Archeparchy of Pittsburgh – Italians finish restoring mosaics in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — An
Italian team has completed restoration of Crusader-era mosaics in the Church of
the Nativity, but the mosaics will only be unveiled publicly after work on
lighting, electricity and the fire alarm system is also finished.

The work involved removing the
layers of centuries-worth of soot and dirt — a result of the smoke of candles
lit by pilgrims coming to venerate the site traditionally believed to be the
birthplace of Jesus — from about 1.55 million tiny mosaic pieces that were
reviewed and restored.

“I think all the churches
want to save this church because here Jesus was born,” said Giammarco
Piacenti, CEO of Piacenti restoration center, which began work on the church
starting with the rotting wooden roof in April 2013. “It is important for
all Christianity. For my professional life, this occasion is incredible.”

Only 1,400 square feet of
mosaics remain from the original 21,528 square feet that adorned the wall, he
noted. The others were destroyed by rain leaking through the roof, he said.

Made of stone, mother of pearl,
and glass and gold leaf, the mosaics portray different scenes in the life of Jesus
and the church, including the disbelief of Thomas, the Assumption and Jesus’
entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Piacenti said the mosaic of the disbelief
of Thomas shows the date of 1155 and the names Ephraim and Basilius, presumably
artisans who created the work. Some pieces of the mosaics remain missing and
will not be replaced, he said, based on the theory of restoration that there
should be a minimum of intervention on any piece.

“Really, it is only
conservation,” he said.

One special moment came when
restorers cleared away plaster from the wall bordering the roof in the main section
of the church and discovered a seventh mosaic of a golden angel, in addition to
the six they already knew existed. The angels’ arms gently direct pilgrims
toward the grotto traditionally thought to be the site where Mary gave birth
to Jesus.

During the Ottoman Empire, the
angels’ faces were disfigured with gunshots to the nose and so here the missing
pieces have been replaced, said Piacenti.

Both Islam and Judaism prohibit
graven human images.

“They were shot in the nose
to destroy, to kill them,” Piacenti said. Restoration gave them “a second life.”

The Church of the Nativity is
shared by the Franciscans, and the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches.
It is governed by the traditional Status Quo, the 1852 agreement that preserves
the division of ownership and responsibilities of various Christian holy sites.
In years past, the denominations have been known to jealously guard over their
sections of the church, to the extent of fist fights breaking out over who
could clean which part of the stone floor.

Relations among the churches
have become progressively more cordial over the past decade, and the three
churches were able to come together under the auspices of a special committee
formed by the Palestinian National Authority. Through joint discussions they
reached a working agreement permitting the much needed restorations on the Church
of the Nativity to begin.

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