1 | THE PLACE OF THE STAR
From the grotto to the Basilica
“In this poor crevice of the earth the Creator of the heavens was born; here He was wrapped in swaddling clothes; here He was seen by the shepherds; here He was pointed out by the star; here He was adored by the Wise Men”.
St. Jerome, 395
Even centuries later, the heart of the Basilica is still represented in the humble grotto that tradition indicates as the birthplace of baby Jesus. A 10×2-metre gallery, on the eastern side of which, in a small apse-like recess, a silver star marks the exact spot of the Nativity. On the approximate opposite side, in another small recess three steps lower, stands the place where Baby Jesus was laid down in a manger.
This type of grotto is very common in the territory of Bethlehem. Such grottos are tied to the geological characteristics of the region and have been used as dwellings, storerooms or animal shelters. Jesus was born in that specific grotto of Bethlehem, and for centuries long, humble pilgrims and the faithful went on pilgrimage to that birthplace.
The Grotto of the Nativity attracts pilgrims the most, however, it is not the only one below the Basilica. In the northern direction, we can find a group of grottos called “St Jerome’s”. According to tradition, this is where the saint lived while working on the translation of the Bible. In the eastern direction, we find the small Grotto of the Baptism and the Well of the Star. In the southern direction, there is the Grotto of the Holy Innocents. Recent archaeological findings enlightened the relationship between the upper architecture of the Basilica and the grottos underneath, showing that the Grotto of the Nativity and the north and east grottos already existed at the time of Emperor Constantine, while Emperor Justinian restored them to become monumental. The group in the southern direction, was built along with the Basilica in the forth century, upon Justinian’s command.
THE TESTIMONY OF PILGRIMS
“And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians”.
In the forth century, Palestine, a region at the eastern outskirts of the Empire, became the Holy Land: bone of contention for different powers and faiths, destination of pilgrimages and “capital” of the three main monotheistic religions of the world.
The protagonists of this transformation were Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena who, aged more than 80 years, departed on the first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, retracing the steps of the Gospel and carrying with her the imperial decree to sanctify the sites where Jesus had lived, by building majestic churches.
The churches of the new religion did not have an inspiration model. Until that moment, Christians had been persecuted, and started to meet in private dwellings called Domus ecclesiae. Constantine’s architects adopted the model of the Basilica, borrowed from the civil architecture of Roman times.
Bethlehem, the translation of which means “house of bread”, was a small village surrounded by defensive walls. The hill where the Christian tradition located the Grotto of the Nativity “had been overshadowed by a forest dedicated to Adonis” by Emperor Hadrian. That was the place where Constantine built his Basilica.
“It is fitting that the most marvellous place in the world should be worthily decorated”.
Emperor Constantine, letter to Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, 326
THE CONSTANTINIAN BASILICA
In front of the building, a monumental 30-meter-long courtyard with mosaics on the floor stood tall, surrounded by columned porticos.
On the inside, the church was divided in five naves. The eastern side featured an octagonal raised presbytery in the center of which, over the grotto, gaped a great, round oculus. From there, the pilgrims could see the exact spot of the Nativity and the manger where Jesus had been swaddled and laid. Few steps away stood the Well of the Star, the sacred place where the star that had led the Wise Men came to a halt. According to tradition, only the most pure-hearted could still see the star reflected on the waters of the cistern.
Only a few wonderful traces remain of this Basilica. After centuries of oblivion, the ruins were brought back to light between 1932 and 1934, when the British archaeologists and architects sent by the British Mandate to Palestine excavated the area of the courtyard and of the nave, revealing a large part of the mosaic floor.
THE TESTIMONY OF PILGRIMS
“Where the Lord Jesus Christ was born; there a basilica was made upon Constantine’s command”.
The Bordeaux Pilgrim, 333
“He took in hand here other sites venerated for their mystic caves, and he adorned these also with rich artwork, decorating them so that the symbol of salvation could shine”.
Eusebius of Caesarea, 335
“The decorations are really too marvellous for words. All you can see is gold and jewels and silk; the hangings are entirely silk with gold stripes, the curtains the same, and everything they use for the services at the festival is made of gold and jewels”.
