Johannes Phocas

The pilgrimage of Johannes Phocas (1177)

The Greek monarch of Crete together with a companion visited Nazareth, leaving a detailed report of what he saw. The visit took place after the earthquake of 1170 (whose precise date is uncertain, perhaps 1177 or 1185), which according to Bagatti, also caused damage to the town. The Basilica is described as being enriched with new decorations. For example, a reference is made to the Grotto entrance where there are paintings of the Annunciation, probably icons. This suggested that the new decorations belonged to the decoration project of the Crusader complex, perhaps organised after the earthquake thanks to the help that arrived from France. The capitals of the apostles that were never used may also have been part of this project.
The pilgrim describes a single entrance to the Grotto and three main indoor areas. However, Phocas’ description differs to that of Theodoric: the site Theodoric describes as Mary’s birthplace, is indicated by Phocas as the place where Mary lived. Moreover, for Phocas, Joseph’s burial place is in fact where Jesus lived after his return from Egypt. Nevertheless, the basic organisation inside does not change.

« The house of St. Joseph has been changed into a very beautiful church in which on the left side, next to the altar, there is a grotto which appears not in the earth but on top of it, the opening of which is all decorated with white marble. There the hand of the painter has drawn the angel who in flight descends to the mother without a husband and salutes her with the glad tidings, moving towards her as she austerely dedicates herself to the hard work of spinning; and he is pictured as if he were speaking to her. On the other hand, the Virgin, surprised by the unexpected vision, has suddenly turned her face away for fear of him and almost let the purple fall from her hand. Upon leaving the room, the Virgin meets a relative and friend and embraces her with friendly greetings. Entering by the opening into the cave and going down a few steps, you saw the ancient home of Joseph in which the archangel appeared to the Virgin when she returned from the fountain. In this place where the Annunciation took place there is a black stone cross cut into white marble and over this cross an altar. At the right of the altar, there is a small room where the Virgin Mother of God always stayed. In the section to the right of the Annunciation you see another small room without light, where it is said that our Lord, after his return from Egypt, lived until the beheading of the Precursor. »

A. Stewart, The Pilgrimage of Johannes Phocas in the Holy Land, London 1897, pp. 11-12.