On the lower part of many of the pillars are 14th and 15th century heraldic devices. Not frescoes, these are in fact works done employing the rare encaustic technique, which uses burned-in wax colors.
A small part of the flagstone floor in the nave of the basilica gives way to a wooden opening. This allows visitors to admire a section of the beautiful mosaic floor of Constantine’s original 4th century church.
From either side of the basilica’s great choir, flights of well-worn stairs lead down to of the Nativity, located directly beneath the High Altar of the church.
In a small recess in the cave’s wall, is the
Altar of the Nativity
A Silver Star set in white marble marks the birthplace of Jesus, where millions come every year in reverence to the event that took place 2,000 years ago. Silver oil-lamps hang above it, burning night and day.
To the side of the grotto are two other altars; the Chapel of the Crib, where the newly born Jesus was laid, and the Altar of the Magi, in memory of the
Three Wise Men who visited the babe in the Manger.
In modern times the idea of the manger has become associated with a place where animals are kept. In ancient times, however, the reality was more of a cave where fodder for the animals was stored – often along with other household goods. In fact, it has long been the practice in the region to build houses over caves – they being much warmer in the bitter winter and much cooler in the blistering heat of summer. The cave now under the basilica would have been a perfect choice.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)
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