Bethlehem’s Shepherds Field: history, architecture, art, & worship
In the Boaz fields (which are mentioned in Ruth 3) sits a small suburb of Bethlehem called Beit-Sahur. This village is traditionally recognized as the location of the field where an angel informed the shepherds that Jesus Christ was born.
The writings of St. Jerome (347-420 A.D.) indicate that the place known as the Shepherds Field – where the shepherds kept watch on that holy night when Christ was born – had already been located and venerated by the 4th Century. St. Jerome referred to this site as Migdal Eder (the tower of the flock). Archeologists have discovered the remains of a tower in Beit-Sahur, and evidence of the area’s use at the time of Christ has also been located in the grottos on the hillside: Herodian ceramics and coins.
“The tradition of the site, which goes back to the time of the Roman Paula, centered on two locations: one is in the care of the Greek Orthodox Church known as Der Er-Ra’wat, and the other is maintained by the Franciscans and known as Der Es-Siar.” [Bethlehem.edu]
Der Es-Siar (Sheepfold) “lies 1 km (0.6 mile) to the north-west of the Church of Er-Ra’wat. It belongs to the Franciscan Fathers and was carefully excavated, revealing a vast monastic agricultural establishment, cisterns and grottos. According to evidence in the field, an early church dating from the 5th century was enlarged in the 6th century, and stones from the octagonal construction of the Basilica of the Nativity were employed in the construction of its apse. The most striking of the remains at Es-Siar is a fine arched cistern in perfect condition. There are also Byzantine remains of mosaic floors, water channels, wine-vats, and the ruins of a group of buildings that suggest a farmstead rather than a specifically monastic establishment.” [Bethlehem.edu]
At the time of Christ, shepherds often used caves as shelter. The cave located at The Shepherds Field, which now has an altar for public worship, is “considered as having been inhabited by the Shepherds.” [Bethlehem.edu] The cave has since been enclosed, but the roof of the cave remains blackened from centuries of candlelight and lamps.
A new Church “was erected near the traditional site of the underground Church of the Shepherds,” near the cave. [Bethlehem.edu] “While excavating the foundations for the new church,” excavators uncovered “the ruins of three different churches from the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. To preserve these precious remains it was decided to build the new church adjacent to, rather than immediately above, the cave.” [Bethlehem.edu]
The Sanctorum Angelorum ad Pastores chapel was designed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in the shape of a traditional nomadic shepherds’ tent. A large angel adorns the front of the chapel, just above the doorway.
The top of the chapel is a dome. The dome was specifically designed to mimic a starry night sky. This starry effect comes into full view when visitors step inside the chapel and gave up into the dome.
Inside the chapel are three large frescoes which tell the shepherds’ story which unfolded on that holy night when Christ was born. In each, light can be seen raining down from the heavens.
In the first fresco, the angels announce to the shepherds that the Christ was born.
In the second fresco, the shepherds visit the newborn King.
In the third fresco, the shepherds celebrate Christ’s birth with jubilee.
Today, thousands flock to The Shepherds Field, the holy site where the angel appeared to the shepherds on the night that our Lord and Savior came into this world in the flesh. In the chapel, it is common to hear God’s word preached and hymns sung aloud in a multitude of languages by visitors from across the globe.
Posted in: Advent, Architecture, Biblical History
Do you permit usage of your photographs for non-profits? I would like to use the picture of Fresco 1 on the front of a bulletin at church, if possible.
Absolutely! Please feel free to use any of our photographs from the Holy Land.