Arrival to the church
Passing along Star Street towards the Holy Place of Jesus’ Nativity, as did the Magi from the East and, later, countless pilgrims, in the distance, and before arriving to the square in front of the current church, one is struck by the enchantment of a Place that for centuries has called millions of visitors from throughout the world to adore it.
Arriving at the paved square in front of the church, the sanctuary of the Nativity comes into view. At first sight it is not easy to understand the architectural structure of the church complex, which over the centuries has undergone numerous transformations. The structure dates back to the sixth century and was the work of architects employed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who wished to reconstruct the fourth century basilica that had been destroyed following the revolt of the Samaritans, as witnessed by Eutychius, Patriarch of Alexandria in 876..
Looking at the façade one is able to distinguish a number of sections that were part of the complex of the basilica and attached structures. Its fortress-like aspect arose from the requirements over the centuries to protect the structure and the residences of the religious who looked after the church.
Viewed from the front, the walls on the right enclose the Armenian and Greek monasteries, while to the left can be seen the modern construction of the Casa Nova and the Crusader-era Franciscan convent.
During the Constantinian period the current square formed part of the atrium of the church and was a wide, open space. This has been confirmed by excavations that uncovered the perimeter of the fourth-century church.
In front of the entrance, cisterns have been found whose mouths can be distinguished in the pavement. Rainwater entered through these and was stored for use in religious rites and for the daily life of the monasteries. The square is now surrounded by a perimeter wall, covering the entire south and west sides.
On this latter side, at one time there existed a wide doorway that served as an entry and also marked the boundary between the sacred buildings and the village.
The existence of the door, now destroyed, is confirmed by remains of its foundations and by the sketches of Bernardino Amico (16th century) and Ladislao Mayr (18th century).
The façade, whose style as a result of the continuous modifications does not seem very clear, belongs to the structure from the Justinian period. A close examination will reveal three entry doors, which were later walled shut.
The Byzantine façade would have presented a majestic and imposing appearance, with its three large entrances to the nave and two of the aisles. Compared to the earlier Constantinian structure, the Byzantine façade, preceded by a narthex, was extended by the width of an intercolumniation.
The small entrance door is the result of several reductions in size that took place over time: one can easily recognize the large central door from the Byzantine era with its horizontal architrave and diagonally-placed stones.
With the arrival of the Crusaders, the door was reduced to conform to the style preferred by Western knights, in order to better protect the Holy Place. Visible evidence of this is provided by the remains of the pointed arch that can be identified in the walls.
During the Ottoman period the dimensions of the doorway were further reduced, hence the size of the current door, in order to impede access by those seeking to desecrate the place of worship. Thus the door reflects to a certain extent the alternating phases of Christianity in Bethlehem: periods in which freedom of worship guaranteed the recognition of the Christian faith, and others in which persecutions and intolerance rendered difficult the life of the local communities.
The other two Byzantine doors, now covered by the perimeter walls of the church and by buttresses installed during the Crusader period, allow one to imagine the sense of majesty and beauty the Byzantine church must have inspired among those who arrived there on pilgrimage (as is indeed attested by various witnesses).
Entrance to the church
Passing through the small door, one enters into the area known technically as the narthex, which was constructed in the Byzantine period. In the ancient Christian tradition the narthex was the area serving as the entrance to the sacred areas, and was intended for catechumens who during certain moments of the celebrations were not allowed to enter into the church.
During the Constantinian period there had been no narthex, but instead an open, wide atrium which performed a similar function. The Justinian narthex has been divided into four areas, one of these serving as the entry area to the church.
During the Crusader period the areas at the two extremes served as bases for the four-storey-high bell towers that were built. A fourth area to the left of the entrance door is used by the soldiers who, since the Turkish period, have guarded the church. The episode is recounted with miraculous elements by the pilgrim Jean Boucher.
The entrance door, today covered by scaffolding, was a gift from the Armenian King Hetum in 1227, as indicated in the inscription which is in both Armenian and Arabic.
The two bell towers, mentioned for the first time in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville which took place between 1322 and 1357, were built during the Crusader period. They were situated at the extremities of the narthex, where today are found the entrances to the Armenian monastery and the chapel of the Franciscan convent of St. Helena.
Apart from their role as bell towers, they also served as guard towers overlooking the surrounding area. The period in which the two structures were built is confirmed by the remaining intact areas on the lower levels, which are characterized by Crusader architectural elements such as pointed arches.
The pilgrim Bernardino di Nali (15th century) described them in his memoirs as very elegant structures. The bells would no longer have been in place at this point since, as mentioned by Father Felix Faber (1480-1483), the Saracens did not allow Christians to have bells. The bell towers that can be seen today are later constructions forming parts of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox monasteries.
