Notes on...

Away from the manger: the holy relics of Bethlehem

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

‘No crib for a bed,’ says ‘Away in a Manger’ rather puzzlingly, since a crib is a manger. ‘No one paid me much attention, lying on the hard stones, a young child in a crib,’ says God made Man in the Old English poem ‘Christ’. At the beginning of his prophecy, Isaiah declares: ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.’

The crib as a manger lent its name to the whole Christmas caboodle of stable, ox, ass, Mary, Joseph and all the trimmings of magi and shepherds. Francis of Assisi was keen on building cribs that put the Christ Child in his surroundings, and the idea caught on.

But the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was probably right about the Christ Child feeling hard stone, since the manger for feeding animals was no doubt in some limestone cave at Bethlehem. In the century after the life of Jesus, Justin Martyr made the first surviving reference to a cave. Not that the Jews of the time were troglodytes, but natural caves came in handy.

So if the fittings of the Bethlehem cave were stone, what did the Pope send to Bethlehem recently as a holy relic of the manger? I thought when I heard the news that it was the whole woodwork structure in which Jesus was reputed to have lain, perhaps a latticed receptacle to fit within a stone trough.

It turns out that the papal gift was no more than a thumb-sized bit of wood, mounted in a silver reliquary. It will be revered in the church of St Catherine, built against the ancient Church of the Nativity. But the main relic of the manger, five pieces of wood, perhaps some kind of sycamore, remain in the basilica of St Mary Major in Rome, where they have been since the 640s, in the reign of Pope Theodore, who came from Jerusalem.

The basilica was already associated with an icon of the Virgin Mary called Salus Populi Romani, which Pope Gregory the Great carried through the streets in the 590s when Rome was afflicted with plague. It was said to have been painted by St Luke, the Gospel writer, which it wasn’t. With the arrival of the relics of the manger, the basilica began to be called Sancta Maria ad Praesepe, St Mary of the Manger.

Today the pieces of wood lie in surroundings more theatrical than any theatre. In the vast space of St Mary Major, which retains its form from late antiquity as a Roman basilica or public assembly building with colonnades, there is a triple layer in the proscenium area. Above, the apse is covered with a Romanesque mosaic of the Virgin Mary crowned in heaven by her son Jesus Christ. Below this stands a magnificent baldacchino, its dark columns spiralled in gilt wreaths, canopying the high altar. Under this, visible in an excavated crypt or confessio reached by a double marble staircase, is displayed the reliquary of the manger, in its own toy-theatrical alcove. The reliquary resembles a soup tureen and cover, decked with Baroque silver swags. On the lid lies a cheery gilt image of the Baby Jesus, holding a chubby arm aloft as though waving.

It’s a long way from Bethlehem, where the pilgrim, ducking to enter the Church of the Nativity by a door built low enough to deter horsemen from charging in, goes down steps into a smoke-blackened crypt to see a spot on the floor surrounded by a star of silver and inscribed: ‘Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est.’

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