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The Pillar Paintings in the Nativity Church
submitted by Turathuna Bethlehem University

Not least among the attractions of the basilica is its forest of forty-four pillars, of which thirty are decorated with paintings of the saints. It is one of the most complete collections of medieval paintings in existence. Other examples, wall paintings included, are to be seen in the church of the Hospital of St John at Abu Ghosh, in the Theoctistus Monastery in the Judaean desert, and in St John Baptist's church at Sebaste (Samaria), and one pillar example in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. Two inscriptions, of 1130 and 1169, show that the Bethlehem examples belong to the Crusader period, but the paintings of the bishops are after 1150, following a change in the pattern of miters. All the Bethlehem paintings are framed in red or whitish borders, and generally have blue backgrounds. Many are partly erased by time and rough usage. All are in oil paint. Some authorities have believed that they were all by one hand, but minute differences of influence, Byzantine and western, Greek and Crusader, suggest the work of a school rather than of an individual.

In 1494 Canon Casola 'never tired of looking at the many beautiful pillars', which in 1506 Sir Richard Guylforde described as 'of the finest marble... not only marvelous for the number, but for outrageous greatness, length and fairness thereof.' The marble is in fact a local limestone which takes a high polish. In 1483 Fr Felix Faber said that the 'costly columns, were polished with oil so that a man can see his face in them like a mirror'; a process which no doubt has contributed to their present condition. In Sinai Faber visited St Catherine's Church, built under the Emperor Justinian, and thus contemporary with the Bethlehem basilica. In St Catherine's twelve columns support the roof, six on each side. On them are hung pictures of saints whose relics are enclosed in the columns, each column containing relics of saints whose feast days are kept separately in the twelve months of the year. No such practice is recorded in Bethlehem, but there are graffiti on the lower parts of the pillars, with the names or prayers of pilgrims and visitors, or their coats-of-arms. Those in Gothic script date back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and many are in German.
Source: The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem

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