The narthex has been modified, and significantly reduced in size, compared to its original form. The floor is from the sixth century, but the plaster-covered walls do not reflect their original beauty, as the entire church would have been covered with white-veined marble.
Based on research into Byzantine architecture, it is assumed that the narthex was not only decorated with marble but also adorned with mosaics. After the restoration to be carried out in the near future, and with the removal of the plaster, the mosaic wall decorations will once again be visible.
As noted above, the Justinian narthex has been divided into four areas, and during the Crusader period the two areas at the extremes served as bases for the four-storey high bell towers that were erected.
Of these two areas, characterized by typical Crusader-style arches, one is today used as a porter’s lodge for the Armenian monastery, while the other has taken the name Chapel of St. Helena and is the property of the Franciscan friars.
The walls at the entrance to the Armenian monastery have been cleaned and restored to their original state: holes can still be seen in the stones that were used for attaching the marble originally adorning the walls. The plaster on the walls of the narthex makes it difficult to comprehend the true scale of the side doors, which are visible only from inside the church, where the walls are covered with crumbling plaster.
This area is an obligatory passage for all pilgrims who wish to enter the church from the square and represents an area common to the three Communities. For this reason, it has been very difficult to reach agreement on maintenance works necessary for strengthening the structure.
The wood door, which has 700 years of history, was a gift from the Armenian King Hethum, son of Constantine of Baberon, in 1227 as can be read in the carved inscription in Arabic and Armenian which says:
“The door of the Blessed Mother of God was made in the year 676 [according to the Armenian calendar] by the hands of Father Abraham and Father Arakel in the time of Hethum, son of Constantine, king of Armenia. God have mercy on their souls.”
The inscription in Arabic provides us with additional chronological elements of interest:
“This door was finished with the help of God, may he be exalted, in the days of our Lord the Sultan al-Malik al-Mu’azzam in the month of Muharram in the year 624 [Islamic calendar]”.
This gift is evidence of the good relations that existed at the time between the Armenian and Crusader Churches. The door, initially of very fine workmanship but poorly preserved due to the wear of time and lack of care, has a floral decoration typical of the Armenian style.
It is no longer completely visible, as it has been covered by scaffolding put in place by the Palestinian government to help support the roof beams, which are in a very unstable state.
Inside the church
In its interior, the church has preserved all of the architectural elements from the sixth century. When he first saw the actual project, the Byzantine emperor did not approve the choices made by the architect, accused him of having squandered the funds, and ordered that he be beheaded. Despite the emperor´s dissatisfaction, the building has shown itself to be very solid, surviving intact until the present day.
Excavations carried out by the British government in 1932 showed that the Constantinian-era floor had been completely covered over with finely-crafted mosaics displaying geometric and floral decorations.
Among these is to be highlighted the mosaic remnant preserved to the west of the presbytery, where by raising the wooden trapdoor one can see the monogram ΙΧΘΥΣ (“fish” in Greek) used in ancient times to indicate the name of Christ. While today the floor consists of a simple rough stone pavement, the Byzantine-era floor had white marble slabs whose veins were particularly accentuated. A remnant of this can be seen in the area of the north transept.
The Constantinian pavement was slightly inclined relative to the current floor, which is about a meter above the original level. The internal space, divided by columns into a nave and four aisles, is dark and dimly lit. In the sixth century the church was completely covered in marble: traces of the holes used to attach the marble can still be seen in the re-plastered walls.
The colonnade, which today finishes at the end of the area of the apse, carried on, creating an ambulatory around the Grotto of the Nativity. This type of architectural structure was used in a number of Holy Places, especially those for Martyrs, because, according to tradition, pilgrims who walked repeatedly around the holy site would in this manner obtain grace. The columns and capitals, made from red stone from Bethlehem, are the original ones from the Byzantine period, the product of local craftsmen. The capitals, works of exquisite craftsmanship, were painted in blue. On the columns were representations of a number of Eastern and Western saints, both religious and lay. The architraves are also from this period, although their adornment goes back only to Crusader times and is very similar to that of the architraves in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which also date from this latter period. The high walls of the nave are decorated with superb mosaics dating from the 12th century, the works of Eastern masters.
The mosaics are divided into three groups and show, starting from the bottom: the genealogy of Jesus, the councils and local synods and, at the top, a procession of angels. According to a Greek account from the ninth century, earlier there had been additional mosaic decorations dating from the Byzantine period.
Among these special note was made of the representation of the Magi who arrived in Bethlehem to adore Jesus, which adorned the façade. A truly singular event occurred in 614 AD when the Persian soldiers who were invading the town took fright at the sight of the mosaic and renounced their intention to sack the church, which thus escaped unscathed.
