Prosper Viaud

Nazareth et ses deux églises de l’Annonciation et de Saint-Joseph (1889-1910)

When the Franciscan father Prosper Viaud arrived in Nazareth for the first time in 1889, he realized how unworthy the small church of the Annunciation, built in the eighteenth century, was of the glory of the past. However, the signs of this magnificence were hidden between the walls of the convent and would have to be searched for.
Continuing with the work of his predecessor, brother Benedict Vlaminck, father Viaud began a detailed research, convinced that through history and archaeology, the Custody could find a new basis for the construction of a more fitting sanctuary over the House of Mary. The report of this research, published in 1910, is not only an analysis of the finds, but the account of an exciting daily search, made up of predictions, disappointments and unexpected success, such as in the case of the discovery of the famous Crusader capitals hidden inside a grotto from the times of Jesus.

The discovery of the illustrated capitals

Before renouncing my research, I finally decided, based on the dimensions of the ancient vaults of the far extremity of the room, to dig a hole in the middle of the room, in front of the extraordinary piers. We dug down for over a metre without finding anything, except earth and debris. Obviously, there was no longer anything there. Since I had to go off to do a few things, I ordered the excavations to be stopped and the hole that had already been made to be closed.
However, a servant who was helping me with the work pointed out that after having got this far, it would be a shame not to continue to the base.
I was wondering at the same time, whether to let him dig down to the rock. I let him continue as he wished, and went, convinced that it was completely pointless.
When I returned in the evening, the situation had completely changed. Everyone was working feverishly and faces were beaming. Without waiting for me to ask: "Father, a statue!" shouted the workers. These words left me, initially, quite cold. During the excavations the workers often give indications that are so strange and far from the truth that you can never believe what they say until seeing it for yourself.
However, the servant with whom I had spoken, then said seriously: "Father, it’s true. Come and see. It’s magnificent." With a jump, I entered the pit and bent over to examine the famous discovery with the help of a light. It was true: we were unearthing part of the illustrated capital (fig 1). Beside it there was another underground, of which you could only see the top part.
I need not express the joy and that of my religious colleagues on receiving this news that spread in an instant, not only throughout the convent, but also the city. There is also no need to describe all the precautions taken bit by bit to unearth, remove and show them in a corner of the room.
Straight away, the next day, a real procession began that lasted many days: everyone, Christians and Muslims, men, women and children wanted to see the wonderful capitals. In fact, deserving this reputation and admiration, it was shared by all the visitors from that moment on. Everyone confessed to not being able to wait to see such a wonder.
However, on that day, we only discovered two, on the next day and day after, a third was added.
This magnificent discovery built everyone’s’ hopes up again, including mine.
Already believing to see many similar capitals pulled out from among the rubble, we decided to lower the ground of the room to allow more height and air. We set to work straight away and in a few days, two metres of earth had been removed and taken away.
Only two new capitals were extracted from a type of block, under which they were hidden; however, added to the first three, all five constituted a top-rate artistic feature.
However, looking from another point of view, this discovery was nothing compared to the one we would make next which we will now discuss. »

Viaud Prosper, Nazareth et ses deux èglise de l’Annonciation et de Saint-Joseph, Paris, 1910, Chapter 4, pp 55-56