Nativity, Church of The
Nativity, Church Of The
at Bethlehem. Of this antique memorial of our Saviour's birth we extract a general account from one of the latest authorities (Conder, Tent Work, 1:282 sq.):
"The tradition which indicates the grotto in the old basilica at Bethlehem as the site of the stable where Christ was born, is the most venerable of its kind in existence, the place being noticed by Justin Martyr in the 2d century. It is almost the only site which we can trace earlier than the tine of Constantine, and the tradition seems to me credible, because, throughout this part of Palestine, there are innumerable instances of stables cut in rock, resembling the Bethlehem grotto. Such stables I have planned and measured at Tekoa, 'Aziz, .and other places south of Bethlehem, and the mangers existing in them leave no doubt as to their use and character.
"The credibility of this tradition thus appears to be far greater than that attaching to the later discoveries, by which the enthusiastic Helena and the politic Constantine settled the scenes of other Christian events; and the rude grotto with its rocky manger may, it seems to me, be accepted even by the most sceptical of modern explorers."
"The Church of the Virgin stands inside a fortress monastery, in which Latin, Greek, and Armenian monks find a common retreat. The basilica was erected, according to contemporary evidence, by order of Constantine, and is thus the oldest church in Palestine, and perhaps in the world. It has escaped destruction on every occasion when other churches in Palestine were overthrown, and the greater part of the work is stated, by competent authority, to be of the original design. In the 11th century, when the mad Caliph Hakim destroyed the Holy Sepulchre churches, the Bethlehem basilica was spared; in 1099 the Crusaders sent a detachment of troops to protect it, and it thus again escaped, nor was it destroyed in the 13th century, although threatened by the Moslems. In this basilica, therefore, we have the only undisputed erection of the time of Constantine in Palestine, and its value cannot be overrated.
"Architectural authorities are of opinion that our information as to the progress of Byzantine art in the East is still very imperfect. M. de Vogui has done much to elucidate the subject in his work on the great buildings of northern Syria, many of which are dated with exactitude. In Palestine we have two valuable examples, one of 4th century, and one of 6th century architecture-the basilica at Bethlehem, and Justinian's fortress on Gerizim, with which we may compare ruins of unknown date; and in the first we find M. de Vogid's opinion confirmed, with respect to the slowiness with which Byzantine art developed in style in the East, in comparison with the more rapid progress of the Western Romanesque.
"The basilica is, moreover, interesting because its general plan resembles, very closely, the description given by Eusebius of Constantine's buildings over the Holy Sepulchre and Jerusalem. On the west was an atrium or outer court, parts of the outer walls of which and shafts of its columns still remain. A narrow vestibule or narthex, entered by a door scarcely four feet high, leads into the basilica itself, which consists of a nave and four aisles, with four rows of eleven columns each, a total breadth of about thirty yards, and a length about equal.
"The aisles have, flat roofs, above the pillars, which are nineteen feet high, but the nave has a clerestory, with walls some thirty feet high above the capitals, and a pointed roof. A wall has been built across the east end of the basilica, separating off the chancel, which has three apses, north, south, and east, and which forms the Greek church. Beneath the chancel is the grotto of the Nativity. North of the basilica, is the more modern Latin chapel of St. Catherine, from which a staircase leads down to vaults communicating with the grotto.
"The pillar shafts are monoliths of red and white marble, painted with figures of saints, now dim with age, and scrawled over with the crests and titles of knightly pilgrims of the Crusading ages. The capitals are of the Corinthian order, debased in style, with the cross carved on the rosettes of each. The wall above was once decorated all over with glass mosaic, fragments of which still remain, representing scenes in our Lord's life, portraits of angels and of Scripture characters, with arabesques and Greek inscriptions. These mosaics, with those on the chancel walls, were executed by order of the Greek emperor, Manuel Comnenos, in the middle of the 12th century. The roof above, once. painted and gilded, was put up in 1482, the fine rafters having been given by Philip of Burgundy, the lead (stripped off later by the Moslems to make bullets) by Edward IV of England and the work was executed in Venice, and brought on camels frim Jaffa. Further restorations were made in 1478, and again in 1672 and 1842, but the majority of the work appears to belong to the original structure of the time of Constantine." The following detailed description of the holy places in the Church is taken from Porter's Handbook for Palestine. page 201 sq.; see also Badeker, Palestine, page 244 sq.; Wilson, Lands of the Bible, 1:390 sq.