The transepts, which still preserve the original marble pavement from the Byzantine period, are today decorated with icons and vestments from the Greek Orthodox (right transept) and Armenian Orthodox (left transept) traditions. This part of the church also preserves mosaic decorations skillfully portraying scenes from the Gospels.
The floor of the original Constantininan church was completely paved over in mosaic. This was discovered as a result of the excavations carried out by the British government between 1932 and 1934. The fourth century pavement rose in the direction of the area of the apse, with a difference in level that varied between 75 and 31 centimeters. During the Byzantine period, due to the variations in the floor level within the church, the floor was re-done using white-veined marble. Through trapdoors opening in the pavement it is still possible to enjoy a view of the ancient mosaics. Their workmanship is truly detailed and refined, above all those in the nave. It has been calculated that the density of tesserae (small squares of stone or glass) is 20 per cm2, compared to the 10 per cm2 characteristic of ordinary mosaics.
This factor by itself allows one to understand why these decorations are so highly valued, as their higher density permitted the representation of more refined images, and the reproduction of more shades of color. The result was decorative mosaics that are extremely detailed, reflecting the importance of this Holy Place. These mosaics, which cover the nave and apse, display geometrical and decorative elements (swastikas, circles and cornices with interwoven bands). More rare are themes related to plants, such as acanthus leaves and vines. Rarer still is the representation of a rooster in the north transept. The absence of living beings is consistent with the Middle Eastern tradition which did not use representations of either animals or humans.
A very interesting part of the mosaic decoration is preserved in the left corner of the nave where, opening a trapdoor, one can see a monogram bearing the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ. Literally meaning “fish” in Greek, this was used as an acronym and symbol in ancient times to indicate the name of Christ (“Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”): this is the only element that confirms that the Holy Place was Christian. A similar use of a monogram had come to be used during the Classical period at the entrance to houses of Roman patricians, along with busts of the owners. This fact has led to the hypothesis that the monogram marked the ancient entrance to the sacred area and to the “house of Jesus”. Based on the analysis of the excavations carried out by the British, it has been hypothesized that the entry to the presbytery in the Constantinian church was by means of a staircase starting precisely from the spot where the mosaic is located. According to Father Bagatti, the stairs used to enter the presbytery were torn down in order to construct a direct entrance to the grotto.
Questi mosaici, che ricoprivano la navata centrale e l'abside, raffigurano elementi geometrici e decorativi (svastiche, tondi, cornici con nastri intrecciati). Più rari gli elementi vegetali, come foglie di acanto e viti.
Eccezionale è la rappresentazione di un gallo, nel transetto nord. L’assenza di figure animate è in rispetto della tradizione Medio Orientale che non usava figure animali o umane.
Un elemento molto interessante della decorazione musiva, è conservato nell'angolo sinistro della navata centrale dove, aprendo la botola di legno, si può vedere un monogramma con le lettere ΙΧΘΥΣ. Il segno usato nell'antichità per indicare il nome di Cristo (acronimo delle parole: "Ιησοῦς Χριστός Θεoῦ Υιός Σωτήρ", Gesù Cristo Figlio di Dio Salvatore), letteralmente significa “pesce”: questo è l'unico simbolo certo di cristianità del luogo. Un uso simile dell'acronimo veniva fatto in epoca classica all’ingresso delle case patrizie romane, assieme alla rappresentazione dei busti dei propietari. Per questo è stato ipotizzato che il simbolo segnasse il punto dell'antico ingresso alla zona sacra e alla "casa di Gesù".
The decoration of the columns, which went largely unnoticed until 1891 when it was studied by Father Germer-Durant, represents one of the most interesting elements of the interior decoration.
It is difficult to discern any real continuity or organic unity in the iconography within the church. The technique used was encaustic (“hot wax”), a manner of painting in which pigments mixed with heated wax are applied to a surface.
Both the hands of the artists and the period in which the works were produced are different, leading one to think that they were requested by individual clients from different painters. There is no doubt that all of the images date from the Crusader period, a time of growing division between the Eastern and Western Churches. This is also confirmed by the presence of saints from both the Eastern and Western traditions (see the photo gallery).
The individual panels, placed on all the columns of the nave and the first row of columns to the south, are surrounded by a red and whitish-colored band, while the figures of the saints stand out from the dark blue background. Each saint has his own name written in an ornamental scroll above or placed in his hands. The function of these paintings was described by the pilgrim Arculf who attested to the custom of celebrating masses near the columns on the day of the Saint. For the clerics of those times, the painted columns served to metaphorically invoke the presence of the Saints in the place.
There is a widespread belief, today as well as in those days, that the Saints represent those who support the weight of the Church: the pictures of the Saints on the columns transmit this concept in a simple and forceful manner to all of the faithful who visit the church. We can define these paintings as “votive frescoes”, since it is very likely that they served as a testimonial of having carried out a pilgrimage.
