Tag Archives: Franciscan

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

The Church of the Annunciation has a long history. In the middle of the 4th century, a shrine with altar was built in the cave in which Mary had lived. Emperor Constantine commissioned a larger structure when his mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land to discover the locations of and commemorate important events in Jesus’ life. The Church of the Annunciation was founded around the same time as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem [interesting that Barluzzi worked on all three of these important churches]. It was known to still exist around 570 CE, but was destroyed in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest.

The second church was built over the ruins of the Byzantine era church during the Crusades, after the conquest of Nazareth by Tancred in 1102 but was never completed. Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin in 1187 ended construction of the church. Five Crusader Romanesque capitals carved by stonemasons from northern France were discovered during excavations along with artifacts from the Middle Bronze Age, Israelite period, Herodian-Roman  and Byzantine periods are in the small museum in the Franciscan convent. In 1260, Baybars and his Mamluk army destroyed the church during their attack on Nazareth.

The Franciscans received permission to return to Nazareth in 1620 and constructed a small structure to enclose the holy grotto that is venerated as the house of Mary. In 1730, they received permission to construct a new church, which was enlarged in 1877.

Church of Annunciation, Nazareth, 1945

Church of Annunciation, Nazareth, 1945

This church stood until 1954 when it was demolished to enable the construction of a new basilica.

In 1924 Ferdinando Diotallevi, the custos, or head of the Franciscan Custody, with the approval of Pope Pius XI began to plan a new basilica to commemorate the Annunciation in Nazareth. Diotallevi intended to entrust the building of the church to Antonio Barluzzi, a young architect who had already proved his abilities and qualifications by building the Church of the Agony (Gethsemane, 1922-24) in Jerusalem and the Church of the Transfiguration on top of Mount Tabor (1919–24) for the Franciscan Custody. Barluzzi was asked to submit his plans for the Church of the Annunciation, but the project was aborted, due to political tensions inside and outside the Custody.

The idea of rebuilding the church emerged again fifteen years later in 1939 when the new custos, Alberto Gori, reappointed Barluzzi to the project. During World War II Barluzzi resided in Italy returning to the Holy Land in 1947. During that time he designed two churches. The first was the incredibly ambitious project of rebuilding the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The new plan was prepared by Barluzzi and Luigi Marangoni but was never built [sometimes an architect’s best plans are never actualized, check out Louis Kahn and the Hurva synagogue].

Model Church of Holy Sepulcher, Barluzzi

The second was the design for the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth which Barluzzi thought would be his final work in the Holy Land.

Barluzzi designed a church in eclectic style, using contemporary construction technique, reinforced concrete covered mostly by local limestone. The church was a concentric building dominated by a large dome reminiscent of St. Peters in Rome and surrounded by four towers dedicated to the four evangelists. The towers symbolized the voices announcing to the four corners of the world the event of the Incarnation – critics said the building looked too much like a mosque. In the plan, the length of the church was 90 meters, and the height from the ground to the cross on top of the dome was 72 meters, a very large building. Inside, Barluzzi designed a rotunda over the holy grotto and four wings for the requirements of the liturgy. Like his other projects Barluzzi was involved in the smallest details of the inner decoration far beyond the usual level of architectural planning. For each statue he designated a location, character, symbolic meaning, and connection to the main theme of the church. By 1941, Barluzzi had prepared many sketches of the church and a model on scale of 1:100, and his plans were approved by Father Leonardo Bello, the minister general of the Franciscan order.

Barluzzi drawing Annunciation

Model Church of Annunciation, Barluzzi

All the necessary permits were obtained from the State of Israel, and in December 1954, the year designated by the Vatican as the Year of Mary, the cornerstone of the church that corresponded to Barluzzi’s plan was laid in a well-attended ceremony. However, four years later, in 1958, the new Franciscan custos, Alfredo Polidori took the project from Barluzzi.

Barluzzi wrote in his diary: On 3rd February 1958 the Custos of the Holy Land replaced me by the architect Muzio of Milan to build the Nazareth sanctuary. This gave me heart trouble all night long.. I am going back to Rome and I will seek refuge at the Delegation of the Holy Land…

Barluzzi died on December 14, 1960 in a small room at the Delegation of the Holy Land.

The new basilica was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio of Milan, one of the leading architects of the Novecento style who came to Israel for the first time in 1958. Muzio planned the church as a fortress, to contrast the new church with the remains of the earlier  churches – he meant to convey that its fate, unlike that of its predecessors, would be different. The fortified nature of the church is evident in its size and strength, its seclusion from the urban surroundings, and the details of the building, like narrow windows, almost slits. The church dimensions are 44.6 meters long and 27 meters wide, and the dome height is 55 meters, still a large church. The outer walls are covered in light-colored combinations of local stone with modern reliefs and engravings that decorate the southern and western façades. It seems that the church was based on an earlier St. Antonio church that was built by Muzio in Varese, Italy.

Church of Annunciation, Muzio

Muzio actually erected two churches, one on top of the other. The lower church protects the valuable archaeological remains of the Byzantine-era church which are displayed next to the holy grotto, the perimeter of the modern church follows the outer limits of the walls of the Crusader-era church. The upper church is designated for the celebration of the liturgy. The upper church is connected to the monastery by a suspended courtyard that protects the underlying remains of the ancient village of Nazareth from the time of Jesus that was discovered during excavation work in 1955.

