Models of the Holy Sepulchre

Models of the Holy Sepulchre

Rosie Weetch

If you were able to come to our first lecture at the Museum of the Order of St John on 23 March, or at least saw our marketing, you will now be familiar with the image of these wooden seventeenth-century models of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. LDOSJ3034. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, LDOSJ 3034. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016

What are the models?

Models like these were made as souvenirs to be sold to pilgrims and tourists visiting the Holy Land. They began to be made in the late 1600s by local craftsmen in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, who used local wood and mother of pearl to create highly decorative models that were architecturally accurate representations of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Each model was accompanied by a parchment scroll describing the numbered different parts of the building that worked like an instruction manual for decoding the church.

Only around thirty of these models are known,[i] so the fact the Museum of the Order of St John has three examples is quite remarkable. They vary in quality and decoration. The first model (LDOSJ 3034) acquired by the museum is also the most elaborate. It was given to the museum in 1936 by The Hon Richard Fremantle. It is covered with mother of pearl plaques engraved with floral elements. The craftsmanship of this model is of very high quality – even edges and details that would have remained hidden are finished off to the highest standard. Its decorative scheme is identical to an example in the Museo dello Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem.[ii] Just a year later in 1937, the museum received a second model from A.S.Jones (LDOSJ 3033). This model is much smaller than the others, perhaps indicating that it was a more affordable version.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. LDOSJ3035. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, LDOSJ 3035. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

The third model (LDOSJ 3035) entered the collection in 1944 as a gift from Richard Luxmore. The domes are decorated with star-shaped mother of pearl inlays, and inside is an ivory cross with curling ends. It is very similar to one at the British Museum.[iii]

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was not the only sacred building in the Holy Land to be reproduced in miniature. Wooden models of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,[iv] and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary also proved popular souvenirs for pilgrims. Further, small models of individual chapels and sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, such as the tomb of Christ (or Aedicule), were also made.[vi]  There is an example in the Museum of the Order of St John’s collection. Its wooden core is covered in engraved mother of pearl plaques. Around the edge are the apostles holding the gospels, on the front is the risen Christ between two finely carved twisting columns. When the lid is removed the inside of Christ’s tomb is revealed. On the wall next to the burial bier is another engraved mother of pearl plaque decorated with the scene of the Resurrection.

But given this project is concerned with material religion in the medieval world, why are we concerned with these objects made nearly 700 years later?

The models as historical documents

The scale models of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were created following the detailed plans and drawings of the building made by a Franciscan friar, Bernardino Amico, at the end of the sixteenth century. Bernardino Amico arrived in the Holy Land in 1593 and spent nearly five years documenting the main shrines and chapels in the area. He examined each of the churches he visited in painstaking detail, measuring and sketching them, and recording their construction and design. These architectural surveys were combined with detailed descriptions of the buildings and their topographical settings in his book Tratto delle piante & immagini de sacri edifizi di Terra Santa first published in 1609, with a second more elaborate edition published in 1620.

Bernardino Amico’s cross section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1620. Image source: Internet Archive

Bernardino Amico’s cross-section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1620. Image source: Internet Archive

Amico paid especial attention to the recently renovated (in 1555) Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He includes not only a plan of the church, but also elevations of the Aedicule. It is in his discussion of this church that Amico reveals one of his motivations behind creating these detailed plans:

I have not wanted to make any omissions in this plan of the Most Holy Sepulchre, for the benefit of simple artisans so that, if one of them wishes to build anything with the authority of one seeing it, he may be able to do so with every ease, using the scale, from which they will find every detail.[vii]


Bernardino Amico’s plan and elevation of the Aedicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1962. Image source: Internet Archive

Bernardino Amico’s plan and elevation of the Aedicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1962. Image source: Internet Archive

He further elaborates that ‘anyone may use its scale and build it of whatever material desired without too much labour’. The extant models in the Museum of the Order of St John and other collections are evidence that these aspirations were realised. It may even have been Amico himself who initiated this local industry, entrusting local artisans with the skills to execute the detailed models.[viii] This not only provided a new livelihood for people living near the various sacred sites, but also a wealth of souvenirs for purchase by pilgrims and travellers from Europe.

The models are important as documents in themselves because they record accurately the appearance of the church at a particular point in time, and for us it is important as it preserves many of the features that were visible during the period of the crusades. The church has undergone a series of expansions, alterations and restorations since it was first consecrated in AD 335. The protection and preservation of this sacred monument was a primary concern of the first crusaders in Jerusalem, who took control of the church on 15 July 1099.[ix] The importance of the church to crusader motivations and legitimisation can be seen in the fact that the first European rulers of Jerusalem chose not the title king, but instead ‘protector of the Sepulchre’ – a role that was promoted through the issue of coins which display the distinctive architecture of the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre.

