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The Architecture of the Church


Most of the churches of the Holy Land were constructed according to a basilical plan, consisting of a large hall divided, by two rows of columns, into a central nave and two side aisles. All the churches were built along an east-west axis and had a semicircular niche - an apse - in the eastern wall. On either side of the apse, at the ends of the aisles, were two square rooms or small apses. The entrance to the church was usually from the west via a vestibule - the narthex - and, occasionally, an entrance courtyard - the atrium.

The apse and the raised platform in front of it - the bema - were surrounded by a low stone partition - the chancel screen - which separated the congregation from the sacred area, where the liturgical rites were performed. The officiating clergy sat on benches built along the walls of the apse, with the bishop in the center. Toward the front of the bema stood the altar, beneath which, in a depression in the floor, a reliquary was hidden. Additional tables, on which the Scriptures and various liturgical objects were placed, also stood on the bema.

Several steps led from the bema up to a pulpit - the ambo - which protruded into the nave and from which the scriptural passages were read. Within the church, particularly toward the front of the hall, glass oil lamps and chandeliers were suspended from the ceiling beams, together with censers and crosses. The walls, mainly of the apse, were decorated with frescos and mosaics.



The partial reconstruction of the front of a church presented here incorporates elements from various churches excavated in this country: the mosaic floor is from Castra on the Carmel Coast; the altar is from Khirbet ed-Deir in the Judean Desert; the small table is from Horvat Hesheq in the western Galilee; and the ambo is from Tel Istaba in Beth Shean. The chancel screen panels are from Beth Shean, Carmiel, and Massuot Yizhak.

A corner of the exhibition featuring a reconstruction of the bema of a typical church in the Holy Land
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Staff Archaeological Officer in the
Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay

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Pulpit (Ambo)

Pulpit (Ambo) from the Church of St. Theodoros
Bituminous stone
Khirbet Beit Sila, north of Jerusalem, 6th century
Staff Archaeological Officer in the Civil Administration
of Judea and Samaria, K28908-28910, K29518, K30188, K30189
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay

The reading of the Scriptures in the church was conducted from a raised, decorated pulpit (ambo), which protruded from the bema into the nave. In numerous churches, parts of these pulpits were found, but very few complete examples have been preserved. Illustrations of pulpits have come down to us in manuscripts from later periods. In honor of this exhibition, two pulpits have been restored - one from the Martyr's Church in Beth Shean and the other - the most complete ever discovered in Israel - from the Church of St. Theodoros, recently excavated at Khirbet Beth Sila, northwest of Jerusalem. It is made of carved slabs of bituminous stone, and on its floor, a dedicatory inscription reads: "Lord, please receive the offering of your servant, the priest Peter." Practically identical slabs were found on Mount Nebo and at Umm el-Rasas in Jordan; they all probably came from the same workshop.

The Church of St. Theodoros was built in the sixth century. It was designed as a basilica with two square rooms next to the apse. The nave, aisles and bema were paved with mosaics. A panel from the altar base has survived (presented on the opposite wall), and beneath it, a niche was discovered containing a small reliquary. This box contained a long strand of hair, apparently the sacred relic. An additional reliquary was placed in a niche in the church's northern wall.

An inscription describing the construction of the church is found on the mosaic floor of the nave: "For the salvation and help of the Priest Peter/Petros, who with the joy granted him by St. Theodoros, made the nave of the church and the apse. And the niches (with the relics) were made on the tenth of November... "Coincidentally, the inscription was discovered exactly 1,500 years after it was written - on November 10, 1997.

Church of St. Theodoros at Khirbet Beit Sila, proposed reconstruction
Drawing: Staff Archaeological Officer in the Civil Administration
of Judea and Samaria / by Felix Portnov

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The Baptismal Font

Baptismal font in the northern church at Shivta
Photo: Baruch Gian

The rite of baptism - symbolizing the purification of sins and rebirth - marks an individual's acceptance into the Church. In the Byzantine period, this rite was only performed after the candidate for conversion (catechumen) had completed a rigorous course of study. During this lengthy ceremony, the catechumen was immersed in water, anointed with oil, and dressed in a pure white garment. Only then was he or she permitted to enter the church and participate in the Eucharist by partaking of the holy bread and wine.

The baptismal fonts were not unified in shape. Sometimes they were small pools coated with plaster, but the more common type was a square, round, or cruciform basin hewn into a block of stone and with a deep cruciform of quatrefoil depression at the bottom. Since such basins could be quite deep, they also occasionally had steps carved into the walls, to make it easier to climb in and out. The baptismal fonts were usually situated in one of the rooms adjacent to the apse, or sometimes in a special baptismal chapel adjoining the church.

Over the course of the Byzantine period, the number of adult baptisms for the purpose of conversion to Christianity decreased. At the same time, the baptism of infants became common. This was a short ceremony and did not require large or sophisticated baptismal fonts.


Baptismal font hewn in stone
Central church at Herodium, 6th century
Staff Archaeological Officer in the Civil
Administration of Judea and Samaria, K030582
Photo: The Israel Museum / by Andrei Vainer

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Chancel Screens and Tables

The chancel screen, which separated the bema from the rest of the hall, consisted of square colonnettes interspersed with carved slabs, held in place by grooves that ran along the sides of the colonnettes. Many of the screens are made of marble and may have been imported from the large marble quarries of Greece. Screens made of local stone, undoubtedly carved in this region, were also common. It is not unusual to find identical motifs on both the marble screens and on those made of local stone.

All the chancel screens have a carved border, but the motifs inside this border are highly varied. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern several common types, which recur with only slight variations. A motif depicting a blossom with crosses inside a laurel wreath was particularly popular. Screens of this type have been unearthed in churches all over Israel and Jordan. A similar motif, in which the blossom-cross is replaced by a menorah, is also found in synagogue screens of the period. Another type of chancel screen is decorated with the motif of a cross on the hill of Golgotha; it is occasionally flanked by a pair of symmetrically arranged gazelle, ibex, or birds. A screen of this type still stands in St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.

Tables - round, rectangular, and sigma-shaped - were also an important part of the church furnishings. The tabletops were made of marble, local stone, or bituminous stone, which is easy to carve. They rested on wooden legs or bases (which have not survived) or on marble legs carved to resemble columns, complete with bases and capitals, which were sometimes fixed to the floor. The altars were usually rectangular. Tables were also used for reading, for receiving the gifts of the faithful, and, perhaps, as secondary altars in the cult of the martyrs that took place in the side apses.
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