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Church of the Nativity one of Christendom's chief pilgrimage sites

By Catholic Online
February 9th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Church of the nativity is one of the most frequent scenes of Christian pilgrimage in Bethlehem. The nearby cave has been venerated as Christ's birthplace in the writings of Justin Martyr around 160 AD. The tradition is also backed up by Origen and Eusebius in the 3rd century.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Church of the nativity is one of the most frequent scenes of Christian pilgrimage in Bethlehem. The nearby cave has been venerated as Christ's birthplace in the writings of Justin Martyr around 160 AD. The tradition is also backed up by Origen and Eusebius in the 3rd century.

Constantine and his mother St. Helena commissioned a church to be built over the cave in 326 A.D. The church dedicated on May 31, 339, had an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly above the cave. A 4-meter-wide hole in the center surrounded by a railing provided a view of the cave. Portions of the floor mosaic survive from this period. St. Jerome lived and worked in Bethlehem from 384 A.D., and he was buried in a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity.

The Constantinian church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, who built the much larger church that remains today. According to legend, Persians spared it during their invasion in the seventh century because they were impressed by a representation of the Magi, or fellow Persians that decorated the building. This was quoted at a 9th-century synod in Jerusalem to show the utility of religious images.

The Church of the Nativity was much neglected in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, but not destroyed. Much of the church's marble was looted by the Ottomans and now adorns the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 destroyed the furnishings of the cave, but the church again survived.

Visitors to the church today will see the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church, was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door. The outline of the Justinian square entrance can also be seen above the door.

Thirty of the nave's 44 columns carry Crusader paintings of saints and the Virgin and Child. Lighting conditions make them difficult to see.

The columns are made of pink, polished limestone, most of them dating from the original 4th-century Constantinian basilica.

Trap doors in the present floor reveal sections of floor mosaics surviving from the original basilica. The mosaics feature complex geometric designs with birds, flowers and vine patterns, making a rich and elaborate carpet for Constantine's church.

Mere steps away from the birthplace shrine are the Chapel of the Manger, owned by the Roman Catholics. Fragments of 12th-century wall mosaics and capitals around the manger survive. Back in the upper church, a door in the north apse leads to the Catholic Church of St. Catherine.

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