Basilica of the Transfiguration

The Basilica of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor was Barluzzi’s first, and one of his best, if not the best of his churches.

While in the Holy Land just before the First World War, to build a hospital for the Italian Mission, Antonio and Guilio Barluzzi were asked by F Razzoli the head of the Franciscans there to submit plans for a basilica on Mount Tabor. When Antonio returned in 1918 he met the new Father Custos Ferdinando Diotallevi who had the plans he had previously made for Tabor. Diotallevi sought his views on the project, and then appointed Barluzzi to go ahead with it, and also appointed him to design a church at Gethsemane.

Mount Tabor rises nearly 600 meters above the Plain of Jezreel, and has always been a sacred mountain. In the second millennium BC there was a Canaanite shrine where Baal was worshipped. Mount Tabor features in the Old Testament, and is claimed to be the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured.

Although allowed to return to the site in the 17th  century the Franciscans only began to build a small monastery in 1873. Since then the monastery has grown in size with the basilica built in 1919-24 and a hostel, Casa Nova following in 1925.

The architect tells us how he decided on the particular style: "The archaeological excavations brought to light an ancient crypt with a stairway down to it, walls of the apse from three periods super-imposed on each other with slight variations in the gradient [...] In the whole picture one could accentuate the design of a central crypt with a church above with three naves whose side walls relate to the facade of the chapel and the central one to the entrance vestibule. This arrangement, which fulfilled in a certain way the wish of St Peter to construct three tents [...] had a very touching comparison to the plan of some churches of the 5th century near Aleppo, and near to that of St Simeon the Stylite. This fact would help one accept the suggestion of that rather unknown architecture, Roman-Syrian, which in its main characteristics was decadent classical with a slightly eastern decoration"

The west front is in this Romano- Syrian style of the fourth to seventh centuries with an open arch headed narthex set flush between two towers leading to three large bronze doors, designed by Tonnini, each weighing one and a half tons. The two towers allowed Barluzzi to include the remains of the Byzantine-Crusader chapels in the body of the church. The towers comprise three storeys with pedimented roofs and are equal in height to the nave with its triple arched gallery. The relatively plain stone façade is relieved by mouldings and Corinthian capitals. In the southern tower are the bells, cast by Bassano del Grappa,

"Seen from the outside, the northern and southern walls of the basilica are extremely simple, while the eastern side has an interesting group of rocks and ruins. The two side apses in a straight line flank the central apse with its semi-circular shape and are decorated on high by two rows of small columns. Under the central apse there is the apse of the crypt which in turn rests partially on the remains of the fortress of el-Adel."      (Tabor Today in

Inside the split level plan is clear with open views down to the barrel vaulted lower level, and upwards to the domed apse. The nave roof is yet higher on heavy timber trusses carried on colonettes between the clerestorey windows. All the windows are glazed with alabaster.

The ornamentation of the nave is very simple, with two friezes, one of stone engraving that follows the line of the arches and the other in a straight line of mosaic under the windows. The aisles are narrower than the nave and like it end in elevated apses. In the south apse the altar is consecrated to St Francis. The two bronze statues with the sanctuary lamps and the candlesticks are the work of Tonnini. A few stone steps connect the aisles to their apses above and these two link on the upper level with the central apse.

Madden described the interior as "a striking vision, a wonderful transfiguration of stone, marble and mosaic [by Umberto Noni]. The central nave gives us a full view of the eastern apse. It has two levels, the upper level commemorating the divine nature of Christ and the lower recalling different manifestations of his humanity. The great mosaic above shows the three disciples awestruck at the sight of Jesus in glory, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. The face of Jesus in the design is lifted as if He is in conversation with God the Father and is full of gentleness and peace."

Against a background of gold the central figure of Jesus stands out with very white clothing. On one side there are Moses and Peter; on the other, Elijah and the other two apostles. Golden rays descend from the centre.

"Twelve steps lead down to the lower [Crusader] altar. Above it in the apse, peacocks form the symbolism of the main window, recalling the immortality which Jesus guarantees. The peacock is a common element in Eastern Christian art…. The murals around the lower altar remind us of other ‘epiphanies’ of Christ’s human nature; in his Nativity, in the Eucharist, in his Death, and in his Resurrection."                               

On the ceiling of the crypt, a large rosette in the centre  includes the chi-rho symbol and the letters alpha and omega, surmounted by a cross with rays of light.
The paintings are by Villani and the stone carving by Piroli.

The tower chapels have eastern apses and are thereby entered through doors in their apses. The chapel in the south tower is dedicated to Elijah, and that in the north to Moses. The south chapel incorporates a Byzantine mosaic floor with white, black and red tesserae, which was restored once in the Crusader period and which has been taken up and recomposed partially in a new location. The crosses portrayed in the mosaic floor indicate that it must have been built before 422, for in that year the Emperor Theodosius II prohibited the use of crosses in pavement mosaics to prevent them being trodden underfoot. The apse is decorated with a painting of Elijah.

The northern chapel, dedicated to Moses, has a modern mosaic floor. Here too there is a painting in the apse: Moses, noble and persuasive, holds the tablets of the law in his left hand; behind him there is Sinai and on the sides a large burning bush and a rock with water flowing from it ( Ex 17:6).

To conclude with Madden’s words, "Within the building itself we are immediately struck by the skill of an architect who could seize on the essentials of a site a situation and a mystery, express its meaning in stone, mosaic and bronze, and illumine it all through alabaster with the light of the sun itself. [Originally it had a translucent alabaster roof] It is small wonder that many people think the basilica to be the finest in the Holy Land."





                                                © Sonia Halliday Photographs

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