Annunciation Church grotto

Inside, the modern style of Muzio’s work manifests itself in the extensive use of exposed reinforced concrete and sharp angles. The stained glass windows are striking.

Annunciation church stained glass

The church is decorated by works of art dedicated to Mary and to the Annunciation that were donated by every nation of the Catholic world. Muzio was not involved in choosing the art. The church was built by the Israeli building firm Solel Boneh during the years 1960-69 and cost 2 million dollars.

Annunciation church dome

Chuch of Annunciation, Interior

Church of Annunciation, Interior 2


For an excellent in-depth analysis, see Masha Halevi’s article, “The Politics Behind the Construction of the Modern Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth” at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/catholic_historical_review/v096/96.1.halevi.html

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Antonio Barluzzi

Antonio Barluzzi is known as an architect but for many years he thought about entering a seminary. It was on the advice of his spiritual mentor and encouragement of his older brother Giulio, already an architect, that he entered the engineering school at university to study to become an architect. After graduation and his army service he worked with his brother on several architectural projects in Rome.

By 1910 Turkey is described as the “sick man on the Bosphorus” and all the European powers were staking their claim to pieces of the Holy Land. Schiaparelli of the Italian Missionaries Association hired Giulio to design and build an Italian hospital in Jerusalem with substantial financial aid from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Guilo is overloaded with work and probably prefered Rome to Jerusalem so he sent Antonio.

Schiaparelli recommended that “in the new building, a worthy chapel should have a place of honour, which can accommodate, in special circumstances, the Italian colony”. He also suggested that it be named Santa Maria Latina in memory of the old church of the Amalfitans in Jerusalem (today the Crusader part of the German Lutheran Church in the Muristan). So Antonio designed the hospital, definitely Italian looking, a curious mixture of the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza Signoria in Florence and the tower of the Mangia in Sienna.

With the outbreak of the First World War Barluzzi left for Italy and entered a seminary and stayed for 40 days, then Italy entered the war and he was called up. Italy allied itself with Britain, Barluzzi was recommended to the Ministry of War as an expert on the Holy Land and so on December 11, 1917, our architect entered Jerusalem on foot through Jaffa gate together with General Allenby.

In 1978 while studying in Israel I took some photos of the Old City with a Nikkormat SLR camera using black and white film. One photo in particular I liked quite a lot, a pastoral scene just across from Damascus Gate looking north, of a young Arab boy shepherding four goats in a field. In the distance, framed by two trees is an Italian looking building. Of course, today the field is gone but the building is Barluzzi’s Italian hospital, his first building in Jerusalem.

The question was where would I find that photo from 30 years ago. I started looking through shoeboxes of photos and after about 10 minutes in a box with old letters, lo and behold found the negatives. I took them to be developed and a few hours later had prints of the photos. I shot a similar view the other day from the ramparts at Damascus gate.

From there I walked over to the chapel – the Italian hospital buildings are being used by the Israeli Ministry of Education. Unfortunately the chapel is not open to the public.

Barluzzi was asked to build two churches by the Franciscans, on Mount Tabor and in the Garden of Gethsemane. He returned to Italy to ponder his future. He wrote in his diary: ‘I go to Father Corrado, the confessor of my youth, I explain my circumstances and ask what I must do. ‘Go and build the Sanctuaries, and then we’ll talk again.’ My heart leaps for joy, and I say: ‘It is Gods will’.

So Barluzzi began to build a basilica on the top of Mount Tabor, one of the traditional sites of the Transfiguration. This was a challenging task in 1919 because there was not even a road or water, which had to be carried by mules; even the stone masons were brought from Italy. Again Barluzzi borrowed from an existing church, St. Simeon the Stylite near Aleppo, for his design because of the importance of the Transfiguration in the Syrian liturgy and the triple division of the facade matched the three figures in the story, Moses, Jesus and Elijah. The roof was originally of alabaster tiles in order to let the light in, unfortunately these had to be covered to prevent the rain coming in but Barluzzi used the element of light to the full.

At the same time he was working on the basilica at Gethsemane, called both the Church of All Nations and the Church of the Agony. Here Barluzzi developed his symbolic architecture, in this case Christus dolens et triumphans. The suffering of Jesus and his pain is represented by a building of Byzantine inspiration which evokes the beginning church, a somber interior of dark mosaics with the light filtered by purple glass, with twelve small domes, like the apostles. The glory is  the triumphal facade of classic Roman inspiration, a triple round arch, supported by four large pilasters surrounded by columns topped with Corinthian capitals (a similar capital was found during the excavations and is on display at the Stadium Biblicum archaeological museum).

Barluzzi went on to build numerous other churches, transforming into stone the deepest sentiments of his heart and dedicated his life to honoring and glorifying the earthly Jerusalem. It is a blessing to be able to experience his work.


Just inside Jaffa gate is the Franciscan Christian Information Center. As of the date of this post, there is an exhibit about Antonio Barluzzi that I highly recommend.