In Bethlehem's Ancient Church, a Long Unseen Presence Appears

Urgent repairs to the decaying Church of the Nativity yield an unexpected revelation.


View Images

Hidden for centuries beneath layers of plaster, an angel made of mosaic tiles is being restored to its original glory.  

Silvia Starinieri, a young restoration technician, was slowly passing a thermographic camera over the smooth plaster walls of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, when she spotted an intriguing shape.

As she and her colleagues began painstakingly scraping away the plaster, a radiant face emerged, illuminated by mother-of-pearl. When the team saw the first golden tiles of a shimmering halo, “it was a very emotional moment,” says Starinieri, 28.

Beneath the plaster stood an eight-foot-tall angel, lost for centuries but now rediscovered and reunited with six other angels that watch over pilgrims in one of the oldest churches in Christendom.

The seventh angel was an unexpected reward of an arduous, multi-year effort to rescue the 1,700-year-old basilica from centuries of neglect. The lack of maintenance left the church’s priceless mosaics obscured under layers of dust and soot or destroyed by rain water that seeped in from the leaky roof. Yet the surviving mosaics have emerged with such luster that it’s difficult to believe they were created nearly 1,000 years ago.

“For this opera, we needed our finest hands,” says Giammarco Piacenti, the CEO of the Tuscany-based Piacenti restoration company. Those skilled hands are uncovering new insights into the artisan who is believed to have created the mosaics, and about their relationship to sacred art at other places of worship in the Holy Land.

An urgent rescue

The mosaic restoration is part of the first known overhaul of the revered church since 1479, and it came just in the nick of time. A Palestinian official warned in 2011 that churchgoers faced a dangerous “risk of collapsing beams,” and the United Nations declared the church an endangered World Heritage site in 2012.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pressured church patriarchs to set aside their differences and usher in the team of world-renowned Italian restorers in 2013. Soon they were working round-the-clock shifts.

Commissioned in the 12th century by the Crusader king Almaric I and Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus, the mosaics were made with tiles of glass, mother-of-pearl, and local stones, with gold and silver leaf-pressed under clear glass. The tiles were tilted to maximize their impact on pilgrims peering up from below.

The mosaics portray Jesus and his human forebears, including Joseph and a dolorous Mother Mary. The 12 apostles are depicted, including “doubting Thomas” with Jesus pulling his hand to his crucifixion wound. There are glimmering saints and patriarchs, even a baby camel.

View Images

A worker lifts plastic sheeting to reveal a wall of icons under restoration by Italian master craftsmen. In 2012 the United Nations listed the church as an endangered World Heritage site. Restoration work began the next year.  

The mosaics are signed, in Latin and Syriac, by an artist named Basilius. Historians suspect he is the same Basilius who illustrated the Melisende Psalter, a landmark illuminated manuscript created in the 12th century for Jerusalem Crusader Queen Melisende.

“These mosaics are reminiscent of Sicily, Florence, and Ravenna,” Piacenti said, referring to Byzantine mosaics throughout the Mediterranean. Restorers say the Bethlehem mosaics employ plant and animal designs that are also strikingly similar to Byzantine era mosaics in Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site of Islam.

Ancient splendor and modern conflict

Commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century over the cave that was believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the original church was destroyed by Samaritan rebels in the sixth century and subsequently rebuilt by Emperor Justinian. Since then the church has weathered earthquakes and conquering armies. Its tall arched doorway was reduced to a four-foot-high “Door of Humility” to keep out horsemen.

Restorers belatedly repaired damage left by a mortar shell that hit the roof during the 1967 war between Israel and Jordan, but bullet holes from a deadly, 39-day standoff between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants in 2002 will remain visible.

During the 2014 conflict between Gaza and Israel, restorers lay awake worrying about 30 containers of timber, copper, lead, and other supplies stranded at the Israeli port of Ashdod. A direct hit would have cost millions of dollars.

A rocket launched by militants in Gaza landed near the residence of Giorgia Zurla, a member of the Piacenti team. No one was hurt. “I didn’t have Iron Dome,” Zurla quipped, referring to Israel’s air defense system. “I had the protection of God.”

To secure the roof, the team scoured salvage wood stocks for vintage timber to match the church beams, made of cedar of Lebanon from the Justinian era and logs shipped from the Alps in the 1400s.

View Images

Tourists and religious pilgrims peer down at the church's original mosaic floor, laid in the fourth century. 

The remaining portions of Constantine’s ancient fourth-century mosaic floor seem to be in excellent condition, restorers say. A small portion is visible under a raised false floor built during the British Mandate, and restorers would like to display it in its entirety under glass. But first they must raise the $6.7 million needed to complete the project.

Ziad Al-Bandak, a Palestinian presidential advisor on Christian affairs, said some $10 million has been spent on the restoration so far, a million of it donated by private sector Christian and Muslim Palestinians around the world.

“In Iraq we are witnessing the destruction of holy places,” Al-Bandak said. “We are trying to protect the cradle of Christianity. As I told Pope Benedict, I am from a family that was here at the time of the birth of Christ.”

Rivalries between church patriarchates have sometimes degenerated into brawls. But this year they again set aside their differences to save another dangerously dilapidated shrine: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City.

For the Church of the Nativity, the years of neglect have taken an irreversible toll. The majestic mosaics once covered vast areas of the basilica with Biblical scenes and 24 angels. Restorers were able to recover some hidden portions using sophisticated thermographic technology, which can detect slight variations in temperature between plaster, stone, and glass. Today only a small portion—20 percent by one estimate—of the mosaics survive.

Discovering an entire figure like the lost angel seemed a small miracle to the team, said Marcello Piacenti, the chief restorer of the firm. “Finally the beautiful angel, after centuries of darkness, can look down from above on the crowd of pilgrims.”

Anne-Marie O’Connor is the author of The Lady in Gold, the extraordinary tale of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Comment on This Story