In addition, the patrons of the works were clearly aware that the works contributed to the embellishment of the church.
The particularly dark appearance of the nave is due to the inadequate maintenance which over the years has led to a deterioration in the condition of the Sanctuary. Nonetheless, the mosaics with their gold background and silver inlaid mother-of-pearl, which at one point completely covered the walls of the church, retain their fascinating effect.
The wall decorations, from the Crusader period, are arranged in different bands and are partly covered by plaster.
The most recent survey carried out in connection with the restoration of the church has shown that the tesserae of the mosaics were positioned tilted downwards in order to enhance the beauty of the mosaic when observed from a position several meters below. In this manner a strong visual impact is received by the pilgrim upon entering the church, despite the poor state of preservation of the mosaics.
The most direct and precise evidence regarding the decoration is that provided by Father Quaresmi in his Elucidatio Terrae Sanctae (1626) which described all of the wall mosaics in great detail. At the lowest level, on the right, St. Joseph and the ancestors of Christ according to the Gospel of St. Matthew are portrayed.
Symmetrically, according to Quaresmi on the left side was a genealogical representation taken from the Gospel of Luke. On a second level, spaced between bands of acanthus leaves, are representations of the seven Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea, 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; Chalcedon, 451; Constantinople II, 553; Constantinople III, 680, Nicaea II, 787), the four provincial Councils (Antioch 268; Ancyra, 314; Sardica, 342; Gargres, 4th century) and the two local Synods (Carthage, 254; Laodicea, 4th century).
For each council there is a picture of a sacred edifice and, with the aid of an ornamental scroll, an explanation of the decision that was taken on that occasion. At the upper level we can see a series of representations of angels in procession, having feminine features and dressed in white tunics, headed towards the Grotto of the Nativity.
At the feet of one of these angels can be seen the signature “Basil” of the mosaic artist, who was probably of Syrian origin. At the crossing of the church (where the nave and transept intersect) one can still see today scenes taken from the canonical Gospels: to the north, the incredulity of Thomas, which appears to be the one best preserved, the Ascension and the Transfiguration; to the south, Jesus’entry into Jerusalem.
In the cupola of the principal apse, according to Quaresmi, was a representation of the Virgin and Child, and in the arch of the apse one of the Annunciation of Mary, between the prophets Abraham and David. On the walls below were scenes from the life of the Madonna, taken from the apocryphal writings.
On the counter-façade, above the entrance door, was a representation of the Tree of Jesse with Jesus and the prophets. This mosaic is now covered by white plaster.
The pilgrim John Phocas reported having seen during his voyage (c. 1177) a picture of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos in the church: this shows that even after the Schism of 1054, when the church was under the control of the Crusaders, close relations continued between the Eastern and Western Churches. An inscription in the principal apse makes reference to both Manuel Comnenus and Amalric of Jerusalem, so the mosaics must have been produced in the last decades of the Crusader presence in Palestine, which ended in 1187.
The works were commissioned by both the Crusader king of Jerusalem and the Byzantine emperor: an example of collaboration that is practically unique in history and one which highlights the importance that the Sanctuary must have had at that time.
The most recent studies carried out following the surveys for the restoration have raised a new question relative to the origin of the workers who produced the mosaics. The doubt relates to the previous assumption that local artists were employed to work on the decorative project, as normally was the case for reasons of practicality. The signatures of the mosaic artists, Ephraim and Basil, names that certainly are of Syrian origin, are a good indicator for determining the origin of the workers.
It is also possible to hypothesize that Greek workers and designers may have been involved, but it is clear that whoever produced these decorations knew very well the great monuments of the Holy Land, which had been decorated by artists coming from the West. For example, in the decorative band in the nave separating the representations of the Councils from the large figures of the angels above, where the windows are, is a second, narrower, decorative band containing an animal mask typical of European Romanesque art. T
hus, in the Bethlehem mosaics there are signs of the close relationship between Byzantine and Western art, which are blended together. The most recent investigations have established that, from the point of view of mosaic art, the church represents the culmination in the Crusader period of the encounter between Byzantine and Crusader art. T
he mosaics thus reflect the Ecumenical “face” the Church of the Nativity still presents today to those who visit it: a point of unity between the Eastern and Western churches.
The Greek iconostasis in the presbytery dates from 1764. In the original church this area above the Grotto was octagonal-shaped, as was confirmed by excavations carried out between 1932 and 1934.
Based on these excavations and reconstruction of the area, in the fourth century the presbytery could be entered via a staircase that followed the octagonal perimeter of the outer walls. Beneath the floor in this area, within the perimeter of the octagon, mosaic decorations similar to those in the nave have been found, but far more elaborate containing representations of animals and plants as well as geometric elements.
