Archive for the 'travel' Category

Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: III (tomb sites)

There are actually two sites in Jerusalem claiming to be the location of the crucifixion and resurrection, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb. As my man in Jerusalem, Justin, told me, it’s totally the Protestant version of the site, and it’s hilarious.  

The Garden Tomb

The Tomb

The Garden

The Garden

The claim for this site was first made by the British army officer and colonial administrator Charles George Gordon in 1882, and it is currently run by British ex-pats. Its Golgotha is a hill with skull-like features (now topped by a Muslim cemetery); the crucifixion is proposed to have happened at the base of the hill, now paved over for a bus depot.  The grounds are covered by a garden which clearly owes more to the British Mandate than the local landscape and which is sprinkled with little plaques bearing Bible verses.  The tomb is still cut into the rock (in the Holy Sepulchre, the rock around the tomb was cleared away by Constantine’s builders to make room for the first church on the site) and features a channel carved in front of the door to the tomb where a stone could be rolled in front of the doorway (most archaeologists date the tombs at this site to 9-700 BC, however). Unlike the Holy Sepulchre, it is outside the current city walls (later excavations have revealed that both were outside the first century walls).

The literature distributed at the site makes much of these details and their accord with points of the Gospel narratives. The idea of the argument made for the site and of its current presentation seems to be a site frozen in time, unaffected by the intervening years, accessible now as it was, accessible as the Western, Protestant mind had imagined it…


Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: II (Lutherans too!)

Also interesting for comparison is the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the big Protestant church in the old city, just around the corner from the Holy Sepulchre. It was completed in 1898. Here’s the sanctuary interior:


the sanctuary in the Church of the Redeemer

the sanctuary in the Church of the Redeemer

It’s open, airy, spacious and clean. It also seems to be run in a rather more organized fashion than the Holy Sepulchre (for example, they actually post service times in case one might want to attend; I went to a nice English-language service as a result). Presumably, administration is also a little less contentious.

Is the church that builds once, preserves a fairly uniform aesthetic, doesn’t acquire religious detritus over the years (and dusts and conducts repairs) preferable? One thing is for sure: the Church of the Redeemer is totally out of place in Jerusalem. Not only does it looked like it was dropped full-formed from somewhere in Protestant Europe, the Holy Sepulchre is much more at home in a city which is itself crowded, haphazard, tangled, accumulated and sometimes dirty.

Overheard (overseen?) in Jerusalem

Recycle, people!

resurrect creation

Jenny Holzer’s “Bench 16” in the sculpture garden at the Israeli Museum:


Crusader-era pilgrim graffiti in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

Crusader-era pilgrim graffiti

and its contemporary counterpart, also in the Church. Jesus loves u 2, Danielle.

love u Jesus

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.