The Church of the Visitation was built on the site believed to have been where Mary met her cousin Elizabeth and where Mary sung the song of gratitude, Magnificat. The church is in the picturesque village of Ein Kerem, built on a hillside to the west of Jerusalem. In 1330 a Christian pilgrim wrote of two churches in the mountains of Judea where a spring flows between the two churches. At the site of the first church Elizabeth greeted Mary when she visited. This was also where St. John was hidden during the Slaughter of the Innocents, when Herod ordered the slaughter of all young male children in the vicinity. The second church is believed to be where John was born in the home of his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah. Today the Church of the Visitation and the Church of St John the Baptist mark these two sites.
In Luke 1 we read about how pregnant Mary traveled to the hill country to a town called Judah to visit her cousin Elizabeth. When Mary greeted Elizabeth the unborn John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb on recognition of the unborn Christ. On Mary’s arrival she sung Magnificat. Mary ended up prolonging her visit and staying three months with her cousin and her husband the priest Zechariah until John was born. Mary visiting Elizabeth is known as the “Visitation.”
History of the Church of the Visitation
During the Roman era Ein Kerem was a village called Judah. In the Byzantine era the village was recognized as a Holy Christian site and several churches, monasteries and sanctuaries were constructed here. The grotto was acknowledged as the place where Mary and Elizabeth met by a spring and a sanctuary was built over the grotto and spring which became a pilgrimage site. The Byzantine church was eventually ruined.
Under the Crusaders a large church was built over the Byzantine ruins. When the crusaders left the country the church fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed. In the 14th century the site was cared for by Armenian monks.
In 1679 the site was purchased by the Franciscan Order and almost 200 years later they got permission from the Ottoman rulers to restore the church.
In 1862 the Franciscans had the Lower Church restored. A land survey from 1866-1877 tells of an excavated lower story of the old church and an upper chapel. It also mentions a small grotto south of the altar at the eastern end of the church and other ruins from earlier monasteries and chapels.
Excavations took place on the site in 1937 in order to lay the ground work for the construction of a new church. During this time the ancient remains of the earlier sanctuaries were uncovered and later incorporated into the structure of the Upper Church.
The Upper Church was designed by Antonio Burluzzi and completed in 1955. Burluzzi also designed the Church of All Nations, in Jerusalem; Church of Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor; Church of Flagellation in Jerusalem; Church of the Beatitudes on the Mt. of Beatitudes; Dominus Flevit in Jerusalem and several other masterpieces.
Visiting the Church of the visitation
To reach the church visitors must take an uphill path from the main road which runs through the village. Once in the churchyard you can see 42 ceramic plaques each bearing the words of the Magnificat in a different language. This was the prayer Mary sung on meeting Elizabeth. The concept of these plaques is mirrored in the courtyard of the nearby Church of St John the Baptist where there are also ceramic plaques this time bearing the words of the Benedictus in 24 languages. Above the entrance to the church is a relatively new mosaic painting depicting Mary’s arrival in Ein Kerem riding on a donkey. There is a quote from Luke 1:39 engraved in Latin under the mural.
The church has two floors; the Lower Church is entered on the west side of the church. The Lower Church is adorned with frescoes of female Biblical figures. The murals are in vibrant colors and cover the entire upper walls and ceiling of the church. There is an altar on one side and an entrance to an ancient cistern on the other side. There is a Holy Rock believed to be where the rock melted away to hide the infant St John and his mother from the Romans during the Slaughter of the Innocent. A small picturesque inner courtyard surrounded by arched porticos joins the upper and lower churches via an external staircase.
The Upper Church designed by Barluzzi is larger than the Lower Church and has mural-covered walls and apse depicting Mary in her various roles as the Mother of God, Dispenser of All Grace, Immaculate Conception and the Refuge of Sinners. Other murals depict the 1571 Christian victory of the Ottoman navy near Lepanto, Greece. One of the mural panels depicts Franciscan scholar John Duns Scotus who championed the purity of Mary in 1307. Other panels show Jesus turning water into wine and scenes from Christian history. Barluzzi based his design on the earlier Crusader church.
Within the church you can see the natural grotto where the spring flowed. There is an ancient gallery overlooking a well in the grotto where water flows from the natural spring. Above the south side of the church is the preserved 12th century Crusader Hall.
For more information about the church of the Visitation at Ein Kerem call 02-641 72 91. The sanctuary is open to visitors 8am-noon and 2:30pm to 6pm.