The sacred area that has been described underwent several transformations during the Justinian period. The entire area of the presbytery was enlarged in three directions with the addition of three spacious apses in the form of a cross.
The baldachin was replaced by a true and proper crescent-shaped presbytery placed in the center of the area, to allow pilgrims to freely circulate around it. At the same time, the entry to the Grotto was transformed, with two separate entrances created.
There are numerous interconnected caves adjacent to the Grotto of the Nativity. This area was used in ancient times for funerary purposes, a usage that has been maintained over time.
The largest cave and the one nearest to the Place of the Nativity, known as St. Joseph’s, is divided into two areas and is connected to the Convent of the Franciscans. From this cave it is also possible to access the Holy Grotto by means of a private passageway of the Latins that is used for the Daily Procession to the Place of the Nativity.
Opposite the Altar of St. Joseph, on the right, are two small caves, the second of which is dedicated to the Holy Innocents. Directly in front a portion of a pre-Constantinian arch belonging to a funerary chamber has been preserved. It was torn down during the time of Constantine to make way for the foundations of the church.
It is thought that this point of the cave may have been the original entry into the cavern, and from here one could have made out in the background the scene from the Holy Crib.
On the right is the passageway leading to the cave of St. Jerome, St. Paula and St. Eustochium: here were found the tombs of the three saints along with 72 graves from various periods, which are now preserved within a single burial vault.
The entrance today is placed sideways with respect to the location where Jesus was born, but it is thought that in the fourth century the entrance was located behind the presbytery. The small façades of the two side entrances date back to the times of the Crusaders.
The Grotto is entered by descending the stairs to the right of the iconostasis. Here the space is very narrow and restricted and the walls, which were originally irregular, form an almost-rectangular perimeter. The natural walls of the cave, decorated in the Constantine period, were covered with marble during the Byzantine period.
The Altar of the Nativity only began to be venerated in the Byzantine period when this space was created to commemorate the precise place in which Jesus had been born.
The current structure has been totally modified from that which was described by the pilgrim John Phocas and Abbot Daniel in the 12th century. Two red stone columns, and the inscription “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus”, overlook the altar, above which are representations of the Virgin and the Child in swaddling clothes, the scene of the washing, and that of the coming of the shepherds.
Beneath the altar is a star with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est” in memory of the precise spot of the Nativity. To the right of the altar is the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger, also known as the Crib. At this point in the Grotto the floor is lower and the space is made up of columns similar to the Byzantine ones in the nave of the church, and by the remains of two Crusader columns.
In front of the Crib is a small altar dedicated to the Magi, where the Latins celebrate Holy Mass. The structure of the Crib is not the original one but is the result of alterations necessitated by the continuous wear and tear of time and the passage of pilgrims.
Following the fire of 1869 the walls of the Grotto were covered with asbestos to prevent further fires, a donation from the President of the French Republic Marshal Mac-Mahon in 1874. Below this covering the original Crusader marble is still visible, while above it can be seen wood panel paintings of limited artistic value.
Following along the course of the Daily Procession, and leaving the Grotto of the Nativity through an underground passageway built by the Franciscans to ensure a direct access to the Holy Place, one comes to the Grotto of St. Joseph.
Now restored in a modern style by the Franciscan artist Alberto Farina, this would have been the nearest cave to the Place of the Nativity. As one exits from the underground passageway, the Altar of St. Joseph is on the left.
Directly in front the foundations of a Constantinian wall and a pre-Constantinian arch have been preserved, confirmed to date from the 1st to 2nd centuries AD. This area was used as a burial ground for “saints”. Indeed, the custom of burying the dead in the vicinity of a Holy Place was a common one, occurring also in the West (notably in Rome).
Leaving the underground area to enter the Church of St. Catherine, it is possible to pass through the supporting walls of three different reconstructions of the area of the apse: one from the Constantinian period and the other two from different Byzantine periods, one of these being a planned design that was never fully implemented.
With our back to the Altar of St. Joseph, to our right is the Grotto of the Innocents in which one can see three arcosolium (or “bench”) type tombs, each containing from two to five sepulchers.
Here the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by Herod the Great shortly after Jesus’ birth is commemorated. In the first centuries, the memory of the Innocents was commemorated in an adjoining cave, which one can assume was a common grave in which numerous bones of corpses had been found.
In the cave that serves as a passage between the Grottos of St. Joseph and St. Jerome we come across two altars: one dedicated to the saints Paula and Eustochium, the other to saints Jerome and Eusebius.
Three tombs are located in the wall to the right of the first altar, positioned like Roman tombs in the countryside around Lazio. This would seem to give support to the idea that faithful from the Latin community were present here and had maintained the Roman burial custom of placing bodies in niches inside of walls.
