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The Wall Mosaics in the Nativity Church
submitted by Turathuna Bethlehem University

When Canon Casola saw them in 1494, he spoke of most beautiful mosaics that look quite new; they are sadly decayed since his day, and fragments only now remain. The complete scheme is known from Fr Francis Quaresmius' description of 1626, when they were still complete. They could quite easily be restored in the original style and designs.

To see them, it is best to stand as far away as possible, starting with one's back to the second or third pillar on the north side.

Looking down the church, the west wall, now quite bare, was decorated with a 'Tree of Jesse', showing the ancestry of Christ and figures of various prophets bearing scrolls of verses from the prophecies. Quaresmius counted seven such, including Balaam and the Roman Sibyl.
The designs on the side walls were arranged in five registers. The lowest showed the ancestors of Christ, on the south wall according to St Matthew, on the north according to St Luke. Above he was a band of fanciful foliage. Then, on the south wall, were symbolic representations of the Seven General or Ecumenical Councils, acknowledged alike by Rome and by the Orthodox. Each had an inscription summarizing the principal decision. The Six Provincial Councils of the Orthodox are depicted on the north wall, with differing artistic emblems. Next came a band of leafy scroll ornamentation, and above all a procession of angels, enclosed in a formal border, hails the divine birth. The plan on page 34 shows original positions and dates of the General Councils, but only Constantinople I is wholly intact. Quaresmius copied all the text of the First Council of Nicaea:

The Holy Synod of 318 holy Fathers against Arius, who claimed that the Son and the Word of God were created, met under the Emperor Constantine the Great. The Holy Synod decreed and confessed that the only Son and Word of God, by whom all things were made, is co-eternal and consubstantial with the Father, begotten and not made. It anathematized Arius.

In common artistic convention the Councils are represented by depicting an assembly of bishops. Here altars are shown, one with censers on either side, the other with candlesticks.
On the north side Christ's genealogy according to St Luke has wholly disappeared. For decoration the Six Provincial Councils have representations of churches and turrets, and the name of the council. Below an inscription summarizes each councilor decision, with a single altar below. The six panels are carefully arranged to match the distances between the columns, and each is separated from the next by a decorative panel.

Source: The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem

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