Church of the Nativity

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Altar above the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ

The Nativity Church ( Greek Βασιλική της Γεννήσεως , Arabic كنيسة المهد, DMG Kanīsat al-Mahd , Armenian Սուրբ Ծննդյան տաճար , Hebrew כנסיית המולד) is the church in Bethlehem that was built over the alleged birthplace of Jesus Christ . The Church of the Nativity is one of the few examples of perfectly preserved early Christian church buildings .

History of the Church of the Nativity

The star marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ
Scene in the Church of the Nativity, painting by Georg Macco , 1930
Fragmental remains of the painting from the time of the Crusaders on the pillars of the three- corner
choir basilica
The floor plan of the Church of the Nativity also served as a template for the construction of other churches. (see: St. Maria in the Capitol )

The cave, which Christians consider the birthplace of Jesus, was venerated from the 2nd century onwards. Emperor Hadrian allegedly built an Adonis sanctuary over her in 135 , probably also to prevent the worship of Jesus again. Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena had a memorial church with rich mosaic floors built at the place of birth, which they consecrated to Jesus Christ before 335. The building was a five-aisled, 27-meter-long basilica with an atrium to the west and a polygonal apse to the east. The apse was 17 meters wide and had an opening four meters wide in the middle, which gave a view of the nativity grotto.

In 386 St. Jerome came to Bethlehem, where he completed his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate ; in his extensive work he reports repeatedly about the nativity grotto; B. in his 46th letter, chap. 11.3: "Here in a small crevice in the earth the creator of heaven was born" ( Ecce in hoc parvo terrae foramine caelorum conditor natus est ).

The Constantinian basilica was built in the 2nd half of the 5th century. Completely rebuilt with a western narthex , as shown by the completely preserved building decoration on the capitals and architraves; the reason - possibly a fire or an earthquake - has not been recorded. The building decor of the 5th century speaks against a new building under Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, and there are no sources of any building activity on his part in Bethlehem. The main changes were the covering of the mosaic floor with stone slabs, the enlargement of the east end with three apses and a double stairway leading to the grotto, so that the pilgrims could now get right to the place of birth.

While other church buildings were damaged in 614 by the Persians advancing against the Byzantine Empire , this church was spared; it is thus the oldest preserved and continuously used church in the Holy Land. It is believed that a relief above the entrance gate depicting the Three Kings in oriental clothing was the reason for this. The crusaders restored the church thoroughly (1161–1169). The Mamluks also left the church in the 13th century. The church fell into disrepair under the Turks, who removed the marble cladding. In 1670 the Greek Orthodox Church began to renovate the church. At the presumed birthplace in the birth grotto, a silver star with the inscription Hic de virgine Maria Jesus Christ natus est 'Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary' was placed exactly on the central axis of the basilica by the Roman Catholic Church . Its 14 points symbolize the 14 families in the family tree of Jesus .

As a result, there were disputes between the individual denominations about the use of the building, so that the Hohe Pforte had to establish a regulation in 1757. According to this, the main altar and the right side altars belong to the Greeks, two side altars to the left belong to the Armenians. The only thing left for the Roman Catholics ( Latins ) was the Three Kings altar and the star under the birth altar, only the Hieronymus grottoes and the space to the left of the church, where they were allowed to build their own church.

After the silver star in the grotto of the birth was removed in 1847, it was re-donated by Sultan Abdülmecid I in 1852 , but this incident led to the outbreak of the Crimean War . After severe damage from an earthquake (1927), the British Mandate Administration and later the Franciscans had excavations and restorations carried out.

During the Second Intifada in April 2002, the site was sieged by the Israeli military for 39 days after 40 armed Palestinian fighters fled to the Church of the Nativity and holed up there. In addition, around 160 other people (including 60 priests, monks and nuns) were trapped in the church complex. Some windows were destroyed by the exchange of fire; only the adjacent buildings suffered major damage. The representatives of the Christian churches refused to allow the two Palestinians who had been shot to be buried in the church complex for fear that Muslims might later use this as a reason to want to set up a place of worship here.

Even in recent times, as in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher , there have been repeated disputes between the individual denominations about the use of the church. At the end of December 2007 and 2011, during the traditional church cleaning for Orthodox Christmas, there were brawls between Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests, which had to be broken up by the police. A necessary roof renovation failed for years due to the question of how to split the financing, but further restoration work began in 2013. These should be completed in 2020.

