Nazarene Brutalism

We have scarcely begun exploring the sacred sites of Israel and Palestine.

The churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and shrines marking their locations are usually, of course, ancient, dating to the first millennium or earlier. But very often they are relatively new, built some time in the last century on the ruins of earlier buildings (quite a few seem to date from 2000, built with various millennium funds). They tend to be contemporary iterations on earlier structures, sensitively designed polite pastiches employing familiar vernaculars.

The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth – more often referred to as the Basilica – is a striking exception.

Built in the 1960s, from the outside it appears to be another rather conservative design, a respectful 20th century interpretation of the succession of earlier churches that have occupied the site. With its golden stone and airy lantern dome the exterior of the Basilica communicates a reassuring sense of warmth and light. At the entrance one anticipates a traditional nave, white walls and luminous contemporary stained glass.

Inside, it is all quite different. This is a stark, utterly modern space, almost windowless, suffused with a sombre light organised into blocs of black and white, with occasional hints of blue and gold. The concrete surfaces of the masonry supporting the building are wholly exposed, ornamented only by a brutally simple design of regularly spaced circles. The ceiling is patterned by concrete beams arranged to form repeating groups of triangles, designed to recall the A and M of Ave Maria. The ambience is one of a rather remote cerebral abstraction.

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There is also a sense of enormous weight: the weight of a monumental structure, the weight of history. The Basilica has two levels, each serving as a distinct church. The upper level is a vast open space, the walls adorned with artwork dedicated to Mary. The lower level is built around the Basilica’s focal point, the Grotto of the Annunciation, the site – according to Roman Catholic tradition – where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. (There is a rival Greek Orthodox tradition that the event occurred at an ancient well about a mile way, where another church stands.)

The Catholic tradition rests on the identification of this place as a site of early Christian pilgrimage by Helena, wife of the Emperor Constantine, during her fourth century tour of the Holy Land to trace the locations of significant events in the life of Christ, in the course of which she also claimed to have identified the probable sites of the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

The oldest layer of the Grotto consists of the remains of ancient Nazarene house of prayer, which may have been Mary’s childhood home. It is surrounded by the remains of the churches that have been built around it over the centuries, including Byzantine, Crusader and Franciscan structures. The space above the Grotto opens up to the Basilica’s second level, topped by the lantern dome which, designed to take the form of a stylised inverted Madonna lily, the symbol of Mary, glows with a soft white light.

The Basilica, which was completed in 1969, is modern without being Modernist, and brutally effective without being Brutalist. It communicates something of the atmosphere of an older tradition: I was reminded somewhat of the monumental, unvarnished spaces of the Duomo in Florence. A bit of internet research reveals that the Basilica does indeed have close Italian associations, not just because of the obvious Catholic connection. It was designed by Milanese architect Giovanni Muzio, who was associated with the Novecento Italiano movement of the 1920s and 30s, a group inspired by the great traditions of Italian architecture.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their veneration for Italy’s past glories the Novecento school was sympathetic to the extreme nationalism of Mussolini. The dictator attended their inaugural meeting, and their work became associated with the Italian Fascist Party’s propaganda department. The Novecento rejected the avant-gardism of other aesthetic groupings loyal to Mussolini, notably the Futurists, and instead looked back to the great age of Renaissance classicism.

I’ve haven’t been able to find anything to indicate the extent of Muzio’s sympathy for fascism: whether he ever embraced it at all, or if he did, whether he moved away from it. Whatever, the ambiguous association of its architect with such a dark period of the last century sparks the atmosphere of this ancient place with an even greater charge. I like the sense of tension the architecture creates, between ancient and modern, light and dark, and the intriguing thought that a building designed to celebrate the coming of Christ should have such an ambiguous architectural provenance.

The Basilica’s uncanny, alien ambience seems appropriate for a place intended to mark the site of an event as unsettling as the annunciation, whether interpreted as myth or reality, the descent of God into the sphere of everyday human life.