Church of the Visitation
The Franciscan Church of the Visitation stands in the idyllic village of Ein Karem, on the west side of Jerusalem. The church marks the site of John the Baptist's parents' summer house where the Virgin Mary is believed to have visited John the Baptist's mother, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). It was here that Mary sang one of the most famous Marian hymns – Magnificat. The church is built against a rocky slope where an opening is believed to be where Elizabeth and her infant John hid when Herod ordered the execution of all male children under two years old.
St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem
The Biblical tale begins when Mary travels to "a city of Juda" (Ein Karem) to visit her cousin Elizabeth, hence the name – "Church of the Visitation." At the time Mary was pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth were pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth was not yet aware that she was pregnant until Mary entered her home and "the baby in her womb leapt for joy and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." Mary stayed with her cousin for the next three months until John was born. There are three sites in Ein Karem connected to John the Baptist – the site where the Church of the Visitation stands, home to John the Baptist's parents Elizabeth and Zachary; the fountain where Mary met Elizabeth and drank from the water and the site of John's birth where the Church of St. John the Baptist now stands.
History of the Church of the Visitation
Byzantine Christians recognized Ein Karem as the site of the visitation and of John the Baptist's birth. Several churches were built in the village to mark these events. Excavation at the site of the Church of Visitation uncovered remains of a Byzantine chapel and cistern. The Crusaders built a church on the ruins of the Byzantine church. The condition of the church deteriorated under Mameluke rule. Then, in 1679 during the Ottoman Period the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land bought the land where the Crusader remains stood. In 1862 reconstruction of the lower level of the church started. In 1937, during the British Mandate Period further excavations were carried out at the site and work began on the upper level of the church. The Visitation Church was designed by Antonio Barluzzi who was also responsible for the Dominus Flevit, Basilica of Agony and the Mount of Beatitudes Church. Construction was completed in 1955.
Features of the Church of the Visitation
There are two main features of the church exterior – a tall bell tower topped by a spire and a stunning mosaic on the front façade depicting the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. In the church courtyard is a statue of Mary and Elizabeth. On the opposite wall are ceramic plaques bearing verses of the Magnificat in different languages. Entering the lower level of the church there is a narrow crypt with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and at the far end is a small well in a stone niche. In this part of the church you can see remains of the Byzantine church's mosaic floor. Next to the crypt entrance is a rock that marks the site where the mountain opened up to hide infant John from Herod during the Massacre of the Innocents. It is known as the Rock of Concealment. The church walls are adorned with beautiful Italian frescos with scenes from the visitation story. The columns of the upper church bear verses from the Magnificat. The four corners of the upper church bear images of the cardinal virtues and around the windows are Christian writers who have written about Mary.