From the last cave, named after St. Jerome, it is possible to enter directly into the Crusader Cloister by means of an internal staircase.
Buildings around the church
The monumental complex of religious buildings, of which the Church of the Nativity is the heart, covers an area of 12,000 m2.
The complex includes, in addition to the church, the Latin (north), Greek (south-east) and Armenian (southwest) monasteries, and the Catholic church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, fronted by the cloister of S. Jerome.
The Church of St. Catherine can be entered in three different manners: via the north transept; through the underground caves; and passing through the Cloister of St. Jerome. The church, which is part of the complex of the former Crusader monastery, has undergone noteworthy transformations over the years, most recently the modifications carried out on the occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000.
The site, which already in 1347 had been dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, initially was only a small chapel within the Franciscan Convent, corresponding to what today is the area of the altar dedicated to St. Catherine.
The ancient structure as it appears in the drawings of Bernardino Amico underwent major changes, with its area substantially increased over time. The sacred edifice which exists today is very large and well-lit. It consists of a nave and two aisles, with a raised apse where the friars’ choir is located.
A Nativity scene is represented on the stained glass windows, a result of the modifications carried out in the year 2000. At the end of the aisle on the right is the altar dedicated to St. Catherine, while to the right, in a recessed area, is the altar of the Virgin with the statue of the Child Jesus, which dates from the 18th century and is used during celebrations of the Christmas Solemnity in Bethlehem.
Worthy of note are the Crusader arches preserved at the entrance of the church that have been incorporated in the present structure and formerly were part of what is known as St. Jerome’s Cloister. In this area is a bas-relief donated by the Pope on the occasion of Jubilee 2000.
The Cloister of St. Jerome, so-named because it allows direct access to the cave dedicated to that Saint, was restored by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1947. During this work, Father Bagatti provided assistance to the archaeological surveys of the caves lying below.
For the restoration of the cloister it was necessary to insert new columns where the original ones were missing in order to provide additional support to the structure. This was done in a manner to preserve the original structure, a clear example being the simple and linear modern capitals which alternate with the more richly decorated Crusader ones.
From the Cloister one can enter the Chapel of St. Helena, which is in fact what remains from the base of the Crusader bell tower. The chapel contains 12th century frescoes in a poor state of preservation but very interesting stylistically. From the entrance, to the right of the cloister, can be seen an entry door to the church used by the Latins for the official entries of the Pope, since the right to enter through the principal door is accorded solely to the Custos of the Holy Land and the Patriarchs.
On the opposite side is the entry to the Franciscan Convent, which represents an enlargement of the Crusader monastery. Remaining elements from the Crusader monastery include the entrance hall with pointed arches, the perimeter walls giving access to the north side of the convent, the storeroom and cisterns, some of them dating from even earlier periods.
By passing through the basement of the convent one can enter the place that by tradition is known as the Washing of Jesus.
Entering the Cloister of St. Jerome and heading towards the church, one can enter through a small door the chapel commonly known as “St. Helena”.
During the Crusader period the Justinian narthex was subdivided, and one of the areas was given to the chapel. This displays elements of Crusader architecture along with Crusader-era frescoes from the twelfth century that, as Father Vincent declared, are of very high quality, although today they are in a poor state of preservation.
In the apse is a representation of Christ on the Throne between the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist. On the arch is an interesting representation in the form of a medallion in which one can recognize the Hetoimasia, a Byzantine iconographic theme represented by an empty throne awaiting the arrival of Christ for the Last Judgment.
On the other walls are representations of figures of saints.
The convent was constructed above the remains of the caves of the first monks who settled near the Grotto of the Nativity and of the initial Crusader monastery of Augustinian Canons. The basic structure of the convent remains that of the Crusader monastery, although it has been substantially enlarged and modified.
Clear signs of the Crusader architecture are still to be seen in the large entrance hall of the Convent, as well as in the underground areas. Entering into the ancient Crusader storage area, and passing through the area used today for elevators, it is possible to make out the ancient Crusader cistern.
The façade and entry to the Crusader monastery were located on the northern side of the structure, facing onto the area used today for Convent parking and the entrance into the Casa Nova.
The place known as the “Bathing Basin of Jesus” is accessible only from the convent. The site, full of historical and archaeological interest, has yet to be studied in detail. It is known, however, that the rock here has maintained its form unchanged since the time in which these places were tread upon by the Holy Family.
This very suggestive element leads us into a circular cave at the center of which a large round receptacle has been hollowed out, known traditionally as the place of Jesus’ first bathing. The scene of the washing never fails to appear in Eastern icons and in ancient representations of the Nativity. This area was discovered by an enterprising sacristan at the end of the nineteenth century.
