By Frederic Manns, OFM
The Theology of the Mosaics in the Church of the Nativity
In the recent restoration of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, about a tenth of the original mosaics which graced its walls have been restored, giving a new look at the glorious past of this holy place. Even though only a portion of the art survives, it nevertheless offers the pilgrim a theological reflection on the mystery of Jesus’ birth, a story about what we believe as Christians.
The mosaics of the Basilica of the Nativity are a visual expression of a theology which we could summarize in these points:
1. The unity between the Old and the New Testaments: There is one covenant between God and humanity, which started with Abraham. Bethlehem is the homeland of David and of the son of David, Jesus. Marcionism (an heretical movement promoted by Marcion of Sinope, in the second century which denied that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was the Father of Jesus) was rejected. The Church’s memory is found in Scripture.
2. Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, inspired by the Holy Spirit, (Micah 5:2; Numbers 24:17; various passages from Isaiah) and retold in the New Testament, have guided salvation history. Furthermore, the scenes represented in the mosaics teach us a method for reading the Scriptures, a Christological hermeneutics (the interpretation of biblical texts) from the Old Testament. Scripture is oriented toward the coming of the Messiah.
3. The kings of Israel from the Old Testament are considered saints and thus are depicted in the mosaics with a halo. The Tree of Jesse recalls this. Not all those kings were saints according to our canons. On the other hand, halos of different colors denote that they are not reserved for canonized saints. Even the man who led the ass on which Jesus sat entering Jerusalem has a halo.
4. The genealogy of Jesus has its roots in the Old Testament. Sinners form part of this genealogy. The Bible, in fact, is not the history of saints, but of sinners called to conversion. The Incarnation of the Son of God is taken seriously.
5. Apocryphal texts were used in medieval times and were considered popular theology. The Dormition of Mary is a clear example of an event described in such apocryphal literature. Given that Scripture says nothing about the death and Assumption of Mary, popular piety collected the apocryphal accounts based on the widely spread testimonies of the patriarchs.
6. A unity between Christology (the study of Jesus) and ecclesiology (the study of the Church) exists. The Church councils wanted to be precise about the nature of Christ, true man and true God. They had to find an adequate terminology, which they discovered in the Greek language, as it had the advantage of clarity. It was the great work of the councils: Inculturation comes from Greek culture at the expense of Hebraic culture.
7. The New Testament has a unity which embraces the birth and the Passion and the Resurrection (shown in the mosaic depiction of Jesus’ apparition to Thomas). The birth of Jesus is not separated from the rest of his life. Pentecost, which records the gift of the Spirit, signifies that the life of the Church is the work of the Holy Spirit.
8. In the New Testament there is an opening to pagans, symbolized by the adoration of the magi kings. Even the presence of Balaam, a pagan prophet from the Book of Numbers, is significant.
9. The role of Mary in the history of salvation is highlighted in the basilica mosaics—the Annunciation, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Mary at Pentecost, her Dormition.
10. The angels bear an important message: Only adoration is appropriate when facing the mystery of salvation. The procession of angels toward the Grotto of the Nativity recalls what is essential: God at Bethlehem was made man so that humanity might become God.
11. Angels intervene in the Annunciation to Mary and the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Their presence indicates the beginning and the end of the history of salvation. The signature, Basilius pictor, is at the foot of an angel. The signature, without doubt, is not to seek glory, but humility and reverence for the place, as a prayer. The artist signs at the foot of an angel, almost underfoot, as if requesting the angel to carry him to the Grotto of the Nativity.
12. Scripture is updated in the mosaics. Present at the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre as it appeared in the Byzantine era. The significance is that Christ desired to enter today into the holy city. Even the emperors who received their authority from Christ deserve respect.
13. The theology appearing in the mosaics is ecumenical. Some inscriptions are in Latin, others in Greek. The basilica contains the greatest artistic expression of the Crusader era which was developed in the encounter between Byzantine art and Crusader art. The mosaics represent the ecumenical turn of the Church, the uniting point between the Eastern and Western Churches.
Symbolism of the Colors
To complete the theological reading of the mosaics, it is necessary to cite the symbolism of the colors.
The White appearing on the angels’ clothing is the symbol of eternal light. It is the color of divinity, of glory and of the living silence of the revelation of divinity. It is the light of grace. The white tunics are symbols of innocence, purity, joy and perfection.
Blue is the most profound and transcendent color, but also the coldest. It represents the transparency of water, air and sky.
Dark blue is the symbol of the mystery of divine life and of the dwelling of God.
Red is the unlimited color, close to light. Because of this, it is also used for background. It symbolizes divine energy, the love of the Spirit, the vital power of fire, and it is even the symbol of blood with a double significance: the principle of life and, at the same time, a symbol of martyrdom and sacrifice. In Christianity, it is the color that has received its consecration with Christ’s blood.
Green expresses vegetative life and, therefore, symbolizes the spread of fertility, the rebirth of the Spirit and its source. As a symbol of rebirth and fertility, it is even used for kings and prophets.
Yellow belongs to the sphere of light. In humble icons, it substitutes for gold.
Brown reflects the density of the material world and, hence, represents all that is terrestrial. On the tunics of monks and ascetics it is the sign of their poverty and of the renunciation of worldly pleasures.
Purple is the symbol of supreme power and a witness to consecration. In iconography it is very bright, similar to red.
Black is the total absence of light. The Grotto of the Nativity is black because Christ saved us by assuming the human condition and has redeemed us through death.
