By Frederic Manns, OFM
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.
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.