The Mosaic Floor
The mosaic floor of the Basilica filled the pilgrims with wonder. It looked like a 25×8-metre carpet occupying the space outlined by the colonnades. An incredible variety of colours filled it with geometrical and floral decorations, twines of acanthus leaves, pumpkins, artichokes, pomegranates alongside small waves, curve patterns and Solomon’s knots.
At the bottom of the central nave, on both sides of the staircase leading to the grotto, mosaic squares appeared. One of them featured the Greek word IKTYS, an acrostic hiding the Latin name for Jesus Christ used by the first Christian communities.
2 | THE SPLENDOUR OF THE NATIVITY
“In the twenty-first year of the reign of Justinian, the inhabitants of Samaria in Palestine revolted, destroyed and burned all the churches, killed many Christians subjecting them to serious afflictions and put to death the Bishop of Nablus. Hearing of this, King Justinian sent a great army and many Samaritans were killed. […] The king ordered the messenger to demolish the church of Bethlehem, which was small, and to rebuild it to be more impressive, big and beautiful, so that there was none more beautiful in Jerusalem.”
Eutychius, Patriarch of Alexandria (aprox. 876-Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium)
The new Basilica
Eutychius, Patriarch of Alexandria, spread the rumour that the Constantinian Basilica was set on fire during the rebellion of AD 529. This was confirmed after centuries, when the excavations of 1934 revealed pieces of burnt wood. However, recent archaeological analysis revealed not only the craftsmanship of the builders and the advanced architectural solutions that had been adopted, but also that the church was not demolished by the Samaritans, but rather by Emperor Justinian.
The new Basilica, rebuilt from scratch, opened on the arcaded square with a monumental, finely decorated, three-portal façade. The layout adopted by the architects, extremely innovative for Palestine, was characterised by an eastern end wider than the former octagon, delimited by three apses.
The Justinianean Basilica
The interior of the church was composed of five naves divided by four rows of 50 columns of 5 meters each, topped by golden-plated Corinthian capitals. The architraves were golden too and, close to the lower part of the roof, there was another system of beams hidden in the walls, designed to provide protection from earthquakes. The light entered from windows in the upper part of the walls, and was reflected and spread by the great marble slabs covering the floor and the walls. In spite of the many renovations across the centuries, the truss system still appears as a masterpiece of the Byzantine carpentry.
The entrances to the Grotto were modified by two new staircases shut by bronze doors. A wonderful monolithic octagonal well was used as a baptismal font. A carved capital was placed inside when the ritual was opened to children instead of adults. The decorations that enriched the walls were lost, although Sophronius describes in great detail the gold-plated columns, the mosaics and the shining decorations of the coffering of the ceiling.
Recent archaeological excavations showed that the new building site was placed directly over the old mosaic floor. No traces of fires were found. Among the many, extraordinary discoveries, it is impossible not to mention the “rite of light”: in order to bring about the expansion of the façade, the constructors buried in the foundations of the colonnade some fine-crystal lamps belonging to the liturgical objects of the Constantinean Basilica.
THE TESTIMONY OF PILGRIMS
“As I’ll enter the magnificent quadrangle and that sacred building with its three splendid apses, I shall rejoice. When my gaze will set on the golden hues of the pillars and of those excellent mosaics, the clouds of my pain shall dissolve. I shall look at the ceiling and its decorations as bright as stars, for by way of the arts, the splendour of the Heavens dwells there”.
Patriarch Sophronius, 603, 604
“When the godless Persians destroyed all the cities of the Roman Empire and Syria… they arrived to Bethlehem and saw in amazement the images of their compatriots, the Persian Wise Men. Out of respect and affection for their ancestors, they venerated them as though they were alive and they spared the church, which still stands in our days”.
Council of Jerusalem, 836
3 | A Fortress of Light
TheTransformations of the Crusades (AD XII)
The restoration works brought to light several paintings of saints and prophets painted on the columns between 1130 and 1150. Along with the mosaics, they accompanied the pilgrims in their devotional journey towards the grotto.
In 1099, the Crusader armies conquered the Holy Land, previously ruled by the Arabs since 638. On Christmas Eve of 1100, Baldwin was crowned King of Jerusalem in the church of Bethlehem.
