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The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Shrine and Scandal


BethlehemThe Church of Nativity in Bethlehem is the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. This feature traces the church from its construction by Constantine the Great to the present and draws attention to the parlous condition of this unique and historic building.
Bethlehem lies on a saddle, 2,500 feet above sea level, and the ancient church is situated near its centre. Today the town has a population of over 60,000.

Early Christian Period to AD529

Christianity was declared a lawful religion by the Roman emperor, Constantine in AD 313. After the Council of Nicaea in 325, Constantine ordered Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem to build three churches of the greatest magnificence, one at Bethlehem honouring the Nativity of Jesus Christ, a second in Jerusalem marking the Resurrection and the third on the Mount of Olives to commemorate the Ascension of Jesus. A superb mosaic in the church of Sta. Pudenziana in Rome, dating from c. 380 depicts two of the newly-built churches, the Holy Sepulchre on the left and the Church of the Nativity on the right. 

 A superb mosaic in the church of Sta. Pudenziana in Rome

Constantine’s church was burnt down in the Samaritan revolt of 529. Excavations in 1932-34 revealed parts of the floor mosaic of that building, which has geometrical decoration. The reconstructed plan shows an octagonal sanctuary above the Grotto of the Nativity. 

Constantine's church plan


An early Christian mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi in the Church of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome, dating from c. 432, shows the Magi in their splendid Persian costumes adoring the Christ-Child, who is enthroned, next to his Mother. 

Early Christian Period After 529

The present church was built by the Emperor Justinian after the destruction of 529. Its nave has four arcades of eleven pillars each, in place of Constantine’s ten in each arcade. The octagonal sanctuary was replaced, being enlarged to three apses. The altar was repositioned in a new eastern apse; on either side were new apsidal ‘choirs’ for monks. This feature is also found in other ancient Palestinian churches.

Wall Mosaics

I. Tree of Jesse, with Prophets and a Sibyl, now erased
II. Genealogy of Jesus Christ according to St. Luke; above, Provincial Councils of Ancyra (314), Antioch (272), Sardis (347), Gangra (IVc), Laodicaea (IVc), Carthage (254)
III. Genealogy of Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew; above, Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431, Constantinople (680), Nicaea (787)
IV. Doubting of Thomas; the Ascension
V. Fragment of an interlaced pattern (N); inscription recording restoration, 1169 (S)
VI. The Triumphal entry into Jerusalem


Plan of the church

1. Courtyard; 2. Armenian monastery; 3. Armenian courtyard; 4. Narthex; 5. Font; 6. Cloister; 7. Chapel of St. Jerome; 8. Altar of St. Eusebius; 9. Sts Paula and Eustochium; 10. St. Jerome; 11. Altar of the Virgin; 12. Tombs of the Holy Innocents; 13. Altar of St. Joseph; 14. Cistern; 15. Grotto of the Nativity; 16. Manger; 17. Altar of the Magi; 18. Burial grottoes; 19. Altar of the Circumcision; 20. Main altar; 21. Cistern; 22. Star of the Nativitiy; 23. Altar of Kings; 24. Church of St. Catherine; 25. Sacristy and chapel of St. George; 26. Bell tower 


 It was this same Patriarch who was obliged to hand over Palestine to Caliph Omar at the head of the Arab armies in 638. Cordial relations were established between the two men and the church’s sanctity was respected by Omar. Muslims were conceded the right to pray in the south aisle, a right that has been maintained to the present day.

A few years earlier, in 614, the church had a narrower escape. A Sassanian army from Persia had invaded the Holy Land and proceeded to destroy all the churches. However, they desisted at Bethlehem because they recognised the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. This account makes sense by virtue of the fact that the Magi were traditionally represented in early Christian art as Zoroastrian priests, evident in the Nativity mosaic from Sta. Maria Maggiore (below) and on the wall mosaics of the church of St. Apollinare Nuovo and St. Vitale in Ravenna, dating from the time of Justinian (c. 550).

Only a century after Justinian had rebuilt the church, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote the following lyrical description of it:

I would go with a heart filled
With all the fervour of holy love
To the little town of Bethlehem
Where the King of all things was born.

With my heart dancing I would enter
Those most sacred halls,
The four most admirable arcades
And the elegant three-fold apse.
Gazing at the numerous pillars
Gleaming with gold, a work
Decorated with marvellous art,
I would dispel the clouds of care.

I would gaze at the coffered ceiling
With its brilliant stars of gold:
From these marvels of works of art
The grace of the heavens shines forth.

Sophronius, Anacreontica - translated by G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville.

From contemporary representations of Nativity scenes like this and the existing building fabric,
Dr. A.G. Walls has reconstructed the original appearance of the west façade of the church.
West facade of the churchThe present baptismal font is contemporary with Justinian’s church, and bears a 6th century inscription. It originally stood on the north side of the altar and was moved to its present position in the south aisle following a change in liturgical practice.

