Church of the Visitation

"Of all his churches this probably has the most festive atmosphere. As on many other biblical sites, he had not only to commemorate in fitting fashion the main mystery in view but also to respect and incorporate the remains of other churches which had stood on the site… Thus the building is dual: an upper church and a crypt, linked together in one harmonious whole."

                                                                                                                                        Gerrard Bushell

The Byzantine chapel became the crypt for a fine upper Crusader church, and a fortified monastery was built round the church. It has been identified as the church of the Abbey of St John in the Woods, which the Cistercians established in 1169. Subsequently it became an Armenian monastery, but after they were expelled by the Moslems in the late 15th  century the whole site became ruinous. Then in 1679 the Franciscans gained possession of the site, and restored the lower chapel. In 1862 they obtained permission to refashion the crypt. The rebuilding of the whole sanctuary began in 1938 but due to the disturbances of the Second World War, it was not completed until 1955.

The church is approached up a steep hill from the centre of Ein Karem, a village in the Judean hills seven kilometers from Jerusalem, but now within site of its suburbs. The churchyard is entered through gates carrying the Holy Land cross with bronze figures of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Through them is seen the colonnaded narthex and slender corner tower. The large mosaic in the centre of the west front depicts Mary travelling towards Ein Karem from Nazareth, which appears in the background, seated on a donkey and surrounded by angels. It was made in the Vatican Mosaic Workshop and designed by Biagio Biagetti.

The church is entered through bronze doors designed by Mistruzzi.

Bushell describes the upper church;-

"Here the theme of exuberant life is lavishly suggested by the rich decoration of the whole church: stars, animals and flowers joining in joyful praise of the Virgin. The windows… are in the form of delicate marble tracery, representing palm leaves and fruit. This was a common symbol of fertility in ancient Palestine… discreetly recall that the joy of Mary and Elizabeth was that of mothers-to-be….. The walls, floor and ceiling are richly adorned with frescoes, which are undoubtedly the most striking feature of the church."

The paintings on the apse wall include Mary worshipping God, standing on a rock above Franciscan monks, and surrounded by angels in the tier above. The scenes to the side are set in arcaded architectural settings. The south wall has five great frescoes by C Vagarini in a late Italian renaissance style celebrating Mary’s traditional titles. Between the pictures are verses from the Magnificat. On the opposite wall between the windows are paintings of angels by F Manetti in the style of Fra Angelico. The mosaic floor shows symbols of nature in all its forms glorifying God. The roof is painted with diamonds and squares in 14th century Tuscan manner.

The crypt, the original Byzantine chapel, can be reached by external steps dating from the Crusader church. Four courses of the medieval apse survive, as do ten courses of the eastern section of the north wall. The original south wall remains to a height of 4m.

Bushell describes the crypt:-

"In his reconstruction of the crypt, it was Barluzzi’s intention to suggest the family atmosphere of a simple dwelling, the house of Elizabeth. At the same time, he wished to preserve the feeling of ancient tradition, of memories of Christian devotion shown down the ages. Thus, while the interior was made a little more regular and the altar recess enlarged, the corridor to the ancient well was kept…. The marble altar has a frontispiece in the shape of a lamb above a stylized crown of thorns, symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. This, together with the tabernacle, crucifix and candlesticks, adorned with singing birds, is the work of Antonio Minghetti. A rich mosaic forms the background to the altar and shows nature – stars, animals and flowers – venerating the cross. The two figures in prayer are Elizabeth and Zechariah. .. the pavement of the ancient corridor leading to the well [beside the altar and dating from Roman times] is in the form of a stream full of all kinds of fish, with the whole enclosed in a border of lotus flowers… [The main floor] is done in carpet-style mosaic, to emphasise again the atmosphere of close home life.

"Most impressive are the three frescoes by Angelo della Torre, in early Renaissance style. One is of the Visitation, the meeting of the two holy women against a background of household activity in preparation for an important visitor. The second fresco represents St. John being hidden from Herod’s pitiless slaughter of the Innocents. The third shows Zechariah in his priestly vestments."



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