Coin minted in Jerusalem showing the Holy Sepulchre, AD 1100s. LDOSJJE8a. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

Coin minted in Jerusalem showing the Holy Sepulchre, 11oos, LDOSJ JE8a. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

The crusaders in Jerusalem began a programme of work in the middle of the twelfth century to refurbish and enlarge the church into the plan that largely remains today. The coins may have been issued to mark or celebrate their work.[x] They combined the many chapels into a single church under one domed roof, and it is intriguing that the coins do not document this new dome, instead showing the dome of the rotunda that was at least a century old at this point. This is probably because the unusual form of the rotunda had for many years stood as the symbol of the church, and had an established currency as an icon of this powerful place. The bell tower to the west of the entrance and other Romanesque features were also added at this time.[xi]  This construction work is documented by the twelfth century chronicler William of Tyre, who also described the church:

…on the slope facing east, is situated the church of the Holy Resurrection, circular in shape. As this church lies on the slope of the hill just mentioned, which towers above in close proximity to it, the interior would have been very dark. Its roof, however, built of beams rising aloft and interwoven with most skilful workmanship into the form of a crown, is so constructed that it is always open to the sky, which arrangement provides the necessary light for the interior. Under this wide opening lies the sepulchre of the Saviour.[xii]

12C holy sep

Drawing of the Holy Sepulchre in the Codice Urbinate Latino 1362, Vatican Library. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It is this distinctive form of the rotunda, with its open roof (the Oculus) that is seen in this manuscript illustration of the fourteenth century and the seventeenth-century models. The Aedicule was further renovated in 1555 by Bonifacius of Ragusa.

Parts of the church were devastated by a serious fire in 1808, which caused the rotunda to fall in. This led to extensive renovation of the rotunda, whose dome was replaced with one in the Ottoman Baroque style, which was curved rather than straight-sided. The models therefore represent the appearance of the church before this devastation and alteration, and this is essentially the form the church took during the period of the crusades.

Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881) - "Palestine. Dome of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem". Catalogue # 4012. {{PD-1923}}

Giacomo Brogi (1822–81) ‘Palestine. Dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’, showing the dome after the fire. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Although we must be wary of taking these models as exact replicas of the form of the Church – the models all have differences, such as the form of the top of the bell tower[xiii] – they nevertheless allow us to visualise the form of this building that was so central to crusader motivations.

Material Religion

Since the early Christian period pilgrims have sought out souvenirs and relics related to the sacred places they visited; a practice that continues today. The desire to create this physical connection to their experiences and the places they visited through the collection of souvenirs speaks of the importance of objects in maintaining pilgrim memories. These models should be seen in a similar way: they provided individuals with a permanent, visual, and physical reminder of their time at one of the holiest sites in Christianity. Exploring the role of objects in the experience and practice of religious belief is a key part of the Bearers of the Cross project. While the project is focusing on the material religion of people during the period of the crusades, examining how these models were used allows us to think about the multiple ways in which material culture is central to religious practice.

There are number of contemporary reports of pilgrims and travellers bringing these models back from the Holy Land, especially into royal and aristocratic collections.[xiv] Christopher Wren, writing in the later seventeenth century, says that the ‘the small Models of Wood, garnished with Mother of Pearl, of the holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem [were] usually made for Sale to Pilgrims and Foreigners’,[xv] a comment that perhaps indicates the models were well-known objects in Britain at the time and not just rare objects available to the richest in society.

The differences in size and quality in the three examples at the Museum of the Order of St John may evidence the creation of models to appeal to different budgets. One traveller who returned from the Holy Land with such a model was William Frankland of Muntham (1720–1805), an East India Company merchant and the MP for Thirsk. In this painting he holds a scroll entitled Minutes of a journey over the Desert and the Holy Land in 1760, 61 & 62, and it was presumably on this trip that he purchased the model. Frankland’s example, now known as the Pearson Model, is currently on display in the Musée des Civilisations de la’Europe et de la Méditerrannée, Marseille.

Portrait of Sir William Frankland of Muntham court, Mather Brown, oil on canvas. Image source: Wikipedia Commons

Portrait of Sir William Frankland of Muntham court, Mather Brown, Oil on Canvas. Image source: Wikipedia Commons

But why were these models desirable and what did the people who bought them use them for once they were back home? Some were certainly used as prestige items, displayed in high-status homes and Kunstkammer as statements of taste and wealth. Their accurateness as scale architectural models appealed to the increasing fascination of the early modern intelligentsia in science and recording. And they would have been picked up by merchants, such as William Frankland, and Grand Tourists as evidence of their connections, travel, and worldliness. But these models had a significance beyond being works of art and examples of impressive technical skill. The models would not only have declared their owner’s faith, but also their commitment to it as a dedicated pilgrim.

The models of the Holy Sepulchre were also interactive – they could be taken apart to reveal the inside of the church. This meant they could be easily transported back from the Holy Land and meant you could see inside the church. The locations of key events and chapels are numbered, and each model would have been accompanied with a key indicating what each of the numbers was marking.

