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Art and politics collide for a Christian artist living in Bethlehem

Robert Giacaman’s paintings have been showcased at high-profile ecclesial events in recent years, a fact he hopes brings attention to Palestine’s Christian community.

Robert Giacaman's painting was displayed behind the altar during Pope Francis' Mass in Bethlehem in May 2014. (Image courtesy of the artist)

His family is known for olive-wood carvings sold in their shop in Bethlehem, but Robert Giacaman is becoming increasingly well known for his paintings, several of which have been at the forefront of recent papal events.

During Pope Francis’ trip to the Holy Land in May 2014, Giacaman was responsible for the painting hanging behind the altar during the Mass in Bethlehem. The image, oil on canvas, shows a manger scene with three popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—coming to pay homage to the infant Jesus, commemorating those three pontiffs’ trips to the Holy Land in 1964, 2000, and 2009, respectively.

In May 2015 Giacaman’s painting of “three Marys” received attention in connection with the canonization of the modern era’s first Palestinian saints, St. Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas and St. Mariam Baouardy. The painting depicts Mary, the Mother of God, and the two new saints, raising their hands in prayer. St. Mariam, who founded the Carmel of Bethlehem, is shown standing in her native Galilee region on the left; on the right, St. Marie-Alphonsine, who founded the Congregation of Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary, stands near her hometown of Jerusalem.

Giacaman is a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem. He studied art in Italy, at the famous Accademia di Brera in Milan. His shop, Il Bambino (“The Child”), sits in Manger Square in Bethlehem, near the Church of the Nativity. His studio is on a side street, a few minutes walking-distance from where Baby Jesus was born.

Alongside his brothers, Michael and Ibrahim, Robert operates the family business. They are fourth-generation artisans who reproduce olive-wood art that their great-great-grandfather, Salem, originally designed. In their shop, there are Nativity scenes and crosses of all sizes, as well as rosaries, pendants, and Christmas tree ornaments.

Priding themselves that each object they create is one-of-a-kind, the carvers who work at Il Bambino also bring to life new designs, using olive wood from ancient trees found near Bethlehem.

Catholic World Report spoke to Giacaman at his booth at the Koinè international religious-goods exhibition in Vicenza, Italy.

CWR: First of all, tell us a bit about your company and what you do.

Robert Giacaman: I’m an artist. I create paintings and sculptures in olive wood with sacred art subjects.

CWR: You are one of the many presenters who have come to Koinè from around the world. What is the significance of this event?

Giacaman: It is a valuable opportunity to showcase to the world our artistic, religious culture and make us known as Palestinian people and as the Christian community of Bethlehem. Then, there is the important opportunity to make contact with new customers, internationally. And it is the fifth time that Il Bambino, our company, takes part in Koinè. Every time, we present our visitors with samples: cribs, statues, and other objects, such as rosaries or crucifixes, all in olive wood, a tree that has biblical roots and whose strength and resistance is also the symbol of the Palestinian people.

CWR: Do you work only with olive wood or also with other materials?

Giacaman: No, we only produce olive wood objects, and they are all produced in Bethlehem. And this is work with which many Christian families in the city live.

CWR: In the Holy Land, what are the most used and sold devotional objects?

Giacaman: Cribs and rosaries, first of all. And with regard to Bethlehem in particular, the first article that customers ask for when entering the shop is the crib, being the city where the Nativity scene is set, where Jesus was born. Then crucifixes, rosaries, images of several saints, and of course, Christmas tree decorations.

CWR: Would you say that crafts and trade for tourists visiting the Holy Land are the most important economic sector for your Christian community?

Giacaman: Yes, absolutely. Bethlehem is a biblical city, not far from Jerusalem. It is a fundamental step of every pilgrimage to Holy Land. Every day pilgrims come to us aftervisiting the Basilica of the Nativity seeking souvenirs to take back home. This provides a living for many families. Almost half of the citizens of Bethlehem depend on religious tourism.

CWR: And what is the trend of this market, around Bethlehem and its surrounding area?

Giacaman: Unfortunately, it is a sector that progresses very slowly, at least for us. As I said, Bethlehem depends primarily on tourism and from activities related to tourists, such as the production and trade of sacred items. Otherwise, the alternative is emigration. When people see they are not making a living from this, they leave the city and emigrate abroad, like so many Palestinians have already done. Unfortunately, many tourists exploit to their advantage this fragile local economy.

CWR: How does that happen?

Giacaman: They arrive in Palestine with the idea that you can always haggle on the price each time. “How much?” “Forty dollars.” And the customer replies: “I give you ten dollars…OK?” They are trying to buy at below-cost prices for us. We Palestinians know how to live meagerly, with little money, but in this way, the economy doesn’t grow….

And when a young man sees that the situation gets worse, rather than better, it is normal that he is demoralized and tries to emigrate too. But we cannot lose the young people, the most dynamic part of society. Another problem is the political situation.

CWR: The fact that in the past, pilgrimages have declined in number, precisely because of political tensions, was a tragedy for you…

Giacaman: Yes, and we suffer the consequences still. Think of the wall that divided the Holy Land, creating problems for all, but especially for Christians. Unfortunately, it is not easy anymore to move ourselves from one side to the other of the West Bank like it had been in the past. We cannot spontaneously make a visit as we wish.

CWR: You have a family, too. As a father, what do you understand as being the desire of young Palestinians for their future?

Giacaman: They want to show the world their abilities, the skills of our people, a people who have roots and an important story. They want to open up to the rest of the world, but without being forced to escape from their land.

CWR: There is a Palestinian young man of Bethlehem, a Christian, a singer, who became suddenly a celebrity in the Arab world last month. Can you tell us who this young man is? And what his success means for you?

Giacaman: Yes, it has been great news! His name is Yacoub Shaheen, 23 years old. His father is a carpenter, as Saint Joseph was! And they are a Christian family. Yacoub just won the Arab Idol show. Arab Idol is a singing competition like American Idol. This was the competition’s fourth edition, with singers coming from the entire Arab world, broadcasted live by TV MBC1, a channel of the United Arab Emirates.

Shaheen is the best voice of the whole Arab-speaking world. After he was named as the winner, he performed a patriotic song while wearing the Palestinian flag on his shoulders, singing: “My pledge and my oath, my blood is Palestinian.”

CWR: Why was this so important to the region’s Christians?

Giacaman: It was an opportunity to show the world the capabilities of young Palestinians and the presence of a small Christian community, too. There was a large screen set up in Manger Square, to watch the final round. Then, we celebrated until the sunrise!

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About Deborah Castellano Lubov 14 Articles
Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT, author of 'The Other Francis' (L'Altro Francesco) featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and featuring preface of Cardinal Parolin (currently out in four languages). She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets, and collaborator with Euronews, EWTN, and NBC Universal.

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