The sacredness of the place has been transmitted by a number of ancient witnesses such as Arculf (De locis sanctis, 670 AD, Book II, Chapter 3) who tells of having washed his face here. The site needs to be further studied, but one can already hypothesize that it must have served some function prior to Jesus’ birth.
The structure of the convent is still that from the Crusader period. This is shown by the presence of underground areas like the Crusader Hall, now used as a chapel for pilgrims, formerly used as a warehouse.
Alongside this several very large ancient cisterns have been preserved.
The roof of the Church of the Nativity
In contrast to most Eastern churches, the roof covering was not vaulted but formed by covered trusses, as described by Louis de Rochechouart before the 1461 restoration: “In the roof there is a wooden structure built in ancient times. This is daily falling into ruins, above all over the choir.
The Saracens will not allow anyone to rebuild or restore it, so it is a miracle, worked by the Babe who was born there, that it still remains”. The roof of the Church of the Nativity underwent a major renovation in 1479 at the wish of the Guardian, Giovanni Tomacelli.
The timber, paid for by Philip the Good of Burgundy was transported in Venetian ships, while the lead for the roof was a gift from the English king Edward IV. A later renovation by the Greeks was carried out in 1671, on which occasion the cedar was replaced by pine, according to the testimony of Father Nau.
The major effort required in terms of materials and economic resources had the fortunate result of producing a roof that has lasted to the present day, although it is now in a considerably deteriorated state, which has led to major problems for the decorative wall mosaics.
In particular, during the summer months the lead structure “moves” due to the extremely high temperatures it reaches, allowing water to leak inside. We can recommend to the visitor a very interesting aerial view of the church from the roof of the Church of St. Catherine, which allows one to take in the construction of the three-apsed structure of the Sanctuary and to better understand the various changes in the perimeter of the building that have taken place over the centuries.
The Treasure of Bethlehem
Preserved today in the Archaeological Museum of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, the Treasure of Bethlehem consists of a series of bronze and silver objects that belonged to the Church of the Nativity in the medieval period. They were found by chance at two separate times: in 1863 during restoration works on the kitchen of the Franciscan convent, and in 1906 during excavations of the foundation for the new hospice for pilgrims.
The treasure had been carefully concealed during a period, and for reasons, that we do not know, presumably to protect it from eventual pillage. One can hypothesize that this took place after 1452 when Sultan Muhammad II prohibited the ringing of bells.
The treasure is made up of:
- an enameled crosier (pastoral staff); - three candlesticks, also enameled, two in silver with inscriptions;
- a carillon consisting of 13 bells;
- organ pipes of various dimensions;
- an Armenian cross in metal, found during excavations in 1962-1964 by Father Bellarmino Bagatti.
In addition, a number of objects coming from the Church of the Nativity are preserved in the Museum of the Flagellation.
Bethlehem in the iconography
Representations of the Church of the Nativity in history
Already in ancient Christian times Bethlehem was represented in numerous mosaics and miniatures, both by artists who had visited the site and by those who did not have any real knowledge of the sanctuary.
Among the former we can provide a brief list of some of the representations that have given us a near-real image of the development of the sanctuary: The fourth-century wall mosaic in the Church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, which to the right of the Redeemer has an octagonal building and to the left another that is generally identified as the Tomb. The sixth-century mosaic floor at Madaba, which includes a representation of the Justinian construction with its three trefoil apses that identify the structure.
The medieval miniature (13th century) preserved in Cambrai (France), which shows the façade of the church, with two bell towers, at the time of the Crusaders. The xylograph contained in Journey to the Holy Land (1483) by Bernhard von Breidenbach in which there are sketches of the church showing elements that today are no longer visible −including the enclosing wall, the buildings inhabited by the Greeks and Armenians, the arcuate form of the church’s windows and the three crosses that indicated the indulgences – thus restoring for us the appearance of the ancient church.
Finally, note should be made of the numerous sketches of Fathers Bernardino Amico (16th century) and Ladislao Mayer (18th century), the latter of whom has provided us with many interesting details, notably of the cloister.
The Child of Bethlehem
The statue of the Child Jesus carried in the procession at the point where the Holy Crib is remembered on Christmas Eve and which, after Epiphany, is returned to the Altar of the Madonna in the Church of St. Catherine, was commissioned by fra Gabino Montoro ofm in 1920 from the Casa Viuda Reixach in Barcelona and was made by the artist Francisco Roges.
He also made the statuette of the Child on the Throne which is carried by the Father Custos during the procession on the day of Epiphany. Both statues are made of cedar.
