The Basilica of the Annunciation
The various investigations have provided us with a more accurate idea of what would have been one of the richest and most important complexes of the Crusader Holy Land.
To the north of the large church which stood in an east to west direction, there was a bishop’s palace and to the south, a serious of rooms opening onto a loggia – perhaps the guest area for pilgrims or the stables – while a cemetery stood in the east behind the apses. The large Crusader constructions would destroyed a good part of the previous dwellings and changed the profile of the ground.
The church had three aisles, ending in semicircular apses enclosed in rectangular walls and measuring 72x30 metres externally and 61x21 internally: there is a clear disproportion between the length and width, probably caused by the rocky slope descending steeply from north to south that would have forced the builders to construct a long and narrow church. The walls of the apses and the façade were up to five metres thick, while the side walls were only two metres thick: the fortified aspect of the church would have been evident, with a visible façade and various buildings at the sides.
The structure was built with local stones known as mizzi, sultani and nari that were white in colour and were effective due to their resistance and density: generally squared ashlars made of sultani stone for the lower parts and nari stone for the upper parts were used. Different signs of extraction of the stones were present in the rock surrounding the venerated Grotto and correspond to the measurements of the stones used in the Crusader building area. The working of stone was accurate, produced with the typical diagonal cut of the surfaces. Stonework originating from Europe left identifiable marks and traces on the ashlars.
The better preserved wall sections are those of the north side and of one part of the apses; for this, in the hypotheses by Bagatti and Alliata, found here and there in the excavation or reused in the 18th-century wall that, when combined, provide a clearer idea of the architectural and decorative typology of the church. The façade had a single entrance door: during the construction of the 18th-century church, the architectural remains of the base were discovered, decorated with grooves and a few finely worked ashlars that adorned the doorway. Alongside various other remains discovered in 1955, Bagatti was able to hypothetically reconstruct the splayed doorway, with a single entrance and a base plinth surmounted by columns that supported the archivolt. The archivolt would have been particularly detailed: the remains of the arch show depictions of animals and sections with leaf decoration, joined together with a strip and surmounted by small circles; a beautiful inscription of the second half of the 12th century welcomed the pilgrim who was crossing the doorway. At the centre, the semicircle was similarly embellished with almost life size high relief sculptures. Bagatti also suggested that a few sculpture fragments, such as the one depicting a saint holding keys and supporting the model of a church, interpreted as Saint Peter, could have belonged to the decorations at the sides of the doorway. In the 1980s, the scholar Z. Jacoby also tried to reconstruct the doorway, claiming that the style could have been inspired by Bourgogne art, with two entrances separated by a central column/statue and with the scene of the triumph of Christ glorified in the central semicircle. Both the scholars positioned the illustrated capitals found in the grotto above the side columns of the doorway.
Noting the thickness of the walls of the façade, Bagatti made the hypothesis that the two bell towers stood at the sides, in the style of many Crusader churches, as for example that of Jacob’s Well in Nablus, Samaria.
The external sides of the Church were reinforced by counterforts, to which the cruciform half pillars internally corresponded; inside, six pillars were spread over each side of the aisles, the first three with squared bases and the second three alternating between cruciform and squared. The various fragments of leaf-patterned capitals, also decorated with mascarons or fruit, the consoles with leaves and interlocking geometric patterns and the bases with geometric ornaments hints at a church with varied decorations. The light entered from the windows located high up, along the sides of the aisles, below the volts.
The luxurious building held the venerated grotto inside it, inserted between the two pillars, beneath the arches of the left aisle. The grotto descended initially from two staircases, one to the west near the entrance, and one to the east near the apses. Then, at a later date, only the west entrance was kept.
In order to facilitate the movement of pilgrims round the grotto, the Crusader architects produced a small shallow apse along the north side of the church. It was possible to walk both along the sides of the grotto and on its roof. There are lots of marks etched into the stone by pilgrims who were passing by the grotto. These visitors could see a small "confessional window" inside the grotto, an opening in the west side. It attracted much interest due to the beautiful decoration framing it that showed woven strips leading to a small devil’s head. According to the reconstruction of father Bagatti and father Alliata, it is probable that, above the grotto, there was an altar covered with a small shrine adorned with capitals with flat leaves discovered in the excavation. A guide from 1231 that describes the grotto located beneath the pillars, offers the example of the cathedral of Our Lady of Tartus, on the Syrian coastline, that has a pillar extending from above the entrance to the crypt. Today this provides the most direct comparison.
The grotto, positioned on a level lower than the floor of the church, underwent transformations that changed it with respect to the Byzantine period. One of these transformations was, for example, the probable destruction of the "grotto of Conon."
The stairs led to a rectangular space known as "chapel of the angel" and from this room you could enter the ancient grotto. Descending by the west stairs on the right of the Chapel of the angel brought you to two small rooms of uncertain use located on a lower level.
Father Horn, who described the Church in 1730, conveying the design of the cosmatesque flooring that probably decorated the grotto and today no longer exist: the style is the same as on the floors produced by Italian marble workers at San Sepolcro or Ain Karem. The walls of the grotto were adjusted and reduced in view of the construction of the church above: for this reason, part of the vault was rebuilt in masonry work and granite columns were inserted to support the weight of the pillar above the roof of the grotto (the granite columns are still visible today on the left of the grotto entrance).
The abbot Daniel, who probably saw the grotto before it was restored by the Crusaders, described an antechamber, with the place where Mary was standing before the apparition of the angel, and a separate room with the tomb of Saint Joseph; according to the abbot, you entered the grotto from the antechamber and beheld a round altar located above a column, right at the place where it is believed the angel stood during the Annunciation.
After the second half of the 12th century, it is certain that the grotto was transformed: the Crusaders restricted the access to a single entrance, that to the west, from which Theodoric entered, and restructured the Chapel of the Angel; at this point Joseph’s tomb no longer appeared to be in a separate room, but in the north wall of the venerated grotto; moreover, the memorial of the place of Mary’s birthplace was added. Other details were added by the Greek monk Focas, who testified that the entrance of the grotto was enriched with paintings of the Annunciation. The organisation of the inside was probably not really changed, but rather the point of view changed: Focas, coming from the eastern tradition, identifies the memorial in a different way than the western people.
It can be concluded that between the beginning and the second half of the 12th century, the work continued and determined the new architectural form of the holy place, both in the plan and the elevation views. Furthermore, the evangelical memorials of the grotto vary according to the Latin or oriental tradition of the pilgrims. Finally, it is possible that the project for the decoration of the grotto began after the earthquake in 1170 and that the same capitals of the apostles, as hypothesized by a few scholars, among them Folda, would have been part of a new architectural solution, perhaps a baldachin, placed to complete the monument above the grotto.