The modern city of Nazareth is a favorite tourism spot, thanks to its role in ancient history – the birth of Christianity. Two sites in that Galilee city commemorate the Annunciation itself: the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel and the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation.
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And now you can add a theme to your Israel trip by dovetailing a viewing of Botticelli’s “The Annunciation”, now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (until January 11, 2014).
Botticelli’s rendering of the scene presents familiar scriptural allusions, including Mount Tabor which appears right outside the Virgin’s window, and the “walled up garden” of the Song of Songs 4:12, a symbol of Mary’s virginity in Christian iconography, as the artist saw them in his mind’s eye over 500 years ago. But the elaborately carved walls, tiled floors and diaphanous textiles surrounding Mary and the angel Gabriel are entirely the fruit of Botticelli’s imagination, background and period.
The archaeology of everyday life at Mary’s time, the first century C.E., reveals that a family like hers would have lived in a simple, possibly one-room stone dwelling.
An ancient tradition associated with the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth is that the angel Gabriel conveyed his message to Mary in a cave. Over that cave today stands the Basilica of the Annunciation (completed in 1969 by the Israeli company Solel Boneh). The basilica's courtyard and second-story sanctuary are adorned with representations of Mary in mosaic and other materials, contributed by Catholic communities around the world.
A spring shut up
Back in Nazareth itself, a “spring shut up,” the continuation of the verse in Song of Songs 4:12 to which the elaborate walled garden in Botticelli’s masterpiece alludes, can still be found in the city. Today it flows from the grotto of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel, which was apparently first built in the Crusader era, some thousand years ago.
Many people come here to see the spring, which is an authentic part of the simple village Nazareth once was, where Mary would have gone daily for water.
According to the apocryphal Gospel of James, Gabriel appeared with his message to Mary by the spring while she was drawing water. That scene is commemorated in a modern wall painting in the church – a very different backdrop from Botticelli’s fresco.
Pilgrims frequently stop at the modern well down the hill from the church, which in its various forms has been an attraction for visitors for centuries and is the logo for the Nazareth municipality.
The Song of Songs’ “fountain sealed” was an essential element of ancient terrace agriculture for villages like Nazareth. Farmers would dig a tunnel from the surface of their terraced slopes where a spring naturally emerged to increase the volume of water reaching their orchards and vineyards. The spring in St. Gabriel’s church begins in just this way – as a rock-cut channel from the source.