The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of Christendom’s most eminent and ancient houses of worship, is unique among the loca sancta of the Holy Land. Like the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, also erected by Constantine under the special patronage of Saint Helena, it bears both the ornaments and scars of its exceptionally long history.
Unlike the tangled and truncated structure that now enshrines Christ’s tomb, however, the monument to the birth of the Savior has almost miraculously survived seventeen long centuries of earthquakes, fires, and wars. Thus, despite a series of significant refurbishments and the lamentable decay ensured by the senseless stalemate of the status quo, the church has essentially preserved its original architectural genius intact.
In order to assure that this exceptional patrimony remains preserved—for the deterioration had reached a crisis state—a long-overdue cooperative effort of restoration was initiated in 2009. A team of experts began a thorough survey of the building in 2013.
As an outgrowth of this undertaking, Michele Bacci, historian of art and special consultant in the project, has addressed the remarkable lack of systematic studies of the shrine with The Mystic Cave: A History of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. (Among his other books is The Many Faces of Christ: Portraying the Holy in the East and West, 300 to 1300.)
The nicely clothbound text is richly illustrated in color and enormously well-researched and documented. It is a shame that the bookmaker’s art was not always equal to the contents (pages 43–58 mysteriously reappear after page 306, for example).
The curious title—“Mystic Cave”—is a phrase lifted from Eusebius of Caesarea, who used it to describe the holy grotto designated by tradition as the site of Jesus’ birth: “God’s second home after heaven,” as a medieval author quaintly called it. A mysterious energy somehow infuses the place, absorbing the grace of the Incarnation and making it accessible to pilgrims. The architectural rendering of this cave into a coherent cultic space forms the leitmotif of Bacci’s text, which stresses the rich interplay between the humble grotto and the sumptuous upper church serving as its liturgical crown.
The book follows a simple chronological order, tracing the development of the church in three great acts of mise-en-scène: the sequential staging of the Constantinian shrine, its sixth-century renovation, and the magnificent twelfth-century joint redecoration by the Crusader Latins and Byzantine Greeks. The fourth and final chapter is a sad and extended tale of lost cohesion, passing through Muslim encroachments, ugly Christian factionalism, and the multiplication of devotional distractions.
Certain major features of Constantine’s basilica remain a mystery. Excavations in 1934 rediscovered the original mosaic carpet, a luscious pavement which lies several feet below the present floor. The sanctuary itself was an octagonal space, placed at the eastern end of the long nave and installed on a vertical axis directly over the grotto.
An oculus seems to have been cut into the floor, boring down into the cave so that worshippers might gaze down during services. This layering of the locus sanctus established the essential coordinates of the church, while subordinating the cave to the public eucharistic liturgy above.
After suffering damage, perhaps by riotous Samaritans or perhaps through a fire, a major reconstruction program was undertaken in the mid-sixth century, most likely under the emperor Justinian. Without altering the essential layout, much lovely ornamentation (still visible) was added. The critical innovation, however, was the opening of the grotto to the private devotion of the pilgrims, who could now descend beneath the bema into the holy grotto itself, entering from the southern transept and re-emerging in the north end of the church.
A climax of the story comes in the third chapter with the Crusader period, above all the gorgeous mosaics dating from the 1160s. Bacci expertly exposes the design of the vast pictorial program, executed in classical and dynamic Comnenian style.
One element missing in his discussion, however, is the observation of the placement of Passion scenes in the south transept and Resurrection scenes in the north. This reinterprets the pilgrims’ descent into and ascent out of the “mystic cave” as a baptismal-like passage from death to new life, crossed by way of the Lord’s Incarnation.
Bacci is correct that for many pilgrims today the upper church has unfortunately become a non lieu, a mere transitional space leading to the grotto below. Since the time of his writing the renovations have happily continued, however, and having visited the basilica frequently before, I can testify that the wonder of the newly uncovered upper church at Christmas 2018 promises a new era in the history of this august sanctuary.
Rev. Anthony Giambrone, OP, is a Domincan friar of the Province of Saint Joseph, assigned to the École biblique et archéologique francaise de Jérusalem, where he is professor of New Testament. Besides his academic publications, he is a regular contributor to Magnificat and Catholic Digest.