Background to the Pilgrimage Churches

The Franciscans had been gradually reclaiming Christian holy sites and seeking permission to rebuild them. This was difficult during the Ottoman period, and the chapels were sombre, small and often built in a hurry before the firman (the official permission) was changed. After the First World War and the fall of the Turkish Empire, the situation changed completely and the Custody of the Holy Land undertook an extensive programme to rebuild the sanctuaries.

Initially the architects followed the plans of preceding structures for their new projects, but this gave way to a new architectural dimension: the sanctuaries were to reflect the "moods" and the "particular mysteries" they represented and to protect archaeological finds. At this point Antonio Barluzzi arrived on the scene and met Father Custos Ferdinando Diotallevi.

In his interview with Diotallevi Barluzzi  explained:-

"In Palestine every holy place has a direct reference to a definite Mystery of the life of Jesus Christ. It is only natural then to avoid the general type of architecture which constantly repeats the same word and, instead shape the art so that it expresses the feeling called forth by that Mystery. In this way, the faithful entering a sanctuary will easily be able to reconstruct in their own minds the Gospel story and to concentrate their meditation on thoughts appropriate to the Mystery created there. Rather than choosing the art form first, and bend everything else to suit it, I think it is more fitting to establish the basic religious concept of the holy place for which the sanctuary is being built and tailor the architecture to it."

Diotallevi agreed.

Concerning the protection of archaeological finds the Department of Antiquities of the British Mandate government, fearful that the ancient stones on Mount Tabor would disappear, sent an inspector to examine the plans together with the engineer Liberato Traversa and Fr Antonio Gassi, guardian at Nazareth. He gave assurances that all the ruins would be respected. While the excavations were open, the engineer Guilio Barluzzi, Antonio's brother, sketched a very precise plan in which the Roman and Crusader parts as well as the Arab structures stood out clearly.

As required by the new brief the Basilica of the Transfiguration incorporates substantial remains of earlier Byzantine and Crusader churches on the site. Here this led to a split level basilican church with western towers incorporating the Byzantine chapels to Moses and Elijah, (which St. Peter had wanted to build! ) and a sanctuary open to the nave, but at a lower level to incorporate the east end of the Crusader crypt and fourth century apse below the summit of the mountain. The western half of the Crusader crypt is below Barluzzi’s nave. The ancient stairway down to it is protected by an iron grating in the floor near the church entrance, and two glazed openings In the floor of the nave give light to the underground section.


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