The Holy Sepulchre at Home

Posted April 8, 2020 3:56 pm by William Purkis under Collections History

On 25 March 2020 the custodians of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem closed the building’s doors indefinitely, thus preventing pilgrims from worshipping at the sacred sites contained within for the first time in hundreds of years.

The experience of being unable to visit the church in person would have been familiar to many medieval Christians, for whom Christ’s empty tomb was often inaccessible for all manner of reasons – not least the practical or financial challenges that an overseas pilgrimage entailed. However – as is so often the case – necessity proved to be the mother of invention, and devotees from across the medieval Latin West devised a number of technological solutions to the problem they perceived.

The rotunda of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. The structure in the centre of the image is the aedicule, the shrine that is believed to contain Christ’s empty tomb

One response was to conjure the presence of the Holy Land closer to home by building a replica of the sacred building itself. A good number of medieval round churches, whose architecture imitated the signature form of the Holy Sepulchre’s rotunda, can still be found throughout Europe. The Temple Church in London is just one famous example, but sharp-eyed visitors to the Museum of the Order of St John may well notice the legacy of another, since the circular foundations of the medieval church of the Knights Hospitaller are still signposted in the modern paving-stones that can be found at the building’s Clerkenwell site.

The priory church of St John, Clerkenwell, with the footprint of the medieval round church in the foreground

The collections of the Museum of the Order of St John in fact include a number of other examples of the devotional technologies that were created to enable medieval and early modern Christians to explore the Holy Sepulchre without ever leaving their homes.

A popular feature of later medieval and early modern piety was the writing and reading of travel guides to the holy places, such as Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (1502) or Noè Bianchi’s Viaggio da Venezia al S. Sepolcro e al Monte Sinai (1565). Texts such as these were hugely popular with literate members of the Latin faithful, not least because their words and images enabled readers to undertake a kind of armchair pilgrimage to the loca sancta.

Noè Bianchi, Viaggio da Venezia al S. Sepolcro e al Monte Sinai (1565), pp 44–5.
Museum of the Order of St John, LDOSJ C28.1

A more tactile experience was available to seventeenth-century devotees through interaction with a scale model of the church of the Holy Sepulchre or of one of its most important holy sites, the aedicule that was understood to contain Christ’s empty tomb. These magnificent objects were manufactured in Bethlehem and probably brought back to Europe as souvenirs of pilgrimage, where they could then serve as prompts for an individual’s memories or as devotional stimuli for those who had not been able to make the Jerusalem journey themselves.

Model of the church of the Holy Sepulchre (1600s)
Museum of the Order of St John, LDOSJ 3034

Of course, the current global health emergency means that – just like the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the Museum of the Order of St John is closed to visitors for the foreseeable future. However, the coronavirus lockdown does not mean that the Museum’s collections are completely inaccessible. You can learn more about many of the Museum’s medieval and early modern treasures by exploring the Bearers of the Cross website – or by taking a virtual tour of the Museum itself via http://museumstjohn.org.uk.

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