A description of the church by an eleventh century Spanish pilgrim, the priest Jacinthus, has survived in the Archives of the Diocese of León in Spain:

Location of the fontThe city of Bethlehem is in ruins, although there are still a few houses … I entered the court outside the church, where I counted thirty columns … In the church I gazed at its beauty. It shone very brightly with marble … A glorious building: it has no better! … In the sanctuary are three tribunes marvellously decorated with gold and jewels. There is one altar in the choir … and under it is the Lord’s Manger.

Going down from the choir, on the left of the steps … is the well where the star fell which led the Magi. From here, to where it pleased the Lord to be born, is a pace and one half. From here … it is three paces to the Manger … There is an altar over where it pleased the Lord to be born.

In the church are forty-four pillars, another four in the tribunes, and six in the choir. The ceiling of the church is painted and carved; the roof is of lead. What can I say of the floor? No palace in the world has a floor equal in beauty.

[Jacinthus; freely abbreviated from late Visigothic Latin by G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville]

The Crusader Period

The monastry wallUnder Crusader rule in the 12th century, the church was comprehensively redecorated and this scheme partly survives. The interior walls were covered with new mosaics. On the south side were depicted the seven General Councils of the Church, while on the north were the Six Provincial Councils of the Greeks. The theme emphasises the fundamental agreement on dogma between the Greek and Latin churches. On the west wall, a Tree of Jesse showed all the prophets who spoke of the coming of the Messiah, including the pagan Roman Sibyl and Balaam’s ass. The mosaics in the eastern end of the church were devoted to scenes from the New Testament. Now, only portions of the wall mosaics survive. Their partial decay was probably due to a defective roof. Thanks to the careful records made by scholars since the 18th century, it would be possible to restore most of these mosaics. 

Pillar frescoThe paintings on pillars in the Church of the Nativity, which also date from the 12th century, constitute a unique assembly of Crusader painting. They are the work of a school of painters rather than a single artist and they depict members of earthly church hierarchy (bishops and deacons), laity (soldier saints, kings, monks and nuns) and heavenly hierarchy (Prophets, Apostles, the Virgin Mary, St. Anne and a Crucifixion). Among the sanctified monarchs depicted are Olaf of Norway and Canute of Denmark and England.

The church possesses an elegant medieval cloister, which was restored in 1948-49 by Antonio Barluzzi, the architect responsible for the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane and that of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

The Grotto of the Nativity

The grotto

The Grotto of the Nativity is entered via a pair of Crusader Gothic doorways on either side of the raised sanctuary. It forms an irregular oblong vault. The walls of the grotto are partly of rock, and partly of masonry, and are largely covered with amianthus hangings presented by the President of France, Marshal MacMahon, in 1874. Altars mark the traditional places of the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi and the Manger.

There are the remains of a splendid medieval mosaic in the alcove above the altar of the Nativity. The mosaic was severely damaged by hooligans in 1873. From the existing fragments of the mosaic and from records left by travellers and pilgrims who saw it before it was ruined, a fairly reliable reconstruction is possible.

Reconstructed mosaic 

Present Condition of the Church

The roof of the church is in a decayed condition and its timbers are rotting. It has been replaced many times, notably in 1480, when Edward IV of England supplied the lead, and his sister, the Duchess of Burgundy, gave the wood while Venice provided the craftsmen. The most recent replacement was in the 19th century.

NaveJustinian’s building was provided with three imposing doorways in its western facade. Of these only the central one is now in use. The two either side have long been blocked, on the left by a buttress, on the right by an Armenian hall, originally intended to accommodate pilgrims.
Church roofThe one remaining doorway has been severely constricted. In the Crusader period, it was lowered with a Gothic arch, when towers were erected on either side, of which no external traces now survive. Sometime after 1515, this doorway was further reduced to prevent the Ottomans quartering their horses in the church. The tiny aperture that serves as both entrance and exit to this great basilica constitutes a danger to pilgrims. An emergency such as a fire caused by the damp wiring in the building could result in heavy casualties as visitors struggle to escape.

Door sketchThe drawing shows the three successive doorways, as they are now visible. Both the Crusader and Ottoman period intrusions could be removed without risk, and the dignified early Christian entrance reinstated

Moreover, the amianthus asbestos curtains throughout the Grotto of the Nativity pose a health hazard and need to be replaced with some urgency.

Amendment to original text

The original article published above referred to "The dilapidated state of the roof is nothing short of a scandal. Rainwater seeps into the building and damages its structural fabric and the precious 12th century wall mosaics and pillar paintings. Wet or dry, there is an ever present chance of an electrical short-circuit and fire.The restricted entrance to the church is another cause for concern.". This is now being addressed and further details can be found on the Guardian's website - We are grateful to Jill Hamilton for bringing this to the Fund's attention. 

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