Bethlehem, Church of the Nativity

Era 12AD
Location Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem carries so many resonances. Leaving all of that aside, its mosaics are absolutely cracking. For years they were known as black-looking mangy old things, hard to see inside the church (because of their condition), harder to see in photos (even colour pictures looked black and white). But they have been cleaned (in a project between 2005 and 2017) and they are truly splendid.

The original fourth-century church built by Constantine the Great was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, in the sixth century; it was this basilical church that you go into now. By the twelfth century, it had become the coronation church by the Kings of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem – the kingdom that had been set up in the Christian Holy Land after the First Crusade. The kings took responsibility for its maintenance.

The church appears to have contained extensive mosaics from its foundation, both inside and out. What survives now are mosaics mainly in the nave and transept. Along each side of the nave was a long series of busts depicting the ancestors of Christ. Above these, underneath the windows, was a broader zone showing churches on the north side and altar tables on the south. These aniconic images frame inscriptions relating to General (south) and Local (north) Councils of the Church, which is a very odd thing to want to picture at all. The Councils on north wall, starting at the east, are: Ancyra, Antioch, Sardica, Gangrae, Laodicea and Carthage. Antioch, Sardica and a bit of Gangrae survive. On the south wall, starting at the east, are the seven Ecumenical Councils: Nicaea I, Constantinople I, Ephesos, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, Nicaea II. Constantinople I and Chalcedon are complete; Ephesos and Constantinople III survive in parts. Nicaea II was unique in being inscribed only in Latin, but has now gone. Each church or pair of tables is divided from the next by ornament: on the north wall, what survives takes the form of a jewelled cross among trees or lavish acanthus-like foliage.

Above these and above and below the windows is a narrow acanthus-scroll border beneath windows, while the spaces between windows are filled with figures of angels proceeding to the east end of the building. Now, on the north side, seven angels, two complete churches and the fragments of a third and part of a central cross survive, whilst on the south, two tables and parts of two more, plus seven ancestors, remain. In the transepts, there was a considerable Christological cycle of which four scenes survive in various states of completion: the Entry into Jerusalem and the Doubting of Thomas are almost complete; the Ascension and Transfiguration are fragmentary. Written accounts make it apparent that there was a considerable number of images in the transepts, including the Nativity, Magi, Woman of Samaria, Betrayal, Passion and Ascension scenes, as well as images of the evangelists. The Tree of Jesse - the earthly family of Christ - was on the west wall. The inscriptions on the mosaics are in both Greek and Latin. The principal colours are shades of green, red, blue, but silver and gold glass was used, the last for backgrounds, and stone and mother-of-pearl insets, used in Islamic mosaics, and in Rome and Sicily, are also employed.

There is another mosaic in the grotto at the site believed to be that of Christ’s birth. It’s in the original grubby condition.

The cleaning in the early twenty-first century revealed the richness of the materials, the bold colours and the sophisticated modelling. Look for the use of shading on the architectural Councils of the north wall to create a sense of recession and perspective or the way in which the fragmentary curtain at the junction of the north wall and the transept is shown as hanging in folds, or the incredibly elaborate and intricate patterning that runs below the Doubting of Thomas in the transept. In the image of the Council of Serdica, mother-of-pearl is used to create the translucency of glass on the vessels on the altar; a stone background to the inscription below the domed arch in the scene modulates into gold, meaning that the viewer below would have seen only gold. You can’t see from below, but the tesserae are often tilted to catch and reflect light.

In the choir, fragments of a bilingual – Latin and Greek – inscription survive. The Greek version reads: ‘This work was finished by the hand of Ephraim, historiographer and artist in mosaic, in the reign of [the Byzantine emperor] Manuel Komnenos the Great, born in the purple, and in the time of the great king of Jerusalem, our lord Amalric, and the most holy bishop of sacred Bethlehem the lord Ralph in the year 6677 second indication’. Manuel’s dates are 1145-1180; Amaury's (or Amalric) 1163-73; and Raoul's (or Ralph) 1159/60-73. The Greek date of the second indiction of the year 6677 works out at 1169. The Latin inscription in hexameters is now lost but enough had been recorded to show it gave similar information to the Greek, though, unlike the Greek, it put Amaury first. So the date 1169 can be attached to the mosaics, and the project itself may have begun in 1167, the date of Amaury’s marriage to Maria, Manuel’s niece.

Despite this, there has been much debate about whether all the mosaics belong to the same period or whether those images of the Councils should be understood as seventh century whilst the scenes in the transept are twelfth. This is largely based on people seeing stylistic differences between the mosaics of the nave and transepts and the aniconic mosaics in the nave which they compare to the imagery of the Dome of the Rock in Damascus. However, the close examination made of the mosaics in 2015 indicates very clearly that the mosaics should be seen as all of a piece and as twelfth century.

And there are two named artists. In the Greek inscription is Ephraim, named in the inscription from the choir in Greek, but presumably also Latin, and described as ‘historiographer (ἡστοριογράφος) and mosaicist (μουσιάτρος)’. This means he was in charge. But visible if you know where to look is the name of another artist. Look to the left hand side of the feet of the third angel of the north nave arcade for some writing. This says ‘Basilius Pictor’, ‘Basil the artist’. On the right hand side of the feet is a Syriac inscription, ‘Basil the deacon depicted [this]’. On the south arcade, opposite this, the initials BC flank a cross medallion in the image of the first Council of Constantinople. Some think these may be the first and last letters in Greek of the name Basilios.

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