The Father and Son who sculpted the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

As George moves through his workshop, he leaves behind him footprints in the thick, white dust from stone cutting, almost like snow. His infectious energy and the ease that he lifts the large slabs of stone would be impressive for a man even a third of his age. But with a glint in his eye, George shows no signs of slowing.

Born in Bethlehem in 1952 to the son of a sculpture, George Nustas was early to begin his apprenticeship. At the age of six, he would return home after school and help his father, Geries Nustas – a celebrated sculptor himself – in the workshop at home.

Geries was born in 1922, also the son of a stonemason in Bethlehem. At the age of 14, after only six years at school, the general strike of 1936 effectively meant the end of his education. With little other prospects he started to work in construction, specialising in stone, which he had learnt from his father.

This twist of fate would lead to an impressive, lifelong career.

During the years of the Jordanian annexation of Palestine, most construction took place in Amman. Geries was forced move, spending four years working in the Jordan capital. During this time he helped construct both the American and Turkish consulate and the Italian bank, amongst other projects. He returned to Bethlehem in 1958.

In 1962 renovations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre began.

Geries would work at the church throughout the day, returning to his home studio in the afternoon to continue work. At the age of 13, George would help him finishing shapes and doing basic work.

We had no glue, so I couldn’t break it. We had hand drills, no power tools. It was hard work!, George remembered with a smile, as he sat with Palestine Monitor.

At 16 George went to Italy to study at the Turismo Milano Art Academy. Although he had a solid understanding of how to work with stone, it was here that George learnt art history and theory.

George remembers having a headstart over his peers after his decade of experience at that age.

I had skills to work with stone, I was not afraid to hold a hammer, I already had discovered a harmony between my hands and the work, George exclaimed excitedly.

So while other students were slowly and nervously chipping away, I went to work, fast! Pieces of stone went flying through the classroom, hitting students, hitting windows. I was a troublemaker in those days.

It was that rebellious spirit that had convinced Geries to encourage George to Italy originally.

My father was always very supportive, and I realised later it was to keep me away from the [Israeli] occupation. He didn’t want me causing trouble under the occupation, George remembered.

George then spent five years studying and working in Italy, working in marble fields and discovering new techniques with new materials. These skills put him in a different league to his countrymen.

When he returned home, his father mentioned a problem with his work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Israeli authorities had refused to accept the tax free status of imported marble tiles for the Church and the mosaic tiles were left in Haifa port in high humidity. After finally being released after six weeks, the once metre by metre square tiles were left in thousands of separate pieces after the adhesive had been destroyed in the weather.

George had practiced similar work in Italy, and in two days, he started working in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

And this was my introduction into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was 22. It happened to me completely by chance, George said.

The father and son team then spent the next 23 years working together at the Church, until Geries retired in 1986, at the age of 62.

After this, Geries would for his own enjoyment, make exact replicas of the capitals from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Without a design, he was able to re-create these works entirely by memory. He created these with hand tools he’d constructed himself, refining what he needed over decades. Geries continued creating personal works right up until his death in 2004.

George continues renovating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to this day.

When asked about the work he is most proud of, George shakes his head.

You are always growing. I haven’t made my best work yet!

Source: Palestine Monitor