During the Kingdom of the Crusaders, the Justinianean church was turned into a fortress, with a defensive tower, a monastery and several inns for the increasing number of pilgrims. The architecture of the building was not modified, except for the reconstruction of the narthex and the belfries. On the other hand, a great deal of effort and resources were put in the cycle of frescoes, later replaced by sumptuous mosaics, covering the upper part of all available walls.
Nowadays, we can only see a small portion of the glorious mosaics recovered by the restoration works under centuries of candle smoke. The tales of the pilgrims allow us to rebuild the whole decoration, that included the Tree of Jesse in the counter-façade, the Ecumenic Councils and the Provincial Synods in the central nave, Christ’s genealogy, a procession of angels between the windows and the Virgin, portrayed in the central apse between Abraham and David. The cycle ended with various scenes of Christ’s life in the transepts.
THE TESTIMONY OF PILGRIMS
“Holy Bethlehem is founded on a paved hill, which contains both the Holy Cave and the Manger. It contains also the Well from which David longed to drink, and a Church set at the back of the Cave, which a visitor sees to be big both in length and height, cross-shaped and roofed with imperishable wood. The roof near the sanctuary is supported on a stone vault. But this most beautiful and most spacious Church also was erected by my most moderate Emperor’s liberal hand.”
Giovanni Focas, 1177
“This church is beautiful and covered with lead. Its pillars, with architraves and capitals, are made of the very same noble marble that covers the floor. The walls are adorned with gold, silver and many colours, and the building is enriched with every form of pictorial art you may think of.” Thietmar, 1217
An inscription on the mosaics in Greek, Syrian and Aramaic dates the entire cycle back to 1169 and highlights the joint commission of Manuel I Komnenos, Emperor of Constantinople; Amalric, King of Jerusalem; and Raoul, Bishop of Bethlehem, united in a political alliance that made them the true heirs of Constantine and Justinian. The eclectic style shows a deep knowledge of the Byzantine art, which is evident in the rendition of faces, draperies and tunics, as well as of the Islamic one, with frequent references to the ornamental motifs of the Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem and a great usage of mother of pearl. New animal decorations appear too, probably borrowed from the Occidental tradition of the Book of Illumination.
The word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go from here, go east; Hide yourself by the torrent Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. There you will drink water from the torrent and I will order the crows to feed you”. He obeyed the word of the Lord; he went and settled near the torrent Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The crows brought him bread in the morning and meat in the evening; he was drinking water from the torrent. (Kings 17, 2-6)Among the images welcoming pilgrims entering the Basilica is Elijah, one of the great figures of Eastern monastic life, represented on one of the columns of the central nave. The monastery dedicated to him, which is on the way to Jerusalem, was also considered the place where he was fed by the crows, as recorded in the scriptures and the painting of the column.
This painting was made by the art restorer Lucio Tommasone.
The columns, built during the reconstruction of the Justinian age, shows a delicate and compromised pictorial decoration made with oil binder, realized in the crusade age. The column decorations represent one of the most interesting elements present in the Church. The paintings were realized by many artists in different period, for this reason it could suppose that the works were required by clients to various painter. The pictorial decorations date back to Crusader age, period of East–West Schism between Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches; this is also confirmed by the presence of saints from both the Occident and the Eastern traditions. The scene measuring 168 cm in height and a width of 68 cm, painted directly on the limestone “Malaki” of the Justinian column, at a height of 300 cm from the current floor. The painting technique is very similar to that of tempera paintings on wooden panels and icons. The binder used is probably organic in nature such as: egg, glues, gums and resins, and changes according to the different mineral matter of pigments; under some layers can be seen a slight preparatory layer made from white lead (basic lead carbonate), in others there is no any preparatory layer.
Santo Stefano, il protomartire, solitamente è rappresentato con abiti da diacono, con dalmatica o camice o stola indossata di traverso. Può anche avere la tonsura monacale, specie in raffigurazioni medievali. Suoi attributi sono le pietre con cui venne lapidato, la palma del martirio e il libro; nella raffigurazione su colonna porta in mano il libro e una croce.
This painting was made by the art restorer Lucio Tommasone.
