BETHLEHEM – Restoration works are still on going in one of the oldest and holiest basilicas in the world; the Basilica of the Nativity. In this second report (1st report) we will talk about the mosaics in the transepts and give an overview of the restoration works that have taken place throughout history.

Mosaics in the northern transept

People contemplating the mosaics in the northern transept can see two Post-Resurrection scenes. The first scene represents the Ascension of Christ in which the Virgin Mary, eleven apostles and two angels can be seen. The second scene is a representation of the Incredulity of Saint Thomas. The mosaic shows Saint Thomas inspecting the print of the nails in the side of Jesus.

Mosaics in the southern transept

The first scene depicts Christ’s triumphal entry into the City of Jerusalem on a donkey whereas the second scene is the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor to the first three disciples He chose, Peter, James and John. Unfortunately, the remaining part of the mosaic is only that of St. James kneeling on his knees, amazed and frightened by what he saw. The scene also includes the feet of the prophet Moses standing on the top of a mountain.

Mosaic of the Transfiguration in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai [1]

st cath mon nat geographic transfig

The mosaic of the Transfiguration in the apse of the church in Saint Catherine’s Monastery is considered one the earliest byzantine works of art, which depicts the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. The typology and principles of this icon have been the bases for later depictions of the Transfiguration that were created in different monasteries around the world. An example of the some icons based on the Sinai mosaic is the Transfiguration from the monastery at Daphni in Greece.

In the icon Christ is seen in a mandorla with a cruciform halo, hovering between the physical and the spiritual world. In contrast to subsequent Transfiguration icons, the apostles are positioned in a symmetrical manner. John and James lift their hands as if they are praying, while Peter forms a little tent with his arms, as a reminder of his request to Christ about the three tabernacles. Moreover, Jesus is flanked by standing figures of Moses on the left and Elijah on the right.


In the upper panels of the icon, there are two scenes that illustrate two events in Moses’ life. The scene on the right depicts the image of Moses receiving the law and the one on the left is the image of Moses removing his sandals before burning bush.


There is an early theme that has a visual likeness to the Sinai mosaic that may have provided an iconographic typology for it. It is “traditio legis” or what is known as “Christ the lawgiver”. The icon was created in the apse of the church of St. Peter in Rome in the 4th century but it was destroyed subsequently. However, the icon was copied extensively, and the icons that were based on it have survived, such as the north apse of St. Costanza in Rome. In the “traditio legis”, Christ is flanked by Sts. Peter and Paul and two palm trees. Jesus hands the law in the form of a scroll to Peter on the right of the icon.

Mosaic above the Chorus

In this part, one can see the mosaic of a two inscriptions that bear the name of the artist “Ephram” both in Greek (Ἐφραὶμ) and Latin. The Greek inscriptions reads: “This work was brought to completion by the monk Ephram, the painter of his- tory and mosaic master craftsman, during the rule of the great emperor Manuel Porphyrogenitus Comnenus, and in the days of Amaury, king of Jerusalem, and in the time of the bishop of Bethlehem, Raoul, in the year 1169, the second of the indication.” [2]


Restoration work throughout history

After the destruction of the Nativity Church during the Samaritan uprising of 529, Emperor Justinian ordered his envoy to rebuild the church in its present form in 540, where he raised the level of the floor, lengthened the church, added a narthex and mosaics, and replaced the octagonal apse by a more spacious triapsidal form.

Between 1165 and 1169, the church was restored as a result of the cooperation between the King Amaury, King of Jerusalem and Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus. The church was filled with mosaics on the walls in the nave and the transepts.

In the 13th century and during the Mamluk rule, repairs were permitted only infrequently and the deterioration of the church increased by looting. Felix Fabri, a 15th century pilgrim, describes the interior as “a barn without hay, an apothecary’s without aromatic pots, a library without books, pigeons fly freely inside and outside the church through the holes in the roof.” [3]

In the 15th century, under the patronage of the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Giovanni Tomacelli da Napoli, and after the approval of the Sultan and the Holy See, the roof was rebuilt. The wood for the project was donated and sent from the Republic of Venice whereas Edward IV of England donated the lead used for the roof and the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, paid for the work.

Current restoration works

The current restoration works of the Basilica started in 2013 after Palestinian Minister Ziad Bandak, President of Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity Church, awarded the contract to the Piacenti Restoration Company and the construction management to Community Development Group (CDG). The signing of the contract took place in presence of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Dr. Rami Hamdallah and representatives of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Armenian Patriarchate and the Custody of the Holy Land.

From the start of the restoration, the Presidential Committee received 10 million euros from different countries and organizations. The list of the contributors is the following, sorted in respective order of the committed contribution date:

The State of Palestine, Republic of Hungary, Mr. Saeed Tawfiq Khoury – CCC, Palestine Investment Bank, Republic of France, Russian Federation, The Holy See – Vatican, Palestinian Investment Fund, Palestine Commercial Bank, Bank of Palestine, Republic of Greece, Mr. Alberto Kassis – Chile, Mr. Jose Said – Chile, Russian Orthodox Patriarchate via Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Kingdom of Spain, Pontifical Mission, Armenian’s Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Republic of Italy, Federal Republic of Germany, Kingdom of Morocco, Republic of Poland, Paltel Group – Palestine, Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Belgium.

Piacenti has concluded the restoration of the roof, windows, the wooden door in the narthex, and the mosaics of the walls in the nave and the transepts. Currently, the company is restoring the wooden architraves above the marble columns. The State of Palestine is working on securing 7.5 million euros to restore the 50 columns, the floor mosaics, the stone external facades and the installation of the fire and lighting systems. The needed budget to restore all columns is around 2,3 million euros; 50,000 euros for the restoration of the each column that features a painting (32 Columns) and 40,000 euros for each column without a painting (18 Columns).

In June 2016, the Embassy of the State of Palestine to the Holy See held a presentation in the Vatican about the restoration process in presence of H.E Msgr. Antonio Camilleri, Deputy Secretary of State for International relations of the Holy See; Minister Ziad Bandak, President of the Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity; Mrs. Vera Baboun, Mayor of Bethlehem and a number of Presidential Committee members: Dr. Khouloud Daibes, Palestinian Ambassador to Germany, Mr. Issa Kassissieh, Palestinian Ambassador to the Holy See, and Archeologist Nazmi Jubeh.

Saher Kawas

[1] Andreas Andreopoulos, 2005. Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology And Iconography. Edition. St Vladimir’s Seminary Pr.

[2] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, 2008. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford Archaeological Guides). 5 Edition. Oxford University Press.

[3] D. Baldi, Enchiridion Locorum Sanctorum, Jerusalem 1982, no. 150.

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