Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: I

I just returned from a trip to Jerusalem. It was very interesting to compare the relative aesthetics of the three major holy sites.

The Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall is austere. It echoes the surrounding landscape of sandstone and sparse brush perfectly. The plaza surrounding the wall is clean and well-ordered, much like the Jewish Quarter of the city (this is in serious contrast to the Muslim and Christian Quarters, and the Armenian Quarter to a lesser extent). The austerity and sparseness is fitting; the whole point of the site is what is not there.  

There is no ornamentation to the wall itself. The ornamentation is the people: the Ultra-Orthodox men in their variations of dress — black or brown, jackets, vests, some in stockings,  the wide flat-brimmed black hats or the sable-fur shtreimels. The dress of the women is announces their identity more subtly, but their presence, in varying styles of head-covering, ornaments the plaza as well. Hearing the women sing together on Shabbat evening was my favorite part of the experience.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock complex, located on the Temple Mount (for Jews) or Haram al-Sharif (for Muslims) is powerful and impressive. It was a Muslim holy week when I was there and I was unable to enter, so I can only speak to the impression from afar. Still, the beauty and power of the complex are apparent from all over the city. The gold dome shining in the sun is the most noteworthy feature, but in the end I think I was most impressed by the size and spaciousness. Its footprint on a map of the old city alone is remarkable. And, even seen from afar, the spaciousness of the complex is amazing, particularly after wandering through the twisted and cramped streets of the rest of the city.

(I wonder if the impression here is the same as that St. Peter’s square in Rome used to have before Mussolini tore down the maze of streets and houses surrounding the square to build the Via della Conciliazione.)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The aesthetic of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is … well, let’s face it people, it’s just weird. Take the shrine at the sepulchre itself: covered by a Romanesque dome, the shrine itself is a sooty color, caged partly with steel structural supports — damaged at one point by fire and never fully repaired. The front is decorated with huge fake candles topped by incandescent light bulbs, several stations for lighting and quickly extinguishing (for later use back home, I think) incense and candles, myriad hanging oil lamps, and an array of small portraits of Christ and his disciples that look (to me) like decoration for small porcelain plates.  Inside, the style is sort of cramped and overwrought — a mix of Baroque-looking silverwork and iconography. Overhead in the inner chapel (where there is room for maybe four or five people at a time) every square inch of space is taken up by what must be thirty to forty oil lamps. And behind the shrine is the small Coptic chapel, where the curtains are covered with thick, clear, protective plastic. 

Other parts of the church are certainly beautiful, especially the Catholikon dome over the main nave. The altars on Golgotha are very nice as well, though clearly uncoordinated (the Roman Catholic altar is a 16th century gift of Ferdinand de Medici, the mosaic above it is from 1937, the Greek Orthodox altar is ornate silverwork and iconography). The plan of the church as a whole is a jumble of altars, chapels and monastery facilities. And much of the place is dirty and poorly kept up. Ladders, lumber, metal bars and other disused construction materials litter the less-used spaces.

This has a lot to do, of course, with the joint administration of the church by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian churches under the Status quo and the difficulties this presents for administering the place. The conjunction of classical Roman Catholic art and architecture with the (to me) stranger bits of RC decoration that surround special places of veneration, with the overabundance and (to be honest) kitchiness of Orthodox decoration, with the contributions of the Armenians and the (obviously less well-funded) Ethiopians and Copts makes for a very strange, sometimes confusing, sometimes appealing aesthetic.


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