and confusing for me to decide because it’s a work that I couldn’t depend on for living , until 2019 I met my friend Athanasios  the Greek art collector from Prague, he encouraged me as I was one of a few icon painters in the holy land and inspired me to make my decision of choosing iconography and since then I am spending every day painting orders of icons . 

How did your family and the broader environment in Bethlehem respond to your growing interest in iconography? Were there any challenges or moments of support that stand out to you?

My family is a faithful Christians, my parents raised me on the christian values and faith, and the environment is very spiritual and holy it’s so special to live a few meters far from the site where Jesus was born so this really helped me to be a faithful Christian and iconography because iconography requires this spirituality I should believe in the work I am doing as a holy  sacred work.

I had a challenge as a beginner iconographic  when I had first six orders of festive icons  for  Lichfield Cathedral in the UK. it was a great challenge to me as an iconographer from the holy land, And I learned a lot from it, this project improved my abilities in iconography and developed me. I was spending all days painting for few months.. and it gave me confidence to continue with more icons. But of course the encouragement of my family and friends helps me to have great results at my work.

In a world saturated with contemporary images across various fields, what is your perspective on the significance of traditional iconography? How does it offer a unique value in today's visual culture?

This kind of art “ Iconography” is a unique art which is based on special rules and techniques that we as iconographies should follow unlike any other kind of arts, but at the same time I put something of my identity in it, and this is what made them special and unique and represent, also what makes them so special for me that they are made with natural materials and some of them ( Jordan river water, soil from Bethlehem and some coloured ground stones) which connect the icons I paint with the holy land by the ingredients and this I think what makes them unique even than other icons made in other countries.

Considering the rich cultural heritage of Bethlehem, what potential do you see for establishing a school of iconography in the region? Do you believe it would resonate with the younger generation and contribute to their artistic and spiritual growth?

 There is a big connection between Bethlehem and the holy bible, since story of our Lord Jesus Christ has started in Bethlehem, and he was seen there, so the first image (the real icon)of God was seen in Bethlehem.

And I believe the icons are the written bible, In addition that iconography was created in the holy land. So icons are the cultural heritage of Bethlehem and Palestine and a legacy from generation to another .

I have a goal  to have an international  unique school with local and international teachers, to teach iconography for children who has a clear mind and pure innocent souls which makes them learn easily , and bring back this spiritual art to its origins , and also people from abroad ( internationals) who has interests of learning iconography can join this school, to be like the light from Bethlehem to the world.

The term "icon" can carry diverse meanings in different languages. Within the context of your work, how do you personally define the core essence of an icon and its role in conveying profound concepts and stories?

The icon in general means picture and in iconography Christian art means the image of God who was incarnated and seen for the first time in bethlehem and Bethlehem is my town where I was born,  and raised. Iconography is not only an art it is also an identity, it’s a connection between me and my holy place, and the history of the first Christian, the core of this art is the same  of the holy bible and some Christians call this art the written bible, it is converting the verses of the bible and the events to images, moreover it’s a also a way to connect with heaven as the icon represent a window to the kingdom of heaven.

The concept of "DIA CHIROS" suggests a deep connection between the hagiographer and an inner force while creating images. Could you delve deeper into this concept and elaborate on how it shapes your creative process as an iconographer?

We are the tools of this holy art our hands should be blessed our minds should be clean, and to have always a purity inner force, this reflects of the work we do even when we feel good or sad or happy or stressed it reflected in this art, even it is based on techniques but each iconographer puts their touch in it and it reflect his soul in the icon, many people they tell me that my icons look like me.

Despite your diverse backgrounds and geographical locations, you, Eva in Athens, and Enrico in Bari all share a commitment to the art of hagiography. What do you believe unites the three of you in your passion for this particular art form?

I think it is in addition to the talent that we are gifted from God, we have the strong faith in Jesus Christ and I believe we are like messengers our passion is to carry this Christian traditional art to the next generation, so we as iconographers believe in this art as a belief it’s more than a passion. It’s also a responsibility and a way we practice our beliefs.

Could you share a personal anecdote or experience that exemplifies the role of faith in your work as a hagiographer? How does this spiritual dimension manifest in your artistic process?

In 2019 I was writing the icon of the theotokos the mother of God, and when i paint icons I have a heart to heart speak and conversation between me and the icon, I was looking at the theotokos eyes always and feeling peaceful, I feel the love of the mother protecting me, in that period, I faced an accident a hard and during the accident I couldn’t think what to do I didn’t have time to escape from the car that was hitting me, all what came to my mind was the eyes and the look of mother love protection that comes from the theotokos icon I was painting then, I only said please my mother the mother of god and suddenly I felt a cold wind surrounding me, and I survived, I was shocked when I watched the video on the media written “ someone was survived from an accident with a miracle. And they didn’t know it was me.

I still have this icon and I still look at her eyes.

Your Palestinian heritage and the historical significance of Bethlehem must have an impact on the themes and narratives you choose to portray in your paintings. Could you discuss how these influences shape your artistic choices?

Actually, painting icons imagination is limited, it is never like the free art, so the artist  choose the subject from the imagination, so for example when I choose the subject of the icon, I have to do a research from the books looking through the old icons and the story of the icon subject, I go back to the original icons that created by the saints and the monks but what I add to the icon is my touch so after 12 years of painting icon I am getting an identity in painting icon, and I think this identity reflect me as Nicola personally, so the faces even they are based on original icons but in a way they reflect something from my character, and also they reflect my land ( the holy land) as I use some colour that I made from the stones and the soil of some areas in Palestine , and at the end I think the icons in general reflects the nature  in the holy land since 2000 years, because  it was created in Palestine, as the skin dark colour, the landscapes and the garments.

In a contemporary world dominated by modern and often transient images, how do you perceive the enduring allure of Byzantine icons?

What qualities do these icons possess that might be absent from today's visual landscape?

Icon painting is unique art, that is the only art using the old techniques of tempra colour, so when a new icon is painted, it looks and feels like an antique icon, and these colour it never loses cause it is made of stones and nature in the same way was made since hundreds of years, it is made by tempra colours, in addition to the symbols that each colour and movement in the icon acts in theology , which is absent from today’s visual landscape.

Many of your creations are deeply intertwined with religious and spiritual beliefs. How do you navigate the challenge of maintaining the authenticity of these themes while also making your work accessible to a broader, diverse audience?

Iconography for religious people is a spiritual art that they are praying with and help them for worshiping, but for other non religious groups it’s also important as an art,to collect as a unique art made in the very old techniques, using traditional materials.

For me I have a responsibility to make this art spiritual and transfer it in its original way to help people to understand it and to touch everyone’s heart and soul. 

Considering the profound power of faith and authenticity that emanates from your iconography, how do you believe your work contributes to building bridges of connection and understanding among different cultures and religions?

The icons have a very strong spiritual power, it can touch each person’s heart, each icon has eyes looking at you following you whenever you stand, as it is saying to you”I am here for you and talk to me”, many people from other religions and non believers where touched when they looked at the eyes. it is also witnessing and telling stories from the holy bible and explaining it to people from other religions, to understand and know more about Christianity, and building bridges between Christianity and other beliefs , also it reaches many countries with the historical value it carries, especially for those who are interested to study the history of the art and its old techniques. Cause my icons are made with the old Tempra technique that was used by the old nations of Greeks and Egyptians.