GROTTO OF THE NATIVITY, AT BETHLEHEM.
Contiguous to the monastery, seen remotely upon a rising ground in the view of the city of Bethlehem, stands the church of St. Mary of Bethlehem, erected by the Empress Helena over a cavern or grotto, in which, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary was delivered of a son. This church, as well as the monastery, is in the possession of the Franciscans; and although at present much neglected and out of repair, is visited by numerous pilgrims, as well Christian as Mohammedan, and not less venerated than Mount Calvary, and the Holy Sepulchre.
The entrance is through a portico, supported by sixteen pillars of marble: the body of the church is in the form of a cross, from the centre of which a handsome cupola rises.
The whole is roofed with cedar, supported by four ranges of pillars, ten in each row, forming five aisles, of which the middlemost is the largest: these pillars, as well as the interior walls, are of white marble. From the church, a descent by a flight of steps leads to a small cave, containing an altar, called the Chapel of the Innocents; under which, in a vault, it is asserted the children slain by Herod were interred.
Adjoining this apartment is the Grotto of the Nativity, a tolerably spacious cavern, being forty feet in length, twelve wide, and fifteen in height. Here is an altar, with a representation of the Nativity, before which several lamps are kept continually burning. In the centre of the pavement beneath the altar, which is of the finest marble, there is a glory of silver like the sun, with this inscription round it:
“„Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est“.”
From this place a descent of three steps conducts to a smaller grotto, separated from the former only by three columns of variegated marble, which support the overhanging rock.
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Here the manger is shown in which the new-born Infant was laid by the Virgin. It is hewn out of the rock, in a concave about two feet from the ground, and lined throughout with white marble, in the veins of which the figure of an old man with a monk’s hood on may he traced, said to be the representation of St. Jerom, miraculously fixed in the stone, as a memorial of his piety and affection for the sacred manger, during his long residence in this place.
On the opposite side of the grotto there is an altar (seen on the right hand in the drawing), where it is said the magi of the East, who were conducted hither by the star, disposed of their presents. A picture representing this circumstance is seen hanging over the altar.
Source: Views in the Ottoman dominions: in Europe, in Asia, and some of the Mediterranean islands by Luigi Mayer; Sir Robert Ainslie; William Watts, engraver; Thomas Bensley, printer; Robert Bowyer, publisher. London: Printed by T. Bensley, Bolt Court, Fleet Street, for R. Bowyer, 80, Pall Mall, 1810.