Covered for centuries by the soot of the candles and then over a period of years by the scaffolding of the restorers, the mosaics of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem appear again in their original splendor of the era of the Crusades, in time for Christmas. During 15 months, 125 m2 of 2000-m2 of the original mosaics, drawn at the time of the Crusades between 1154 and 1169, have been thoroughly cleaned and repaired. The rest was gone, eaten away by time, lack of maintenance, humidity, earthquakes and wars.
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The restored fragments shine now, on the white walls, above the heads of visitors, transfiguring this high place of christianity built on the cave where, according to christians, Mary gave Jesus to the world. On the left wall of the nave, seven angels surrounded gold seem to be placed at the moment on a carpet of grass-like, bright green to watch over the pilgrims. Each is placed between two windows, the symbols of the divine light. One of them, the top of more than two meters, was discovered under a layer of plaster during the restoration. Below angels and in front, other mosaics represent the different synods, as well as the ancestors of Jesus.
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“These mosaics are made up of gold-leaf placed between two plates of glass”, explains to the AFP Marcello Piacenti, which oversees the work for the account of the company is an Italian private Piacenti. “Only the faces and the limbs are drawn with small pieces of stone,” he adds. “When you pénétriez in the church before [the restoration], you couldn’t even distinguish that they were mosaics so everything was black,” notes Ibrahim Abedrabbo, an engineer overseeing the work palestinian side.
THOMAS COEX/AFP Exaltation
Initially, the mosaics covering the entire wall. Unusually, the signature of the supervisor and of the artist are still visible. In the choir, St. Thomas, incredulous, sticks his finger in the wound of Christ after the crucifixion, in the same shimmering style. In contrast, the gold and the colors blend together to reconstitute the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem: the inhabitants pave his road of palm leaves and their coats, the entrance of the holy City against the horizon.
“When you pénétriez in the church before the restoration, you could not even distinguish that they were mosaics so everything was black”
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“One has the impression that it has to be done”, said Patricia Lieby, a French 44 years old who visit the church for the first time. “I had never seen tile like this one, outside of Jerusalem. It is sublime!”, she says. “When I discovered them after the restore, I am left stunned”, was the Father Asbed Balian, superior of the Armenian church of the Nativity, one of the three churches that administer the building. “Spiritually, we feel more exalted”.
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Under the mosaics of the nave, the restaurateurs have made a resurgence of paintings dating from the same era, on the columns. Between 1127 and the end of the Twelfth century, wealthy pilgrims were paying artists for they represent the saints of their family or their region in the church.
“These portraits were hardly separate,” says Marcello Piacenti. At present, the silhouettes stand out perfectly on the columns of pink. Only missing faces, blotted out by the muslims after the islamic conquest, their religion prohibits human representations. The restoration will help to trace the history of this place badge, ” says Piacenti.
The historians believed that the first church, built in the Fourth century by the emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, had been destroyed by a fire. Gold “no trace of burning was found during the restoration,” notes Marcello Piacenti, for which the hypothesis of an earthquake seems more likely.
“The basilica was in danger,”
The Byzantines have rebuilt the building in the sixth century, then the Crusaders have enriched. In the absence of agreement between the three churches – roman catholic, Greek orthodox and Armenian – managing the building, the building had not been restored since the mid-Nineteenth century.
“When the work started in 2013, the basilica was in danger,” recalls Afif Tweme, consultant for the presidential committee of palestine for the restoration of the church. According to him, the palestinian Authority has driven the start of the work and remains the largest financial contributor. The donations arrived in dribs and drabs, but the restoration should be completed by the end of 2019. Church, place of worship and a major tourist destination, remained open during all the work.
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scaffolding still surround some parts of the chorus. Conservators will continue to clean the mosaic on the floor, inch by inch, protected from the gaze of the visitors by large panels of plywood. “Sometimes I have to force them to leave the site!”, pleasant Marcello Piacenti.
For Afif Tweme, after years of being overshadowed by the persistence of the israeli-palestinian conflict, the restoration of “going to affect tourism, that’s for sure”. It is hoped that the economic benefits will convince the christians of Bethlehem area to stay on their land.