Church of St. Lazarus, Bethany

This site has a complicated history with a series of churches related to the tomb of Lazarus, and other New Testament references. The first church or shrine was built between 333 and 390. Parts of this building, including its apse, were uncovered by excavations in 1881 under the mosque built there. It was destroyed by an earthquake, probably in the early fifth century, and new church built along the same basilican lines, with an apse and two sacristies as is evident from some of its remaining stonework. However it was set out further to the east to allow for an atrium between it and Lazarus’ tomb, to accommodate the crowds at festivals. The floor was more level than that of the first church, and great part of its mosaic decoration has been recovered. This can be seen in the courtyard, (7 on plan) while the Byzantine apse (11 on plan) can be seen inside today’s church which was built on its foundations.

Between 1138 and 1144 the Crusaders, or rather Queen Melisande, established a Benedictine convent and largely rebuilt the church, strengthening its walls to carry stone vaulting. Besides making alterations, another, fourth church was built above the tomb of Lazarus for the use of the nuns, with a triapsidal east end supported on barrel vaults. Parts of its north and south walls survive. The conventual buildings were arranged round a cloister to the south.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, both churches were in ruins, and the crypt of the nuns’ church had been converted into a mosque. The monastery had also became ruinous, most likely in the thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century the Moslems built another mosque, this time in the atrium of the Byzantine church, blocking the entrance to the tomb for Christians. In 1613 the Franciscans obtained permission to build a separate entrance, which remains the current one (1 on plan).

In 1863 the Custody of the Holy Land gained title to a plot of ground close to the tomb of Lazarus. Other areas were acquired later. In 1889 the Custody bought a property to the west where a comparatively recent tradition had located the house of Simon the leper.

It was only through excavations in 1949-53 that the history of the site was resurrected. After deciding to build on the site the planning of the new church was entrusted to Barluzzi, and it was consecrated in 1954. His design brings together in one spot all Bethany's memories: the friendship of Jesus for Lazarus and his sisters, the promise of the resurrection of the body, and the raising of Lazarus.

Finally in 1965 a Greek Orthodox church was built which incorporates one wall of the crusader chapel built over the tomb.

So Barluzzi was faced with the usual task of designing a suitable monument while respecting the historical context and its remains. Here such vestiges were particularly elaborate as previous monuments comprised four successive churches and a large monastery.

Barluzzi’s church is in the form of a domed mausoleum in the shape of a Greek cross built over the eastern part of the Byzantine and Crusader churches, with a slim tower at the north east corner, austere as an obelisk, apart from its belfry. The exterior is windowless and unadorned, except for the three mosaic panels of Mary, Martha and Lazarus on the west front, and a similar set of Lazarus flanked by angels with trumpets on the east elevation.

The bronze door has six panels, each containing a circle surrounded by endless tresses, symbolic of immortality. Under trap doors just inside the church parts of the fourth century apse can be seen (10 on plan).  Under other trap doors, inside and outside in the courtyard fragments of fourth and fifth century mosaics can be seen. The apse of the second church is outlined in white marble near the altar .

"Inside the building the eye is struck by … the highly ornamented walls, and the opening at the top of the dome which is the sole source of light …. At the base of the cupola, variety is introduced by the mosaic inscription on a golden background. The arches are of a yellowish, ivory-like stone from Bethlehem, while the ribbing and panels of the dome are all adorned with mosaic. Thus, the upper part of the building is adorned with light, while the vaults are shaded. We can see how the architect, Barluzzi, used simplicity of line, plainly coloured stone and reduced height, to create a sense of severity and sombreness in the lower half of the church, while the soaring higher elements, crowned by the dome with its flood of light, suggests the joy of intense hope and optimism. The details of the decoration bear out this dual theme."

"At the base of the dome, the circular cornice carries these words against a golden background; Jesus said to her "I am the Resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live ..... Do you believe this?"  (Jn 11 v25-6)  To suggest the realisation of this promise the 48 divisions of the cupola are adorned with white doves in upward flight."

                                                                                                                                    Gerrard Bushell

The mosaic lunettes are copies of frescoes painted by Cesare Vagarini. That over the altar illustrates John 11 v32-3 after Martha has called Mary to meet Jesus. Mary is kneeling at Jesus’ feet, surrounded by other mourners and the disciples. Below is the text "EGO SUM RESURRECTIO ET VITA."

The mosaic to the left illustrates an earlier visit when Martha complained to Jesus about Mary leaving all the work to her. (Luke 10 v38-42)

The mosaic to the right of the altar illustrates John 11 v43 as Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, while that over the entrance shows Jesus eating at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany where a woman anoints Him with a jar of expensive perfume. (Mark 14 v3-6 and Matthew 26 v6-13)




1   Entrance to tomb
7  Byzantine atrium
9 Mosaic fragments
10 Apse of C4 church
11 Apse ofC6 church
12 Buttresses of Crusader church
13 Portico
14 Byzantine chapel
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next      Church of the Angels, Shepherds' Fields
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