The Seventh Angel
The grandiose discovery of the VII angel took place between February and March 2014, when the technicians and restorers were carrying out a non-invasive diagnostic investigation campaign on the plaster surfaces. Thermography first and then stratigraphic essays confirmed the presence of a mosaic almost two square meters large, and the greatest surprise was to discover that it depicted an angel hidden for about 250 years. The skilful recovery of the mosaic, through cleaning and consolidation techniques, has brought full life to the work that has finally returned to being a guide for pilgrims from all over the world on their way to the cave.
Between the windows of the nave, seven angels saved by the archaeologists create a devotional route towards the grotto.
The complex restoration of the mosaics showed the incredible variety of colours and stones used, as well as surprising techniques like the inserts of mother of pearl or the tilting of the golden tiles, which reflected the light on the pilgrims below.
We know the artists behind these extraordinary mosaics, a rarity for Medieval art. They were Efrem and Basilius, whose names appear in the cycle. Efrem is listed next to the names of the commissioners, revealing that he probably was a renowned artist. Basilius, on the other hand, left his signature close to the feet of one of the angels.
The marvellous wooden door between the narthex and the nave dates back to 1227 and was sculpted by Armenian artisans with the support of father Abraham and father Arakel.
In 1187, Saladin conquered Palestine, followed by the Mamluks in 1244. This was the end of the Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land was officially instituted in 1342, to represent the Church
4 | The Dark Centuries
The downfall of the Basilica
“The whole floor was covered with precious marble, but the Turks put their hands on it, and brought it all to the mosque (…). In ancient times, the monastery and the church were enormously rich, all covered with mosaics and histories, but now tears weep over those walls.”
Franciscan Father, 1553/55
From the forth century onwards, a dreadful downfall of the Basilica took place: terrible earthquakes inexorably took turns with negligence and with the exacerbation of the relationship between the communities. After the first, terrible earthquake of 1450, Giovanni Tomacelli restored the roof with the help of the Duke of Burgundy, who financed the new wooden structure, and of the King of England, who paid for the lead covering. Several Venetian architects took part in this endeavour, which ended in 1479.
The Turks under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Palestine in 1516, hiding the rest of the marble slabs, indulging in disrespectful activities in the nave and ruining the mosaics with harquebuses. This dire situation forced the Greek Orthodox church, who was in charge of the transepts, to build a separation wall between transept and nave, while the Franciscans had to reduce the size of the main door, now known as the Door of Humility, to prevent the Turks from herding the cattle inside.
A new earthquake in 1834, shattered many of the old mosaics. The Greek Ortthodox church stepped in again, restoring the roof in 1842 and covering the walls with plaster, framing the remains of the mosaics. Two decrees from 1852 and 1853 irreversibly stated the property as it was divided back then: that’s how the Status Quo, a codex of regulations, later confirmed by international treaties, was born. It did not resolve the tensions between the various religious orders; it just “froze” the Basilica to its 1842 situation.
THE TESTIMONY OF PILGRIMS
“The church looked like an empty granary, like a pharmacy without the apothecary vases, like a library with no books. Doves and sparrows flew freely inside and outside, coming in from the holes in the roof, which they still do”.
Father Felix Faber, 1480, 1483
“For this lead, our Fathers suffer a lot, because whenever the Janissaries come, they intend to turn it into arquebus bullets, and since our Fathers want to forbid that, they are often beaten with canes or otherwise offended”.
Father Bernardino Amico, 1596
In the twentieth century, the Basilica of the Nativity was further damaged. In 1934, a devastating earthquake shook Palestine, followed by a first intervention to preserve the church. Back then, Palestine was under the British Mandate, and British archaeologists were put at work to assess the stability of the structure and the damage caused by the earthquake. On that occasion, the marvellous mosaic floors of the Constantinian era were discovered, although most of them were covered again and hidden under the floor. In Spring 2002, the Nativity Church was besieged by the Israeli army for forty days, when 240 Palestinians sought shelter inside during the Intifada.
The church of Nativity ran such a risk that the need of a restoration to protect and preserve it became self-evident, and UNESCO added it to the list of endangered sites.
