L'Església de Betlem, the Church of Bethlehem, is a rare example of a baroque church in Barcelona and is located at La Rambla, 107 with the main entrance at Carrer del Carme, 2.
La Mare de Déu de Betlem or Our Lady of Bethlehem was built on the site of an older church that dated from 1553 and was originally the main Jesuit school in the city.
The school and chapel burnt down and the current building was constructed between 1680 and 1732 and at the time it was considered the most important church in Barcelona.
It is worth remembering that Catalonia was the site of Jesuit founder Ignatius de Loyola's revelation at Montserrat in 1522 and he subsequently spent the next few months in nearby Manresa creating the underlying concepts of the Society of Jesus so it is not surprising that Barcelona should be considered a centre of the Counter-Reformation.
In 1553 the Jesuits were granted permission by Barcelona City Council, the Consell de Cent, to
build the first church along La Rambla, on the site of the present
building, along with a school and this original structure was
consecrated two years later.
However, in 1671, upon the canonisation of the Catalan Jesuit Saint Francesc Borja, great festivities were held along this part of the Ramblas, with the unfortunate result of the church catching fire and burning down.
present church was designed by Josep Juli and begun several years later
in 1680 with the first stone being blessed by Alfonso de Sotomayor
Bishop of Barcelona in 1681.
The works were directed by Jesuit priest Father Tort and by Dídac de Lacarse and completed by 1732 in a High Baroque style, although work on the decorations continued until 1855.
In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Catalonia, and the Església de Betlem housed the Seminary Council of Barcelona from 1772 to 1878.
The current parish was not officially created until 1835, but remains very active in providing aid to the poor in the local community of El Raval, traditionally part of the red-light district of Barcelona.
In 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War, Betlem was burned by anarchists, causing the vaulting to collapse and all of the interior decoration to be destroyed.
This is considered by most architectural historians to be among the greatest of the city’s losses during the Civil War as the Església de Betlem was possibly Barcelona's most ornately decorated church.
To get an idea of what the Església de Betlem must have been like it is worth visiting the Església de la Mercè, which wasn't destroyed in the Civil War.
Many important works by baroque painter Antoni Viladomat were destroyed along with a sculpture of Saint Ignatius by Miquel Sala and the fine church organ.
What we see today is a relatively austere church consisting of a single nave with altarpieces from other churches and private collections placed in the side chapels.
I personally find the simple decoration very calm and relaxing, particularly given the church's location in the heart of the hustle and bustle of La Rambla dels Estudis.
The main facade of the church on Carrer del Carme is visible as you walk up La Rambla due to a widening at that point.
The main door is framed by two Solomonic columns and sculptures of the Jesuit saints Ignatius of Loyola and Francesc de Borja, both by Andreu Sala and dating from 1688.
Above the door there is
a nativity scene by Francesc Santacruz, who is also responsible for the
sculpture of Sant Francesc Xavier on the corner of Carrer Xuclà (shown in the photo).
The side wall along La Rambla features rather imposing rusticated brickwork and dominates most of La Rambla dels Estudis.
However, the observant will notice two finely decorated entrances.
The one closest to Carrer del Carme is crowned by a Baby Jesus by Francesc Santacruz whilst the other is a modern copy built in 1906 bt Enric Sagnier featuring a sculpture of John the Baptist.
As I'm generally walking down The Ramblas from Plaça de Catalunya, I typically enter the church through the bottom side door and leave via the main door on Carrer del Carme.
At the far end of the church there is a small exhibition space, and appropriately enough, during Advent and the Christmas season the Església de Betlem hosts many displays of carefully constructed traditional nativity scenes, visited by thousands of people each year.
Neus Prats from La Meva Barcelona took some lovely photos of the Exposició de Pessebres and the detail of the three-dimensional dioramas is quite extraordinary.
This annual exhibition is quite appropriate for the Església de Betlem as, although the Catalan word for nativity scene is pessebre, they are known as Belens in Spanish, which translates as Bethlehems in English and Betlems in Catalan.
If you are spending Christmas in Barcelona, a visit to the exhibition is a special local treat.
L'Església de Betlem
Carrer del Carme, 2
Website: www.mdbetlem.net (please consult Horaris for times of Masses)