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Bethlehem's secret angel spreads its wings

A long-hidden angel mosaic made from rocks, shells and gold was uncovered during renovations at the Nativity Church
The secret angel after renovators finished their work filling in the missing tiles with paint similar to what would have been used during its creation (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
 
BETHLEHEM, Occupied Territories - For at least several centuries, the walls of the Nativity Church, where Jesus Christ is said to have been born, have hidden a secret angel behind layers of plaster. 
 
The angel, made from tiny squares of brightly coloured rocks, shells, glass and gold was uncovered during renovations at the church, and now lies behind a tarp of plastic as construction on the holy site continues. 
 
The newly discovered artefact is not yet accessible to the public (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
 
Renovations are slow and meticulous due to the historical and religious importance of the delicate artefacts, and the angel is not expected to be put on display to the public until at least the summer. 
 
Afif Tweme, project manager for the renovations, said the historic piece of art was found when renovators used laser technology to scan the church before new construction started. 
 
“We needed to make sure we were not ruining anything, or missing anything like this angel, before we started the renovations,” Tweme explained. 
 
Local and Italian renovation teams suspected something might be behind the surface of the wall that was slightly raised due to a layer of plaster, but they had no idea what they would find. 
 
“There was no record of this angel ever being here, or of people covering up an artefact on this wall,” Tweme said, standing on scaffolding that allowed the manager to stand directly in front of the newly found mosaic near the high ceiling of the church. 
 
Afif Tweme explains that the mosaic was created by tiny tiles made from rocks, shells, glass and gold. (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
 
Tweme said renovators believe the angel has been covered for hundreds of years. 
 
“We think that at the time, the people in charge of the church realised that the angel was becoming damaged, losing pieces here and there from its face and around the edges of the work, so they covered it up to prevent any further damage,” he said, explaining that those who covered the angel up would not have had the tools needed to properly preserve the piece.

Dr Michele Bacci, an art-historical consultant and member of the scientific team in charge of the restoration of the Nativity Church, said that since the 19th century there has been a big discussion among scholars as to the exact date of the mosaics.

Bacci explained that some scholars thought that the work "might date back to the 8th century on account of their aniconic character, which shows some connections with the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem."

The restoration project, however, gave scholars and researchers better insight into the actual age of the artwork. 

"The recent restoration was not only a chance to clean and better preserve the mosaics, but also to analyse them from both a chemical and historical viewpoint," Bacci said. "I myself... had the opportunity to spend [a] long time on the scaffoldings to inspect and investigate the mosaic surface, their tesserae, compositional patterns, style, and iconography.

"All of the data our team was able to collect pointed to the liklihood that all mosaics, including the newly discovered angel, were made in the same 12th century campaign."

Because the renovation team is following international and United Nation's heritage standards in their renovations, the angel’s missing mosaics will stay unchanged. Renovators “seek to keep things as original as possible, and don’t want to start recreating things,” Tweme said.
 
Instead, specialists have now filled in the missing pieces with paint considered to be made from the closest materials possible to those the artists would have used during the artwork’s creation several hundred years ago. 
 
“The original artists were really very clever and paid great attention to the detail,” Tweme said, closely examining the small squares of the mosaic. “If you look closely, you can see the gold that surrounds the angel is actually small slivers of gold sheet placed between pieces of glass.”
 
Tweme also pointed out that while the tiny squares of shells and stone that created the angel were positioned flat on the wall, the gold squares were angled down so that visitors looking at the piece from the ground would see the gold reflecting a circle of gold light around the angel.
 
Gold tiles surrounding the angel in the newly found mosaic were angled downwards so that visitors looking at the piece from the ground would see the tiles reflecting a circle of gold light around the angel (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
 
During renovations, specialists also found that navy blue wall paintings had been painted over more than 100 years ago, again, undocumented in the church’s logs. 
 
“It was really amazing. We were able to make out some of the design, but in the middle there was this chunk of plaster that had ruined whatever was underneath it. We weren’t sure what we were going to do about it until someone from the community brought us an old black and white photo that showed the piece covered up was actually a centre-piece cross.”
 
Renovators used the photo to recreate the exact design that had been on the walls before it was repainted.
 
Right above the cross, large wooden beams run across the entire ceiling of the church. Because the church had previously not been protected from weather and dampness, some of the ancient wooden beams had been replaced, but not with any ordinary wood. 
 
Renovators also discovered blue wall paintings that had been painted over long ago, using the same materials the original artists would have used, they were able to carefully restore the work. (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
 
“We brought the wood in from Italy. It is as close to the same age and type of the original wood beams as possible, because if less-aged wood was used, it would change over the years as it dried and become less stable. This way the structures are as authentic as possible,” Tweme explained. 
 
The only parts of the renovation that use modern materials are the church’s arched windows, which have been replaced with thicker layers of glass that will protect the invaluable interior of the church from weather. 
 
Outside the church, renovators work on cleaning the ancient stones that have been covered in layers of mould and algae for centuries. 
 
The outside of the Nativity Church is also under renovation, as workers carefully clean the mould and algae that built up on the ancient stones over the centuries (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
 
Renovations are led in a partnership between the Italian company Piacenti S.p.a., and the local Palestinian-owned community development group, headed by Tweme. 
 
Being sure that Palestinian renovators had a hand in construction was important to the project, he explained.
 
The renovation that began in 2013 is a long-term project expected to take years to complete, as long as funding continues to be available. 
 
Since renovations have not taken place in centuries, much can be done to preserve the historical church with modern technology, but to complete the project Tweme said another $11 million must be raised.
 
Under the wooden floors of the church, a floor mosaic is preserved so the art would not get worn down, but is now visible to the public (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
 

Nadeem Allay, a Catholic Palestinian who owns a souvenir shop selling olive wood carvings and other religious trinkets to Nativity Church tourists, said Bethlehem's Christian residents have been following the renovations closely.

Allay has yet to see the recently discovered angel, as the relic has not yet been open to the public, but he has heard all about the discoveries made during the renovations.

"When I first heard about the discovery, through Facebook and the media, it was not really a big surprise, because our community knew that there were things hidden inside the church long ago, to protect important artefacts," Allay said. "But I was still excited to hear that the work was being done to uncover these things and take care of them."

Allay said for him, the church renovations are of upmost importance, but keeping the authenticity of all the church's relics should be the first priority.

"I can't wait to see the mosaic angel and the other artwork, but I want to see it as it was. I hope they don't add anything or try to make it look like new," Allay said.

"I want to see it all as it was 400 or 800 or 1,000 years ago."