WASHINGTON — On Nov. 9, “Bells of Bethlehem: Sounds from the Church of the Nativity” opens to the public at Museum of the Bible. The exhibition features six 12th-century bells from the church and a century-old hand-crafted model, each exhibited for the first time outside of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which traditionally marks the place of Jesus’s birth, is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, surviving conflict, changing regimes, fire and earthquakes. Several paintings, mosaics, two bell towers, and a pipe organ were added in the 12th century. In the 13th century, the bells were coated with animal fat to protect them from rust and buried to safeguard them from invaders. Discovered during a 1906 building project, this is their first time in the United States. A hand-crafted olive wood model of the church, made in the early 20th century, will also be on public display for the first time.
“I cannot think of a more appropriate exhibition at Christmastime than the Church of the Nativity,” said Chief Curatorial Officer Dr. Jeffrey Kloha. “Century upon century, Christians have made pilgrimage to the site marked as the birthplace of Jesus. We are deeply honored to be able to exhibit, for the first time anywhere, these rare items that show the church’s long history and the many sounds of the liturgy that have filled its halls and courtyards over the centuries.”
The 1906 discovery revealed 13 bronze bells and 222 medieval copper pipes from the church organ. Six bells journeyed to Washington for the exhibit courtesy of the Custodia Terrae Sanctae and the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem, where the bells will return for permanent exhibition. The Bethlehem Development Foundation, which played a vital role in restoring the church, also collaborated on the exhibit.
"These bells are very significant for us because they are the bells of Bethlehem and a symbol of Nativity in the Christian world," said Fr. Stéphane Milovitch, Director of the Cultural Heritage Office for the Custodia Terrae Sanctae in Jerusalem.
As a part of the exhibit opening events, a special presentation on Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity will take place on Nov. 9, from 6-8 p.m. EST, with renowned New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III discussing what we know of Bethlehem in the first century and how that connects to the Gospels. In addition, George Al’ama, a historian and resident of Bethlehem, will highlight the recent renovation of the Church of the Nativity and describe a century-old hand-crafted model of the church. More information about this special event for virtual and in-person attendance is available on the museum’s website.
In addition to the exhibition, the sounds of the season will resonate through Museum of the Bible during upcoming Christmas celebrations, with multiple musical performances, many of them free of charge, available to guests. These include a handbell choir, student groups, gospel artists and more. Concerts include Point of Grace and Mark Schultz on Dec. 11, followed by Keith and Kristyn Getty’s “Sing! An Irish Christmas” Dec. 18-19. The schedule and tickets for these events are available online.