This would have allowed people to explore the models, step by step, following the course of the central event of the Christian faith – the death and resurrection of Christ. This enabled their owners either to recreate their own pilgrimages or, if they had never been to the Holy Land, to imagine what it would be like. This could have been an act of personal devotion and prayer done in private, or part of communal worship as a performance for an audience.

Looking inside one of the Models. LDOSJ3035. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016

Looking inside one of the models, LDOSJ 3035. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016

You can explore one of the models yourself HERE.

Using the models to re-enact their pilgrimage would have both maintained and altered their memories of the event, perhaps even eliciting a powerful emotional response. Pilgrimage was not merely sightseeing, but an important way for pilgrims to experience, practice and affirm their religious beliefs. Visiting the spaces and landscapes associated with their faith made physical the abstract and emotional aspects of their religion. The methodical recreation of their journeys using the models would have enabled them to relive the emotions they experienced whilst on pilgrimage to the church. This was clearly deemed an important role for these models as in one example in the Museum of the Order of St John’s collection there is an intriguing printed inscription pasted to the inside of the dome of the rotunda. Below an illustration of five pilgrims worshipping inside the Aedicule it reads in Latin:

Inside the Rotunda. LDOSJ3035. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016

Inside the rotunda, LDOSJ3034. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016

Approach with pious devotion and humble reverence the sacred Sepulchre, which no one can bear to behold without dread and the most intensely anguished heart. Dedicate your heart, burning with ardent love, to the Saviour in his place of rest, devote your heart to him and it will be redoubled, say: Lord Jesus you live in me, and I in you to die and live forever.

It is this very visceral emotional response that the models were intended to recreate, thus enabling people to relive the complete pilgrimage experience in their own homes. These intricate models were therefore essential in the cultivation and shaping of an individual’s religious emotions and memories.

It is this link between objects and religious life that the Bearers of the Cross project will investigate in relation to the crusades. These models are a demonstration of how objects were used to support religious rituals and practices, but also of how objects had the ability to affect and create the religious experiences and beliefs of the pious.


Watch one of the models being taken apart here:


Models in other collections in the UK

Palestinian Exploration Fund, London

Three models in the British Museum, London

Burghley House, Lincolnshire

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, Northampton

Ashmolean Museum

Further Reading

Bagatti, B., 2012, ‘L’industria della madreperla a Betlemme’ in Piccirillo, La Nuova Gerusalemme Artigianato palestinese al servizio dei Luoghi Santi (Jerusalem: Ed. Custodia di Terra Santa, cop.), 225–32.

Biddle, M., 1999, The Tomb of Christ (Stroud: Sutton Publishing).

Girard, É., 2012, ‘Acquisition par le MuCEM d’un ensemble de maquettes de lieux de pèlerinage de Terre Sainte, dans La revue des musées de France’, in Revue du Louvre, 1, 59–69.

Metcalf, D. M., 1995, Coinage of the Crusades and the Latin East in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (London: Royal Numismatic Society).

Norris, J., Williams, J., P. and Cartwright, C., 2014 ‘Sacred Souvenir: The Holy Sepulchre Models in the British Museum’, in The British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 8, 29–38.

Piccirillo, M., 2009, ‘The Role of the Franciscans in the Translation of the Sacred Spaces from the Holy Land to Europe’, in A. Lidov (ed.), New Jerusalems: Hierotopy and Iconography of Sacred Spaces (Moscow: Indrik), 363–94.

Piccirillo, M., 2007, La Nuova Gerusalemme Artigianato palestinese al servizio dei Luoghi Santi (Jerusalem: Ed. Custodia di Terra Santa, cop.).

Rubin, R., 2006, ‘Relief Maps and Models in the Archives of The Palestine Exploration Fund in London’, in Palestine Exploration Quarterly 138, 1: 43–63.

Shalev, Z. 2012, Sacred Words and Worlds: Geography, Religion, and Scholarship, 1550–1700 (Leiden: Brill).

Morris, C., 2005, The Sepulchre of Christ and the Medieval West: From the Beginning to 1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Wren, C., 1942, ‘Tracts on Architecture’ in Wren Society 19.


[i] Piccarillo 2007, 142–93

[ii] Piccarillo 2007, cat. 11

[iii] Norris et al. 2014

[iv] Piccarillo 2007, 127

[v] Piccarillo 2007, 129–36

[vi] Picarillo 2007, 93–4

[vii] Shalev 2012, 114

[viii] Piccarillo 2009, 375

[ix] Morris 2005

[x] Metcalf 1995, 57–8

[xi] Biddle 1999, 89–8

[xii] William of Tyre, bk 8 ch 3.

[xiii] Bagatti 2007, 225–32

[xiv] Biddle 1999, 44

[xv] Wren 1942, 134–5