"On the south side of the church we first descend a narrow staircase hewn in the rock, lighted by a glimmering lamp placed in a niche on the right hand, before a picture of the Virgin. This staircase leads to a low vault, on entering which we turn suddenly to the right into a long, narrow passage. Proceeding a few steps, we have on the right the altar and tomb of St. Eusebius — not the historian. Passing this, we enter a small oblong chamber, extending north and south at right angles to the passage. Taking first the south end, we have on the east side the altars and tombs of SS. Paula and Eustachia (her daughter), with rude pictures of the two saints over them. Opposite this, on the west, is the tomb of St. Jerome, having over it a portrait of the great father resting on a lion. From the north end of the chamber we ascend by three steps to another square vault, some twenty feet on each side and nine high, surrounded by a stone dais. This is the study of Jerome — now a chapel, with an altar on its eastern side, and an old painting above it, representing the saint writing and the lion at his feet. Helie it was, says Geramb, 'that the illustrious recluse passed a great portion of his life; here it was that he fancied he heard the peals of that awful trump which shall one day summon all mankind to judgment incessantly ringing in: his ears; here it was that with a stone he struck his body, bowed by the weight of years and austerities, and, with loud cries, besought mercy of the Lord; and here too it was that he produced those laborious works which have justly earned him the title of the Father of the Church.' This is a spot which the biblical scholar and the ecclesiastical historian will regard with peculiar interest, for there can be no doubt that for many years it formed the home and the study of that remarkable man whose name it bears.
"Returning to the chapel we first entered, we observe on its eastern side, behind a massive column, an altar, said to mark the spot where twenty thousand children murdered by Herod's order were buried, now called, for this reason, the Altar of the Innocents. A rude painting over it represents the massacre.
"Adjoining the Chapel of the Innocents on the south is a narrow vault, to which we ascend by five steps; this is called the Chapel of Joseph, being the place where the husband of Mary is said to have retired at the moment of the nativity. From this we enter a crooked, narrow passage, some twenty-six feet long, and on reaching the end of it we find a door on the left opening into the west end of
"The Chapel of the Nativity, a low vault, apparently hewn. in the rock, thirty-eight feet long by eleven wide. At the east end is a small semicircular apse-the sanctum of the whole building. On approaching it we find a marble slab, fixed in the pavement, with a silver star in the center, round which are the words, HIO DE VIRGIN MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST, 'Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.' Round the star are suspended sixteen silver lamps, continually kept burning, and behind them, along the sides of the apse, are little gilt pictures of saints. Over the star is a plain altar, without picture or ornament. It is common to all the sects, and each must dress it, when about to celebrate mass, with the requisite trappings.
"In the angles of the grotto beside the apse are two staircases, that on the south leading up to the Greek Chapel, and that on the north to the Armenian; both in the choir of the basilica. Just in the angle between the flight of stairs on the south, and the side of the grotto, is the small chapel of the Praesepium or 'Manger.' On its west side is the place of the manger, now represented by a marble trough. The real Praesepium, as the Latins tell us, was long ago carried away to Rome, and is deposited in Santa Maria Maggiore. Over the place is a good painting by Maello, of date 1781, representing the Virgin and Child, with the Shepherds. On the opposite side of the grotto is the station of the wise men, marked by an altar having a painting, apparently by the same artist.
"These various grottoes are minutely measured off by rule and line, and distributed piecemeal among the rival sects. Many a keen and bitter contest there has been for a few inches of a wall, or the fraction of an altar; and more than once the question of the opening and shutting of one of the doors has wellnigh involved Europe in war!"