During the 14th century, Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of the first Church of the Nativity. Since its founding, the church was adorned with many sacred and coveted pieces of art and insignia by wealthy and high-ranking individuals. Located in Bethlehem, it is regarded as one of the earliest Christian churches and given its coordinates is strongly tied to the birthplace of Jesus Christ and the start of the Christian faith. Over its long history, the Church of the Nativity has endured through political and religious strife, natural disasters, and vandalism. Starting in 2013, the Palestinian Authority launched a large project to renovate much of the church, including valuable pieces of artwork it has been home to for centuries.
The most notable of these art pieces are the large mosaics that hang from the walls of the church. For fifteen months, art restorative experts cleaned and repaired what is left of the beautiful mosaics. Earthquakes, soot, construction work, weather, and war are a handful of the factors that have caused the mosaics to need restoration. Before the work began the mosaics were easy to overlook and not the showstopper they are today because of the black surface layer that made them almost indistinguishable. Once the mosaics were restored Father Asbed Balian, a senior cleric of the Armenian church, was absolutely “stunned” at the transformation of the mosaics. Balian said, “Spiritually, we feel more exalted.”
When visitors enter the church and look up, the restored mosaics gracefully contradicting the high white walls greet them. The supervisor from the firm handling the restoration of the mosaics, Piacenti, described the way in which the pieces were created noting that they are, “made of gold leaf placed between two glass plates,” and “only faces and limbs are drawn with small pieces of stone.” The detailed artwork is nothing short of miraculous with the estimated cost in today’s marketing totaling around $20.5 million.
Crafted in the 12th century, the mosaics today encompass roughly 1,300 square feet compared to the original 21,500 square feet at conception. The scenes depicted in the mosaics are some of the most memorable and significant stories in the bible. Including doubting Thomas putting his fingers in the wounds on Jesus’ sides from his crucifixion after he rose from the dead. Another scene shows Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The mosaics were accompanied in their restoration by several other elaborate art pieces including paintings that date back as far as the year 1127. Before the cleaning and repairs Piacenti describes these paintings as, “Barely distinguishable, blackened over the years.” He also talks about his and his team’s dedication to the project because of its special location joking that, “Sometimes I have to force them to leave.”
Consultant for the Palestinian Authority, Afif Tweme, suspects the restorations of art in the Church of the Nativity will positively influence tourism. Tweme hopes that the benefits from the restoration will, “persuade more of Bethlehem’s dwindling local Christian population to stay in the city rather than move away.”
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