Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Newsletter by Yisca Harani, Translation from the Hebrew: Irma Zaslansky
Three Trees in the Church of the Nativity
For those who are interested in the amazing decorations in the Church of the Nativity I wholeheartedly recommend that you purchase or at least read, the book written by Bianca and Gustav Kuhnel –
Bianca and Gustav Kuhnel,
The Church Of the Nativity in Bethlehem:
The Crusader Lining of an Early Christian Basilica,
Schnell & Steiner.2019
The three trees we will be dealing with in this article are symbolic representations of the Tree of Genesis, or the Tree of Life which will return and appear again in the Apocalypse.
In the first book of the Bible, it is written:
“And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden" (Genesis Ch. 2)
In the final book of the Christian bible the tree of the future is described :
” In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (Revelations: 22)
The above quotations are good and suitable for this period when Christmas trees decorate the home, the churches, towns and cities of Christians all over the world. The green tree is the expression of the power of growth and rebirth, of survival and hope. In the middle of winter – physical and/or spiritual- the tree constitutes a sign of the future – blossoming and the promise of spring and prosperity.
Were there Christmas trees in the Church of the Nativity at the time of the Crusaders?
No, certainly not... however for 800 years the walls there had symbolic decorations of trees , symbols which foretold success and eternity.
1. The Family Tree- the stem of Jesse
(the mosaic which was and is no longer there)
We begin with the first tree – the Tree of Genealogy ( The Family Tree) a tree which sadly has not survived but is known to us from descriptions passed down by pilgrims over the generations.
On the western wall, that is to say at the entrance of the Church of the Nativity, on the internal part situated inside the church, there was a mosaic of the Generations of Jesus.
The above is an illustration of the western wall of the church. Above the door there used to be a mosaic with the family tree as well as the image of Abraham, at its base. This we know only from descriptions of the visitors to the church in the second half of the second millenium…. who added that in the mosaics there were quotations from the Biblical prophecies relating to the coming of Jesus the Messiah in Bethlehem as well as from external Biblical texts
“The Vision of the Sybil” by Virgil.
Jesus was a descendant of Abraham as well as of King David as is stated in the first chapter of the New Testament, The Genealogy in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (which is slightly different from the genealogy of the Gospel of Luke) where we find three cycles of 14 generations:
The first cycle from Abraham to David
A second cycle from David to the Babylonian Exile
The third cycle from the Babylonian Exile and up to Jesus
Two things (at least) emerge from the reading of the summary of the hierarchy:
a. The Divine Plan is not random! The history reads like a military campaign planned magnificently - in three parts, in volumes of typological numbers (14 is double the typological 7 as well as the number of Hebrew letters in the name “David” in numerology).
b. Jesus is the summit of monotheistic evolution:
1. Abraham smashed the idols and defined the faith in one God.
2. David established Jerusalem as the place of the home of God/the Temple
3. The Babylonian Exile was the first destruction of the Temple and triggered the second building of the Temple.
4. Jesus foretells the destruction of he earthly temple in Jerusalem and prepares us for the period of the third temple. He himself is the divine promise for the future, a divine promise to be realized by human beings for the benefit of humanity. The divine promise is fulfilled by the children of Abraham for their benefit. What could be more appropriate for describing the family tree other than by reference to a tree? Abraham is the trunk of the tree, close to the root, the generations that follow are the continuation of the trunk and branches, and at the top of the tree and above it - the Messiah, the future.
In this connection it is appropriate to quote the promise given to Isaiah and attributed to King David:
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:” (Isaiah chapter 11)
and it continues in the following verses :
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.”
In this way the Christians see the unequivocal message of Jesus, the Messiah,
son of David, since he stands as a banner for the people, that is to say for all the nations, and not only for the people of Israel.
In any event the genealogy that leads from Abraham to Jesus through King David is called iconically (metaphorically) “The Root of Jesse”, also thanks to the bible verses stated above and because of the identification of the place of the birth of Jesus in the same city associated with Jesse and David son of Jesse.
Church artworks describe the genealogy in the image of a tree: the root or the trunk of the tree is in the image of a man lying down, that one may understand as Abraham or Jesse. Above, the tree continues and is filled with branches of many images from the bible, sometimes with the addition of the prophets, but mainly we see David, Mary and Jesus .
Here we may see examples from Europe from the same period as the decorations of the mosaics in the Church of the Nativity, in the Capucine handwriting and in the stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Chartres in France. See if you can identify the images...
A totally modern example of the representation of the family tree is found at the entrance to the Catholic Church of Santa Catherina, alongside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem:
a large impressive bronze relief, looking like a tree with Abraham at its base and at his head, Jesus. This work of art was created by a Polish artist and blessed by Pope Benedict when he visited Israel in 2009. On another occasion I will analyze the entire artwork but for now it will be enough to look at it and at its parts.
The artwork is in the form of a wide olive tree with David at its center as a young shepherd and above – Jesus
The name of Abraham can be seen on the base of the tree.
On the side of this work of art it is possible to identify names within the genealogy as they appear in Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew:
Manasseh begat Amon,
Amon begat Josiah,
11 Josiah begat Jeconiah[c]
and his brothers at the time of the Babylonian exile t
12. After the Babylonian exile
Jeconiah begat Shealtiel,
And Shealtiel Zerubbabel,
13 Zerubbabel begat Abihud,
In the Church of the Nativity there was a continuation in the artistic and theological form of the “Root of Jesse” which survived until the 17th century… On the walls of the nave (the central hall of the church), the mosaics depicted images of the generation of the house of David and fortunately some of them survived, for example, what had been the length of all the walls. On the Southern wall, seven heads survived, and these are : Azur, Zadok, Yahin, Elihud, Elazar, Matan, Jacob.
