The Icon of "Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls”, Sacralizing the Palestinian face of the Israeli Separation Wall with Divine Presence

By Connie Gagliardi
Submitted to Session P6648 (The Politics of Infrastructure: Colonialism and Conservation, 2021 Annual Meeting
Visual Cultural;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Research Question:
This paper examines the icon of “Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls”, a modern Byzantine-style icon written atop the Palestinian face of the Israeli Separation Wall in Bethlehem.

Engaging visually and aesthetically with the icon and the narratives that surround her perdurance, this paper queries how Palestinian Christians of Bethlehem believe “Our Lady” to be a “living icon” with a dynamic presence. It seeks to understand how, despite her unorthodox canvas and composition, she is theologically imagined as, and venerated for, sacralizing this borderland at the interstices of the Israeli colonial project.

Thesis Statement:
“Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls” is a “living icon”, actively present in time and space. The icon of “Our Lady” dynamically performs her signification as a holy figure within this highly contested and divided landscape. This is because the emplacement of this icon seeks to counter the unholy profane space of the Wall as an infrastructure of evil and reveal higher truths about redemption and salvation.

This paper is based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork that comprised part of my doctoral research project on the subject of the contemporary crafting of traditional icons by local Palestinian Christian iconographers in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This paper specifically is based on participant observation that first began in 2013, primarily amongst members and congregants of the nearby Emmanuel Monastery, who commissioned the writing of the icon of “Our Lady” in 2010. My visual tracing of the “life” of “Our Lady” extends until the present moment.

Results & Significance:
This paper takes seriously the intersections of theology and politics, as it analyzes the politics of aesthetics amongst a particularly understudied religious community of the Middle East. The icon has a long history in the Holy Land, but also in historic Palestine, as a local style of iconography production in Jerusalem emerged as the first, distinctively Palestinian pictorial tradition in the late 18th century (Boullata 2011). The icon in Palestine thus bears an affective potentiality rooted in its history, as this paper seeks to make explicit.

This paper also contributes to a theorization of the borderland space of the Israeli Separation Wall as it considers how the life of “Our Lady” dynamically intersects with the infrastructural constraints of the Israeli Occupation. The icon of “Our Lady” wages symbolic violence, as its sacrality irrupts and interrupts the structural violence that the Separation Wall wages on Bethlehem’s community.