Grotto of the Nativity
The entrance today is placed sideways with respect to the location where Jesus was born, but it is thought that in the fourth century the entrance was located behind the presbytery. The small façades of the two side entrances date back to the times of the Crusaders.
The Grotto is entered by descending the stairs to the right of the iconostasis. Here the space is very narrow and restricted and the walls, which were originally irregular, form an almost-rectangular perimeter. The natural walls of the cave, decorated in the Constantine period, were covered with marble during the Byzantine period.
The Altar of the Nativity only began to be venerated in the Byzantine period when this space was created to commemorate the precise place in which Jesus had been born.
The current structure has been totally modified from that which was described by the pilgrim John Phocas and Abbot Daniel in the 12th century. Two red stone columns, and the inscription “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus”, overlook the altar, above which are representations of the Virgin and the Child in swaddling clothes, the scene of the washing, and that of the coming of the shepherds.
Beneath the altar is a star with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est” in memory of the precise spot of the Nativity. To the right of the altar is the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger, also known as the Crib. At this point in the Grotto the floor is lower and the space is made up of columns similar to the Byzantine ones in the nave of the church, and by the remains of two Crusader columns.
In front of the Crib is a small altar dedicated to the Magi, where the Latins celebrate Holy Mass. The structure of the Crib is not the original one but is the result of alterations necessitated by the continuous wear and tear of time and the passage of pilgrims.
Following the fire of 1869 the walls of the Grotto were covered with asbestos to prevent further fires, a donation from the President of the French Republic Marshal Mac-Mahon in 1874. Below this covering the original Crusader marble is still visible, while above it can be seen wood panel paintings of limited artistic value.
Well of the Magi
During ancient times the “Well of the Magi”, which corresponds to a large cistern near the presbytery, attracted the curiosity of many pilgrims. According to the tradition handed down over the ages, the light of the star signaling to the Magi the exact place of the birth of the Messiah was reflected in the cistern.
As several witnesses have recounted, the light of the star remained imprinted upon the well: “… and to the north of the cave there is a bottomless well, and in the water of that well is the star that journeyed with the Magi” (Epiphanius the Monk, 9th century).