Their names appear in Chapter 1 of Matthew :
(14 ) Azor begat Zadok,
Zadok begat Yahin,
And Yahin begat Elihud,
15 Elihud begat Elazar,
Elazar begat Matan,
Matan begat Jacob,
And if you are wondering which Jacob appears at the end of the list and at the end of the mosaic on the wall, it is not Jacob our father but Jacob the grandfather of Jesus as it is written
(16) Jacob begat Joseph , the husband of Mary who from her was born Jesus, called the Messiah
Jacob in the mosaic is holding out hands in the direction of those coming, which did not survive… that is to say, Joseph who should have been in the continuation of the wall, and in the direction of the apse where Mary was (In the mosaic, together with David and with our father Abraham). The apse situated above the cave of the Nativity, was dedicated to May, since in fact the whole church was dedicated to Mary. Different sources from the first millennium called the Church of the Nativity – the Church of Mary!
2. Tree / Cross of the Precious Stones, in Latin- Crux Gemmata
On the Northern Wall of the Church of the Nativity, along side the inscriptions that were translated in a previous newsletter (December 2019), of the Councils of Sardika and Antioch, we find a magnificent cross against a background of trees in full foliage. Luckily this crucifix has survived to a large extent! This is not a simple crucifix, but a cross decorated and adorned with precious stones (‘gems’) in the style known as : Crux Gemmata.
The cross is situated in the center of the Northern wall, between the descriptions of the councils that survived (Sardika and Antioch) and between those that did not survive. The prosaic reason for the appearance of this element, a cross with precious stones, is for reasons of symmetry. The cross completes the division of the Northern wall into seven sections, in the same way as the Southern wall was divided. On the Southern side, the wall is divided into seven sections as in the number of the ecumenical council: First Nicea, first Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, second Constantinople, third Constantinople and second Nicea . Seven councils appeared in full glory, visually and theologically – until they were damaged, and only a few pieces remained (except for the First Constantinople that remained complete).
Opposite, on the Northern wall the decoration is dedicated to the six local councils: Carthage, Laodicea, Gangerra, Sardika, Antioch and Ankira.
In order to preserve the symmetry between the walls, the beautiful cross was pushed between the Six Councils and divided the wall into seven sections. The addition of the crucifix divided the local councils into six equal sections and by the way, also gave theological validity to the decisions. “CRUX GEMMATA” is a cross decorated on one side with precious stones, without the crucified body. The gems (semi precious stones) are sometimes twelve in number, as in the case of the disciples, as it seems to be in this mosaic before us. The precious stones cross was widespread in early Christianity and in the middle ages, and we have classical examples before you:
A. The cross in the St. Apollinari in Classe in Ravenna, in Italy from the 6th Century.
B. The cross of Caesar Justinian 2nd of the 6th Century which is still in liturgical use in the church.
Every precious stone cross is a triumphal cross, that is to say, a sign of victory. The cross is not a sign of defeat, but of success, not death but resurrection! The color gold and precious stones depict victory of life over death, and the tree, rather than a Tree of Death becomes a Tree of Life - Arbor Vitae! The Tree of the Garden of Eden mentioned at the beginning of this article is the Tree of Life, thanks to the cross. In the words of Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem: “Between the trees is the Tree of the cross”.
(Lecture to candidates for Christianity 13:39).
These values of success, victory and resurrection have double importance in this cross before us.
From behind the magnificent cross, and from both sides, green trees are full with foliage and fruit. This is situated between the Councils, as if to approve their validity, and in addition, also a reminder to all believers in Jesus and the Church (with its decisions!) - and will gain the Apocalyptic Tree of Life, the Tree described in the last chapter and the future of the New Testament. ( Revelations ch.22)
This triumphal cross reminds me of the beautiful engraving, although much later, but which represents the perception of the Crucifix of the Death of Jesus.
This is the cross which gives life to the believers.
The way to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, must cross The Tree of Death of Jesus.
Hence, without the Cross - there is no life.
3. Tree of the Candelabra
Unlike the unique cross of precious stones, there are a number of Candelabra trees that decorate the spaces between the depictions of the Church Councils , and separated them.
The 'Candelabra plant' in this photograph, is accompanied by two additional plants. One can call them “Narrow Candelabras”. Each candelabra plant is fantastic, filled with imaginative decorations, leaves, flowers, branches, wings and various objects like vases, vials and horns of plenty. The abundance of color and especially the background of gold (including the use of a mother of pearl shells), transforms the plants to luminous decorations.
The variety of forms and composition ( each candelabra plant differs from the others, and each slat is different from the other), is a “Celebration in the Garden of Eden”. Also the wings of angels bursting out from the plants reminds me that the source of these plants is somewhere in the heavens. Are these the Candelabras of the Garden of Eden? Or perhaps the Candelabra of the Rites of the Liturgy as evidenced in the scattered liturgical objects along the width of the mosaic? Altars, books, incense tools, candles…
One can spend time with the group searching for these images in the mosaic.
It is possible that the tree engraving of the candelabra draws the attention of the visitor inside the Church to the fascinating connection between the Garden of Eden, the Temple and the Church liturgy:
The Church is a Temple of Heaven on Earth.
Through the faith of the church (manifested in the mosaic inscriptions of the church councils) and by means of the Liturgy (as evidenced by the liturgical objects and altars depicted in the mosaic), we are connecting to Angels (who in heavens practice the divine liturgy) and are elevated to a place that we will hopefully reach in the end. The Heavenly Garden of Eden.