(3 min read)
Some secrets remain hidden for hundreds of years, waiting for diverging parties to come together to reveal them. Such was the fate of the seventh angel of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, waiting behind a layer of plaster to spread its glory once again.
The original Church of the Nativity was commissioned in 333 C.E. by the Roman Emperor Constantine and built over the cave believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Destroyed by Samaritan rebels in the three centuries later it was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian. Since then the church that has become a major site of pilgrimage survived natural disasters and wars but the steady wear of time, leaky roofs and soot caused severe damage to the structure and the priceless mosaics. As the different denominations sharing its space (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac orthodox) disagreed about the repairs it continued its slow deterioration until four years ago when the parties came together under a special committee formed by the Palestinian National Authority to save this invaluable heritage.
The eight-foot-tall angel was discovered with the help of a thermographic camera that uses infrared radiation to detect variations in the plaster. Thanks to the assiduous work of a restoration team from Tuscany, Italy, it now shines high above the pilgrims and directs them towards the original grotto.
"They were shot in the nose to destroy, to kill them," says Giammarco Piacenti, the CEO of the Tuscany-based Piacenti restoration company in charge of the restoration. “Restoration gave them a second life."
The cost of the renovations (about 18 million euros or $20.5 million so far), were funded by the Palestinian Authority, the Vatican, and other governments, along with a large number of contributors from the Palestinian business sector. “All the Church artistic and historical elements have been considered from the early beginning of the restoration program as masterpieces.” says Imad Nassar, Presidential Committee Representative.
Using techniques similar to their Italian counterparts these amazing works of art are composed of gold and silver leaves, mother of pearl, painted glass, and imported Venetian tiles. They portray various scenes of the life of Jesus, including the disbelief of Thomas, the Assumption and Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. The tesserae (mosaic pieces) used for to the upper mosaics such as the angels were tilted downwards to optimize the effect when viewed from the ground.
Sadly only 20% of the wall mosaics have survived but more mosaics are to be uncovered under the floors. Many of those were dismantled and stolen over the decades but as the prevailing ones are protected by layers of plaster they remain in good condition and the team hopes to restore and display them through glass floors in the future. A small portion is currently visible under a raised false floor.
When viewing the mosaics in their restored splendor one can but marvel at the craftsmanship of these ancient artists. One name, Basilius, is preserved in the panel depicting the disbelief of Thomas. Historians believe him to be the same Basilius who illustrated the Melisende Psalter, a 12th century illuminated manuscript created for Jerusalem Crusader Queen Melisende.
The final phase of the restoration will focus on the oldest part of the church. Who knows what other secrets are waiting to be uncovered.
If you would like to find out more about the amazing work being done at the Church of Nativity you can visit the official site here.
BBC News produced a short video that beautifully documents the work on the mosaics. Click Here.
What better segue than these amazing mosaics to wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season. May it be as bright as the new angel uncovered in Bethlehem.
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