Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, seen from the square in front of it, is a fortress-like building on whose facade the pediment at the end of the nave can be distinguished only on close inspection. The central doorway shows the work of many centuries. The original door surround can be seen, as can the relief-decorated architrave and supporting consoles of the sixth century Justinianic church. The Crusaders reduced the size of the entrance, inserting a doorway with a pointed arch and walling up the upper part of the original doorway. The size of the doorway was later still further reduced in order to prevent the Mamelukes from riding into the church on horseback. It is now only 1.20m/4ft high, so that visitors must bend down to enter the church. The interior has essentially preserved the tranquil monumentality of the sixth century. The view towards the east end is unimpeded since the tall screen erected by the Greeks between the nave and choir was taken down on General Allenby's orders in 1917.
The choir and transepts have semicircular apses. In the north transept are the Armenian altars of the Virgin and the Three Kings; in the south transept is the altar of the Circumcision, which, like the high altar behind the iconostasis, belongs to the Greeks. From the south transept, in the apse of which is a door leading to the adjoining Greek Orthodox monastery, a finely carved doorway with a pointed arch dating from the Frankish period gives access to the stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity (12.30m/40ft long by 3.15m/10ft across). The actual place where Jesus was born is marked by a silver star with the Latin inscription "Hic de virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est" ("Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary"). Above this is a recess containing an altar, with barely distinguishable 12th century mosaics. Opposite, three steps lower down, are the Manger Chapel and adjoining this the Altar of the Three Kings. The rear part of the grotto is not open to the public: the door leading to the other grottoes in the much ramified cave system is opened only on the occasion of special processions.
The nave is 54m/177ft long by 46m/151ft across. The roof of the lateral aisles and the clerestory of the nave are borne on four rows of eleven monolithic columns with Corinthian capitals, which were originally gilded. Two openings in the floor of the nave allow visitors to see mosaics on the floor of the Constantinian church of 325, which is 60cm/2ft below the present floor level. The font in the south aisle dates from the time of Justinian.Paintings of the Crusader period have also been preserved on the columns in the nave. They include figures of saints (St George and King Canute of Denmark) and Baldwin I's helmet, with a swan as its crest. (Baldwin, who was crowned first king of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity in 1100, was held to be a descendant of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight.)
Parts of the mosaic decoration applied to the clerestory walls in the Crusader era (1261-69) has been preserved. On the south side are depicted the ancestors of Christ and the seven Oecumenical Councils recognized by the Orthodox church - indicating that the mosaics were the work not of Western but of Greek artists - two mosaic artists from Constantinople, Basil and Ephraim, who were sent to Bethlehem by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel, a relative by marriage of Baldwin III, fourth king of the Frankish state.
Map - Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity Pictures
Map of Bethlehem Attractions