At Christmas time millions around the world travel to see family and friends, while others flock to vacation destinations. However, there are many who still travel on pilgrimage at this festive time of year, seeking to celebrate one of Christianity’s most sacred days someplace meaningful. The great cathedrals and churches of the world draw many at this time of year. But for the truly devout there are few places that can rival those churches and sites associated with the Nativity. While Bethlehem probably tops almost every Christian pilgrim’s wish list at Christmas, it is not the only place where the birth of Jesus is especially meaningful.
Basilica of the Annunciation
Web: www.nazareth-en.custodia.org (official website)
Christianity began in Nazareth, where Biblical tradition says Mary the mother of Jesus was first visited by the angel Gabriel. While Bethlehem and Jerusalem boast the great shrines of Jesus’ birth and death, it is Nazareth where Jesus spent most of his life in between, and the surrounding region of Galilee where he spent most of the few short years of his ministry. Despite its lesser status, Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation are among the oldest and most popular stops for Christian pilgrims working their way across the Holy Land.
According to tradition, the original Basilica of the Annunciation built in the 4th century was constructed on the site where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. However, the Byzantine-era structure that once stood here has since been rebuilt several times. The current incarnation is a massive modern-age church that only dates from the 1960s. Although not particularly venerable, it has the distinction of being the largest Christian church in the Holy Land, and one of the largest churches in active use in the Middle East in general.
The exterior of the basilica is decorated with a collection of Christian art donated from around the world. The interior of the Basilica is so large that it probably would enclose most of what would have been the original village of Nazareth. As with the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the highlight of the shrine lies beneath the basilica: the Grotto of the Annunciation. This is supposedly located in the exact spot where the house of Mary once stood, and the place in which Gabriel appeared to her.
Church of the Nativity
Web: Amazingly, there is no official website
The Church of the Nativity stands on the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and is the second holiest site in Christendom after the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The current structure dates in part to the 6th century AD and is one of the oldest Christian churches still in use in the Holy Land. The Church of the Nativity is part of a complex of religious buildings located at the eastern end of Manger Square. The Church of the Nativity is overseen by several major Christian denominations in a complex arrangement that dates back to Ottoman times. In years when travel to Bethlehem is less arduous, it is one of the most popular places in the world for pilgrimages.
The Church of the Nativity consists of the main church structure above and the grottoes below, as well as the adjoining St. Catherine’s Church. The current structure was completed in the mid-6th century. Portions of Constantine’s original building were incorporated into the later church, and can be glimpsed in places. The main church is entered through the Door of Humility, so called because of its small size. The interior consists mostly of the original Byzantine decorations, with many embellishments added later, including an oak ceiling donated by King Edward IV of England. A decorative mosaic of the Three Wise Men is one of the shrine’s most famous pieces, and legend has it that this decoration saved the Church from demolition at the hands of Persian conquerors.
The adjoining St. Catherine’s Church was built by the Franciscan Order during their tenure. Among the highlights of St. Catherine’s is the Chapel of the Innocents, which was built over the site of a mass grave of children that were slaughtered during the days of Herod. The tombs of a number of other saints also lie within St. Catherine’s, including that of St. Jerome. The main attraction is the Grotto of the Nativity beneath the Church. Inside, a fourteen-pointed star, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem and the Stations of the Cross, marks the place where Jesus was born. A Latin inscription reads ‘Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary’. Fifteen lamps, gifts of various Christian churches, illuminate the sanctuary.
Web: www.koelner-dom.de (official website)
Cologne Cathedral is one of the architectural wonders of the Middle Ages. From the time of its completion it was the largest church, and building, in the world, until it was surpassed by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was also the tallest man-made structure in the world for a time. But for all of Cologne Cathedral’s mind-boggling dimensions, it is not for its size that it is best known, but rather for what is within: the Shrine of the Three Kings. The shrine, whose centerpiece is believed to be the world’s largest golden reliquary, supposedly contains the relics of the Three Wise Men who visited the infant Jesus at the time of his birth.
Cologne Cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece akin to those constructed in Northern France in the Middle Ages. Among the more notable French-style architectural touches are the flying buttresses used to support the cathedral’s massive height and bulk. Most of the construction dates from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, though detail and repair work continued well into the 1800s. The dominant external feature of the cathedral are the skyscraping twin spires which have dominated the city skyline of Cologne since the 19th century, and which for a few brief years made Cologne Cathedral the tallest man-made structure in the world.
The dimensions of the interior of the cathedral are no less impressive, boasting one of the tallest vaults of any church in the world. The interior is perhaps a bit less ornate than other medieval Gothic period constructions, but most visitors look past this in their rush to get to the cathedral’s highlight: the Shrine of the Three Kings. This giant, golden tomb built for three is the largest Christian reliquary in the world. It has been suggested that the size and splendor of both the cathedral and tomb were designed to awe and distract visiting pilgrims from the fact that, for all its popularity, the legitimacy of the tomb’s contents are questionable at best.
Church of Sts. Sergius & Bacchus
Web: No official website
The Church of Sts. Sergius & Bacchus is believed to be the oldest church in Cairo and one of the oldest in Egypt. According to tradition, it stands upon the site where Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus resided while in exile in Egypt. Named for Sergius and Bacchus, two soldiers who served in the Roman army and who were martyred in 303 AD for secretly practicing Christianity, this church was also the location where most of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church were elected between the 7th and 10th centuries. But despite these honors, it is the tradition of its role in the Nativity that is this church’s main draw.
The first church to stand on this site was constructed sometime in the 5th century, but was destroyed in the year 750 AD when most of the city was razed by a terrible fire. It was rebuilt soon afterwards. While some elements of the current church date from this period, much of the structure has been rebuilt and restored on numerous occasions. Nevertheless it is believed that the original Byzantine style layout has been more-or-less preserved.
Because of its size and because it is closely hemmed in by narrow surrounding streets and alleyways, it is difficult to take in the church’s medieval exterior, so most visitors head straight inside to the shrine. There are separate entrances to the church above and the crypt below. The small church interior is well-preserved example of medieval Byzantine architecture with Islamic influences, and is worth a peek. The main attraction is the crypt below the church, where it is believed the Holy Family lived for a while during their time in exile. This sub-structure is the oldest part of the church and has elements dating back to early Christian times.
Catacomb of Priscilla
Web: www.catacombepriscilla.com (official website)
The Nativity of Jesus is one of the most common subjects and important influences in art in history. For nearly two thousand years countless artists have attempted to tackle the Nativity. From early amateurs to Renaissance masters; from the first crèche of St. Francis of Assissi to the stained glass windows of Marc Chagall; the birth and first days of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most depicted events in art history.
During the first three centuries of Christianity, practitioners and followers worshipped underground, literally. And that is where the oldest Christian art can be found: deep underground, in the Catacombs of Rome. Virtually all of the earliest depictions of Christ and the New Testament stories are in these ancient, long neglected tunnels: a 2nd-century painting of the Last Supper in the Catacomb of Domitilla; the Bearded Christ in the Catacomb of Commodilla; the Baptism in the Catacomb of San Callisto.
But among the oldest of all is the depiction of the Madonna and Child in the Catacomb of Priscilla. Named in honor of a Roman aristocrat who converted to Christianity, many Christians were entombed in the Catacomb of Priscilla in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries. The image of the Nativity in question is located in a niche of a major gallery and is most easily found by taking a tour. It clearly shows a woman holding a suckling infant while a robed man looks on. The resemblance between this painting, which was forgotten for many centuries, and later depictions is undeniable.