The Chapel of Shepherd’s Field is a Catholic-Franciscan church that commemorates the place of the angel’s revelation to the shepherds before they came under his command to worship Jesus. The church, located about 2.2 km east of the Church of the Nativity; was built by the Italian architect Antonio Berlusconi in 1954.
Christian Tradition About Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field
The worship of shepherds is an event reported in the Gospel according to Luke chapter 2 in which shepherds worshiped Jesus, shortly after his birth in Bethlehem:
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The Historical Records of the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field
So in the area of today’s Chapel of Shepherd’s Field; in 670 CE it was reported that a church stood on the site; and other sources of the period state that east of Bethlehem lies the Poemenium Monastery, that is, “of the herd.” During the Crusader period, the site was called the “Holy Meadow” (Agia Pimina) or “The Shepherds” (Ad Pastores). Apparently, the site was destroyed after the first kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end; as pilgrims began to visit Deir al-Rawat (“Shepherd’s Monastery”), located about 700 meters south of the site.
In 1859, the site, which was controlled by the Franciscans, returned to be the place where the Catholic Church recognized the tradition. The partial archeological excavation was conducted at the site in 1859, and a more in-depth study in the years 1951-1952. These excavations revealed that the site was inhabited from the time of Herod the Great, and developed mainly between the 5th and 7th centuries.
North of the church was a large agricultural monastic compound; with wineries; water reservoirs; warehouses and living caves. The first church on the site was built in the 4th century, and it was expanded in the 6th century with the secondary use of building materials brought from the apse of the ancient octagonal Church of Nativity (this church was built in Bethlehem in the time of Constantine and destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt in 539).
The Modern Site
So today’s Chapel of Shepherd’s Field is a modern church that was built in 1953; just near the former remains; designed by Antonio Berlusconi, and funded by donations from Canada. The church incorporates an ancient cave, and its walls are inclined inwards; as the building is designed to resemble a shepherds’ tent in which they lived while in the pastures.
So the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field has ten edges and five apses; including frescoes depicting the shepherds in the field; the angel revealed to them and their worship before Jesus. In fact, the dome of the building is made of concrete and glass; and the light penetrating through it is supposed to remind of the divine light revealed to the shepherds. Around the inner base of the dome appears the verse from the act of revelation to the shepherds; which was the opening verse of the Gloria prayer:
“Glória in excélsis Deo et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis”
Moreover, above the entrance to the building is a bronze statue of the angel revealed to the shepherds and greeting those who come through the church gates. Furthermore, above the statue hang three bells from a Greek-style bell tower. Deir al-Ra’awat is home to the Greek Orthodox Church and Monastery; which also commemorates the event.