Due to the initiative of the Palestinian National Authority, an agreement among the three Christians communities which manage the Basilica was reached in 2010. Consequently, a complex process and project of renovation and restauration started in 2013.
5 | The Nativity Reborn
Renovating the Basilica, 2013-2020
“I have been told that in the course of the restoration works in Bethlehem, on one of the walls of the nave a seventh angel in mosaic has come to light, forming with the other six a sort of procession towards the place commemorating the mystery of the birth of the Word made flesh. This can lead us to reflect on how the face of our ecclesial communities can also be covered by “incrustations” as a result of various problems and sins. Yet your work must unfailingly be guided by the certainty that, beneath material and moral incrustations, and the tears and bloodshed caused by war, violence and persecution, beneath this apparently impenetrable cover there is a radiant face like that of the angel in the mosaic. All of you, with your projects and your activities, are part of a “restoration” that will enable the face of the Church to reflect visibly the light of Christ the Word Incarnate.”
Pope Francis, 16 June 2016
THE TESTIMONY OF PILGRIMS
“…The presence of this church is a testimony of our faith, of our community’s faith and of the faith of millions of pilgrims, who come here from all over the world to take part in the grace of these sacred sites.”
Patriarch of Jerusalem.
“We stand before a commndable result, thanks to the hard work of the experts who returned to the visitors and the worshippers these masterpieces that had been hidden for centuries, becoming almost invisible.”
Fr. Francesco Patton OFM, Custos of the Holy Land.
“With Christian spirit, we want to highlight the fact that the restoration project for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – one of the most ancient sites of Christianity – was generously implemented by the State of Palestine, by the will of His Excellency, President Abbas, and followed upon by a special Presidential Higher Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity Church.”
Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The glass lamps and the foundation ritual
Between 2018 and 2020, a series of archaeological surveys were carried out inside the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the results of which made it possible to rewrite new pages in the history of this pillar of Christianity.Among the exceptional finds, the one that emerged in the north-west corner of the central nave certainly stands out, at the point of contact between the facade of the old church from the Constantinian period and the base of the first column from the Justinian period. In this place, so important from a symbolic point of view, archaeologists have unearthed a series of glass objects that had been carefully deposited during the construction of the new colonnade. The fragile glass fragments belonged to some lamps of the “suspension” type, on the model of those still used today for church lighting. The place and method of burial have led to the hypothesis of a precise intention by the builders to perform a gesture of a ritual nature at a time when work was in full swing to complete the reconstruction of the Basilica under the reign of the Emperor Justinian. It is therefore a real foundation rite during which some glass lamps, up until then used to illuminate the church of Bethlehem, were buried as sacred objects, shortly before laying the flooring for the new building.A careful study of the fragments has made it possible to recognize the exact type of artefact thanks to the discovery of small handles that were used to hang the lamp with thin chains. Following a detailed virtual reconstruction after careful research led by archaeologists Alessandra Fichera and Arianna Briano of Piacenti S.p.a., the lamp was modeled by the expert hands of the Twan family of the Palestinian village of Jaba’, with the supervision of the artist Dima Srouji .A little curiosity concerns the ostrich eggs, formerly placed above the suspended lamps, which were used to let the mice slide along the chains to feed on the oil or fat used as fuel for lighting. Even today, looking up at the lamps in the basilica, you can see reproductions of decorated ceramic eggs that refer to this ancient tradition.Fragile fragments of glass that remained buried for many centuries have made it possible to reconstruct the story of an ancient ritual that still makes the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem shine today.
Today, the church of the Nativity is finally shining, after seven years of works. UNESCO removed it from the list of endangered sites and now Bethlehem, Palestine and the whole world can admire it in its original glory.
The restoration was unique in history, given that it involved different types of structural and decorative surfaces, from the lead covering of the roof to the wooden beams, from the mosaics of the walls to the paintings on the columns, from the wooden architraves to the mosaic floors.
For decades, no living person had admired the mosaics of the naves in their original splendour, no pilgrim had been able to read the evocative paintings on the columns, nobody had stood in Manger Square and looked at the majestic structure of the Basilica. Today, pilgrims can witness the newly-refurbished Nativity Church.