Gold is pure light, transcendent light. It represents nothing. It is only a symbol of divine presence. Thus, gold has a powerful energy which dazzles and blinds without permitting the eye to penetrate beyond: Divine energy continues to be a mystery for humans.
Because of its unchangeable nature and by its brightness, gold is one of the elements most suitable to express the divine. A gold background locates the scene or the people of the icon in a dimension devoid of any temporal spacial references. The use of gold in the halos is almost obligatory, especially for Christ and the Mother of God.
The Body as a Theological Place
The center of the mosaic is the face, and at the center of the face are the eyes. Christ’s countenance must express strength and mercy, so sweet expressions and too many ringlets are avoided. The lines of the face don’t follow physical anatomy but a spiritual one—expressed in a stylized form that is strongly symbolic.
The entire body is spiritual: The pleats of the clothes are light and not very voluminous, giving the impression of covering the soul instead of the body of the person represented; the entire composition must aim at expressing theological truth more than terrestrial reality.
The people in the mosaics are almost always in a facing position, in front or to the side. Those speaking to them are facing them, while in the profiled figures the dialogue is interrupted. The eyes are open to the celestial vision, and the broad brow houses the power of the Spirit.
Finding Jesus in the Waiting
Over the past year, pilgrims wishing to enter the Grotto of the Nativity must typically wait for an extended time, lining up along the nave. Their time of waiting offers them the opportunity to share the rich theology which is the legacy of the artists of the Basilica mosaics.
Two literary witnesses from the past introduce us to the basilica’s decorations. The first is Father Francesco Quaresimi who, in his Elucidatio Terrae Sanctae (1626), meticulously described every aspect of all the mosaics on the walls. Another ancient witness is Felix Fabri, a Dominican who visited the Holy Land in 1489 and who wrote Historia Suevorum (History of the Swabian Reign).
On the Walls
According to Father Quaresimi, St. Joseph and the ancestors of Christ listed in the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel (read at the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve), were represented on the right side of the first level of the nave walls, with inscriptions in Latin. Matthew’s “family record” begins with Abraham.
Represented symmetrically, on the left side of the nave, would have been the genealogy of Jesus according to Luke’s Gospel, which goes back to Adam. On the second level, separated by acanthus leaves, are tributes to seven ecumenical councils (Nicaea, 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431, Chalcedon, 451: Constantinople II, 553; Constantinople III, 680; Nicaea II, 787), four “provincial councils” (Antioch, 272; Ancira, 314: Sardi, 347; Gangra, around 340), and two local synods (Cartagine, 254; Laodicea, fourth century). Every council is represented by a sacred building and is illustrated with a parchment upon which is written the exact decision taken at that time to define the humanity and divinity of Christ.
On the upper wall of the nave, a series of mosaics depict angels in procession, dressed in white and heading toward the Grotto of the Nativity. Found at the foot of one of these angels is the signature of the artist “Basilio,” probably of Syrian origin. One of these angels was “discovered” during the restoration, as workers carefully uncovered layers of plaster which had hidden the mosaic for centuries.
The Old and New Testaments
On the northern side of the basilica’s transept, one can still admire scenes from the four “canonical” Gospels: the doubt of Thomas (the best conserved), the Ascension, the Transfiguration; and on the southern side, the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. These scenes comprise a visual summary of the central teaching of our Christian faith: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.
On the vault of the principle apse, there might have been a representation of the Virgin with the Baby, and on the apse’s arch, the Annunciation to Mary, in between the prophets Abraham and David. On the lower walls are scenes from the Virgin’s life taken from the “apocryphal Gospels,” (which were not considered as part of the inspired New Testament) especially the Dormition of Mary.
Depicted on the internal wall on the backside of the facade, over the entrance gate, is the family tree of Joseph with Jesus and the prophets. Also appearing in the mosaics are the kings of Israel, crowned and with a halo. Also depicted are other New Testament scenes: Pentecost, the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, the Ascension, Adoration of the Magi, the Samaritan woman, John the Evangelist, the Transfiguration, and the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Authorship of the Mosaics
In 1168, the pilgrim Foca affirms to have seen in the church the image of his Byzantine emperor, Constantine VII Porfirogenito, emperor from 913 to 959. It could have been an indication that, even after the 1054 schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, when the basilica was under Crusader control, relationships existed between the Churches of the East and West. An inscription, made in the main apse, cites together the names of Manuel Comneno, a 12th-century Byzantine emperor, and Amalrico of Jerusalem, who ruled there in the 12th century.
Those mosaics would had to have been completed before 1169, in the final decades of the Crusader presence in Palestine, which ended in 1187. The patrons were the Crusader king of Jerusalem and the Byzantine emperor, an example of collaboration almost unique in history and which shows the importance of the Bethlehem shrine at that time.
The latest studies made on the first swatches of the restoration have given rise to new questions on the origins of the mosaics’ authors. It was hypothesized that local artists worked on the decorative projects, as often happened for practical reasons. The signatures of the mosaic artists, Efram and Basilio, names of a clear Syrian origin, are a confirmation.
One could also hypothesize that Greek masters and designers were involved. But it is evident that those who did the decorative work of these mosaics knew very well the great monuments of the Holy Land, decorated by previous Western artists. For example, in the central nave, appearing in the decorative band which separates the second level (the councils) from the third (the angels), at the height of the window, is an animal-like mask typical of the European Romanesque.
If you’d like to learn more about the mosaics or the shrines of the Holy Land, you can bring the Holy Land home with the Holy Land Review magazine.