Several models were prepared, the one chosen having its hands joined together. The tradition of the Child Jesus at Bethlehem is a very old one, as is shown in the chronicle edited by Golubovich in the Biblioteca Biobibliografica della Terra Santa (“Bio-bibliographic library of the Holy Land”) which tells the story of the disappearance of the statue:
How the Pasha of Jerusalem took a wooden statue of the Child Jesus in order to obtain money:
“Congregating on the third of June in Bethlehem nearly all of those schismatic nations to celebrate one of their feasts, whose name I do not recall, and having entered into our convent to visit those sanctuaries and churches, they were standing around in our sacristy admiring a very beautiful sculpture of a small child that our friars normally placed in the Holy Crib on the eve of the Nativity, and they asked what it was; it was a Greek monk who replied that it was the God of the idolatrous Franks and that if the Turkish ministers were to take it from them they would have no God.
“Not an hour had passed before the Pasha, having entered into the Church of St. Catherine, where by chance he had gone with his whole court, demanded that the Child be brought to him, because he wanted to see it; he eagerly held it in his hands before returning it to our dragoman (interpreter) without saying a word.
“That evening when he was staying in our large church (where it was common for such important people to stay and pass the night), discussing the matter he was told that he had made a big mistake in returning the Child, since had he kept it the Franks would undoubtedly have paid thousands of piasters to ransom it, as it was held in such high esteem by them and adored as the Son of God.
“The Pasha, judging that he could gain some advantage from this situation, immediately sent his dragoman for the Child, making him promise not to allow it to be lost or in any way damaged, and with this vain hope it was taken to his home in Jerusalem. The Father Guardian, who was advised of this, maintained total silence and never made any mention of it.
“Three months passed, and seeing that the friars had not spoken a word about it, he called his dragoman to him and told him he was amazed that the Franks held their God in such low esteem. The dragoman replied that the God adored by the Franks was Three in One. He was in heaven, and that Child represented only the son of God in human flesh, which the Francs placed in the Holy Crib on the eve of his Nativity, to represent the mystery of that Nativity. To which the Pasha retorted: he knew very well that this was their real and true God, but he now assumed that to save the expense of ransoming it they were equivocating in this fashion; however, no longer wishing to keep it in his home, he would return it to Bethlehem as a show of kindness; and placing it in the hands of his dragoman, he said to him that he should return with at least 100 piasters.
“In the end, the Pasha had to be content, after much to- and froing, with two silk robes. To the praise of Christ. Amen.”
(T.S. 1969, p. 378)
It is clear that the traditional representation of the Child Jesus is a very old one linked to devotion, one which Francis of Assisi and his friars helped to popularize and develop. In the year 1414 there is documentation of a shipment from the Holy Land to Italy of statuettes of the Child, a custom which has continued to the present day. Each day in fact, not only the Franciscans but pilgrims themselves love to bring home statuettes of the Child Jesus as a memento of the Holy Place of the Nativity.
Handicrafts in Bethlehem
Among the most important economic activities in Bethlehem are local handicraft products made from olive wood, mother of pearl and coral.
The history of these handicrafts is directly linked to that of the Franciscan brotherhood in Bethlehem, which starting in the sixteenth century set up special centers for teaching the art of intaglio and working with mother-of-pearl, and encouraged the opening of artisan workshops dedicated to these techniques, in order to produce liturgical furnishings, crèches and other handmade articles.
The economic well-being of many Bethlehem families still depends today on these activities, even more so after the construction of the wall that has partially isolated the people living in these areas. The first testimony referring to the use of these techniques dates from 1586 when the Belgian pilgrim Jean Zuallart (known also as Giovanni di Zuallardo), describing his pilgrimage to the Holy Places, said this about Bethlehem: “They make crowns and small crosses from olive, cedar and other woods” (Il devotissimo viaggio di Gerusalemme, Roma 1595, p. 206).
The teaching of these techniques can be traced back to the establishment of a school in 1347 where, in addition to studies of theoretical subjects, instruction in practical disciplines and handicrafts was also promoted. From this breeding ground of artisans, manufacture began not only of simple materials but also of objects of great art and value, notably models of the Holy Places and crèches in mother-of-pearl and olive wood.
These made use of the studies on perspective carried out by Bernardino Amico, who was in Bethlehem between 1593 and 1597, leading to the production of models that were true masterpieces, especially those in mother-of-pearl.
Under the Ottoman Empire, the production of local handicrafts came to a halt due to the reduction in the number of pilgrims. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did production recover, due in large part to the contribution of Father Pacifico Riga who, during his 24 years as director and design teacher at the Bethlehem school, rediscovered and promoted the teaching of these skills.
Among the most famous of the local Bethlehem handicrafts the following should be noted: crèches (Nativity scenes), sepulchers, pictures in mother-of-pearl, reliquaries and candlesticks, as well as miniature models of the Holy Places.