Bethlehem sculptors tell stories in olive wood

Last Supper Sculpture

Ibrahim Giacaman can talk sculpture.

Trained in Florence, Italy, and raised in a family of olive wood artisans, he works out of the family business on Manger Square in Bethlehem, where, hundreds of styles of nativities line the shops’s shelves.

While nativities hand-carved in Bethlehem can be kept always as family heirlooms and treasured keepsakes, during Lent, buyers often look for another biblical scene – the Last Supper, an intricate sculpture that the Giacaman shop offers in many styles.

The photo above shows the version that Pal Craftaid is offering this year to U.S. customers.

“Some are modern (without features). Some have detailed faces. They’re very nice,” he said in an interview by telephone, acknowledging that most olive wood depictions of the Last Supper are more labor-intensive than most nativities and typically cost more – anywhere from $60 to $500.

“As you know, they’re carved by hand. And, there are more individual figures – 13 including Jesus and the 12 disciples — so it is harder to make … It is a lot of work, not like ornaments,” Giacaman said, adding that not only the figures take time. The carvers sculpt plates, cups, tablecloths and other items that lend historical accuracy to the artwork.

“There are just many steps to the work … taking 12 to 15 hours.”

While Giacaman has developed new designs for the pre-Easter scene, many Last Supper scenes that line his shelves were designed by his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather and even his great-great grandfather, all of whom devoted a lifetime to olive wood art that has been sold at the shop, Il Bambino.

The Last Supper has always been one of the favorite subjects for Christian art, visible even in the catacombs in Rome where the disciples are shown reclining at a semi-circular table where Jesus presides.

Paul mentions the meal in First Corinthians 11.

And during the Italian Renaissance, countless painters put their own spin on the gathering; the most famous, of course, being the 15th Century mural by Da Vinci at a convent in Rome where anger, shock and sadness are visible on the faces of the disciples as Jesus announces his impending betrayal.

Giacaman said that the shop’s portrayals of the Last Supper often are given as gifts to pastors. Others are kept at home and displayed during the Easter season, a reminder of a faith tradition that reaches back centuries and is still visible today as communities gather at a table that is prepared for all eternity.