Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Saint Anne's Church - Jerusalem

St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem is what prompted my review of both the Protovangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Thomas. It is in those apocryphal accounts that we learn of the Virgin Mary's parents, Anna and Joachim, and about the Virgin Mary's birth. Up until a few years ago, I'd never heard that there were names for Mary's parents or any writings detailing activities of their lives. More recently I've started to realize how much the apocrypha has impacted Catholic and Orthodox culture and doctrine, such as the doctrine of perpetual virginity for Mary. A visit to St. Anne's Church is eye opening in that regard. St. Anne's is dedicated to the Virgin Mary's mother, Anna (as she is referred to in the apocryphal accounts above) or Anne. 
The front of St. Anne's
A view of the north side, from near the Pools of Bethesda.
A beautiful side door. Picture from
St. Anne's was built over a period of eight years, between 1131 and 1138, at the direction of Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem. Melisende was the third Crusader ruler of Jerusalem, acting from 1131 to 1161, following Baldwin I and her father, Baldwin II, who were both part of the First Crusade. In the book, Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, it states that "Melisende embellished Jerusalem as both Temple shrine and political capital, creating much that we see today. The Crusaders had developed their own style, a synthesis of Romanesque, Byzantine and Levantine with round-headed arches, massive capitals, all carved with delicate, often floral motifs. The queen built the monumental St. Anne's Church, north of the Temple Mount...[which] stands today as the simplest and starkest example of Crusader architecture." (p. 238)

Right next to St. Anne's, at the time it was built, were the ruins of the Church of St. Mary of the Probatic, a 5th century Byzantine church that covered the more ancient Pools of Bethesda, mentioned in John 5:1-8, where Jesus healed a paralytic, and the later expanded Temple to Asclepius and Serapis, built by Hadrian. In fact it appears that St. Anne's covers a portion of the foundation of Hadrian's temple. Over a northwest portion of the ruins of St. Mary was the much smaller Crusader Church of the Paralytic, built about 30 years earlier and which included a monastery, where Baldwin I had banished his wife, Arda.

Birthplace of the Virgin Mary

St. Anne's was built over a grotto that the Crusaders believed to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary, which is why it was dedicated to her mother, Anne or Anna. If that was the case, then Joachim and Anna were living right next to the asclepeion, the pagan healing temple to the god Asclepius, and very close to the Pools of Bethesda, the south pool which was used as a mikvah by Jews purifying themselves to enter the courts of the temple.
My favorite part of the church was the sculpture of Anna and the young Mary.
A side view.
Steps  from the south aisle of the church go down to the crypt which is in the cave where, according to tradition, Mary was born. Unfortunately, we were oblivious to this when we visited and did not visit the crypt.
Picture of the grotto from
Another grotto picture from
For more pictures of the grotto, go to  

The church has three aisles, or halls, of equal size, separated by two rows of columns. The columns each have a base shaped in a cross. It has beautiful cross-vaulted ceilings and very little ornamentation inside, perfect for the Romanesque architecture.
The north hall. 
The simple, beautiful altar, and two green kneeling pads.
The central hall and main altar, separated by the two rows of columns. 
A view of the high altar.
An eastern window above the high altar.
The southern hall. 
The main ornament in the southern hall is what must be a statue of Anna and Mary.
The beautiful ceiling.
The front door of the church, viewed from the central hall. 
The high altar incorporates reliefs with scenes from Mary's life.
The nativity, from the high altar. The animals at bottom right look like aardvarks. 
The Annunciation on the high altar.
The church was designed for the Gregorian chant so its acoustics are perfect. says they are "so perfect that the church is virtually a musical instrument to be played by the human voice." A small group of us sang the LDS primary children's song, "I Am a Child of God," and the reverberation in that beautiful building was amazing.
Chris, Judy and Julia start to assemble in preparation for their song. 
Muslim Madrasa

In 1187 the Muslim Saladin, or Salah ad-Din, reconquered Jerusalem. Instead of destroying the Church of St. Anne, the fate of many other Crusader churches, Saladin converted it into a madrasa, or Islamic school, known as al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya (of Saladin). Over the doorway of St. Anne's it is still inscribed to Saladin as "Reviver of the Empire of the Commander of the Believers."
The inscription in Arabic can be seen in a rectangular box above the front door. 
This photo, from, gives a much better view of the inscription. 
The French supported the Ottomans during the Crimean War. In 1856, to thank the French for their support, Sultan Abdulmecid I presented Napoleon III, on behalf of the Country of France, with St. Anne's, which by that time was abandoned and in disrepair. The French government subsequently restored St. Anne's and allows the White Fathers, an order of the Catholic Church, to administer it.

White Fathers

The White Fathers is a Roman Catholic missionary society, so named because of their white habit. It was founded in 1868 by the Archbishop of Algiers as the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa of Algeria and is now known as the Society of the Missionaries of Africa. The founding intent was to convert Arabs and the people of Central Africa. The habit of the White Fathers is patterned to resemble the white robes of the Algerian Arabs with a white cassock, a rosary and a cross around the neck. In 1880, the Holy See, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, directed the White Fathers to establish a Greek-Melkite seminary in Jerusalem to develop clergy for the Melkite Catholic Church. That seminary is Saint Anne's Seminary, located right next to Saint Anne's Church. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church is a Byzantine Rite church in full communion with the Roman Catholics.
Julia and Judy pose with one of the White Father's inside St. Anne's Church. Note the white cassock and rosary and cross around his neck. Unfortunately, he has on a blue jacket so we don't get the full effect. He was very friendly and encouraged us to sing a hymn in the church. 


  1. A beautiful church notable for its elegant simplicity. It was an honor to be invited to sing there. Some day we'll have to return and see the grotto.

  2. St. Anne's was a pleasant surprise, a gem of an experience.