The entire church complex, including the historical pilgrimage route leading to it, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site by the World Heritage Committee at its 36th meeting on June 29, 2012 under the name Birthplace of Jesus Christ: Church of the Nativity and Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem as the first site in Palestine . At the same time it was entered on the Red List of World Heritage in Danger. Due to the restoration work carried out in the meantime, it was decided at the meeting of the World Heritage Committee in 2019 to remove the site from the Red List.

Architecture of today's Church of the Nativity

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity
The church from the outside
Central nave of the Church of the Nativity

The current Church of the Nativity is a five-aisled church with a narthex . A three-conch choir with a transept and a square crossing has replaced the simple choir closure . The basilica has an open roof. Only the three conches are arched; the walls of the conches are therefore thicker than in the ship. The columns are not made of marble, but of a reddish dolomitic rock broken in Palestine.

In the central nave and in the northern choir section there are remains of floor mosaics from the 4th century under the current floor , which are protected with wooden covers. On the walls of the ship, mosaics from the time of the Crusaders (mid-12th century) can be seen, which represent councils : on the south wall seven ecumenical councils (Nicaea 325, Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431, Chalcedon 451, Constantinople 553 and 680 and Nicaea 787) , on the north wall six provincial councils (Carthago, Laodicea, Gangara, Serdica, Antioch, Ancyra). In the north aisle there are mosaics depicting scenes of the unbelieving Thomas and the Ascension of Christ. Paintings have been preserved on 33 columns in the nave . On the right side, a door leads to the monastery of the Greek Orthodox, on the left side there are two connecting doors to the Roman Catholic St. Catherine's Church and the cloister in front of it. Two narrow stairs lead to the birth grotto, in which the birth place is shown under the birth altar, marked with a silver star on which the Latin inscription "Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christ Natus Est" is written. To the right of this is the place where the crib is said to have stood.

Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine

Immediately north of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the Katharinenkirche, which can be entered from the north conche of the Church of the Nativity. The grotto system can be entered from the south aisle of the Katharinenkirche.

Christmas ceremonial

At noon on Christmas Eve (December 24th) the Latin Patriarch travels from Jerusalem by car to Bethlehem. At the city limits (now after the separation wall ) the convoy is received by mounted police officers and scout groups with bagpipe music. The train goes up to the crib square . There the Patriarch is received by the Franciscans and local dignitaries, moves into the Church of the Nativity and from there into the Church of St. Catherine. He celebrates Christmas mass and high mass on Christmas Day (December 25th) in the Katharinenkirche and then returns to Jerusalem. So Mette does not take place in the Church of the Nativity itself. After the Christmas mass, the patriarch moves with the concelebrants and the altar service in a procession through the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto of the Nativity. The festival of Epiphany (January 6th) is celebrated in a similarly solemn manner, although the custodian of the Franciscans presides over these celebrations.

Something similar happens on January 6th and 7th, when the Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas (December 24th and 25th according to the Julian calendar ) by the Greek Patriarch . However, he celebrates Mass in the Church of the Nativity.

The Armenian Patriarch celebrates - on a smaller scale - also in the Church of the Nativity, but on 5/6. January of the Julian calendar, so again 12 days later (January 18/19).


  • Ute Verstegen: The architectural staging of the Christian places of remembrance in the Holy Land - architectural semantic considerations on a Constantinian innovation concept . In: INSITU. Zeitschrift für Architekturgeschichte 7 (2/2015), pp. 151–170 (155f).

Web links

Commons : Church of the Nativity  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files
Commons : St. Katharinenkirche (Bethlehem)  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Verstegen: The architectural staging , p. 155f.
  2. See world and environment of the Bible. Stuttgart 4/2002, p. 57.
  3. Rival clergymen clash in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity , Ha-Aretz 28 December 2011
  4. Holy Land: Work on the Church of the Nativity until September 2014 , Vatican Radio on December 3, 2013
  5. Soon the scaffolding will fall in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - a million stones cleared , Domradio, May 15, 2017; Accessed December 25, 2019
  7. ^ Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Could Be Palestine's First World Heritage Site . Global Heritage Fund. June 15, 2012. Archived from the original on July 6, 2012. Retrieved on June 29, 2012.
  8. ^ Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem. UNESCO World Heritage Center, accessed September 30, 2017 .
  9. ^ The site of the Birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (Palestine) removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO World Heritage Center, July 2, 2019, accessed July 6, 2019 .

Coordinates: 31 ° 42 ′ 15.5 ″  N , 35 ° 12 ′ 27.5 ″  E