What Made the Holy Land ‘Holy’?

From the fourth century onwards Christians from around the medieval world travelled to a place designated as Terra Sancta: the Holy Land. These pilgrims sought to gain a fuller understanding of their religious heritage by seeing and touching a landscape they deemed to be of paramount importance. Their travels took them to places such as Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem – key sites in Christ’s birth, childhood and death – as well as to the tombs of patriarchs and saints.

These holy sites all theoretically contained a kind of radioactive sacred power, which had been acquired through physical contact with the holy men and women who had lived, ministered or were buried there. Believing that anything that had touched a source of the sacred absorbed this holy energy, pilgrims often sought to acquire souvenirs of their journey by collecting fragments of stone, oil and water from the holy places. Through the acquisition and removal of these sacred objects, known as relics, the power of the Holy Land was transported around the medieval Christian world.

Illumination of the Ascension


LDOSJ K100, f. 61v

According to the New Testament, shortly after his resurrection Christ had ascended from earth to heaven. The site of his ascension on the Mount of Olives was later celebrated as one of many earthly points of contact with Christ’s body. This image, which is taken from a sixteenth-century manuscript known as the Rhodes Missal, illustrates the significance of the Mount of Olives for medieval Christians. At the moment of his ascension, Christ was believed to have left footprints as traces of his presence on earth. These footprint relics were subsequently venerated by medieval pilgrims and can still be seen today.

The dust on which God stood provides a testimony which is permanent, since his footprints are to be seen in it, and even though people flock there, and in their zeal take away the soil where the Lord stood, it never becomes less, and to this day there are marks like footprints on the earth.

– A Jerusalem pilgrim reflects on his experience at the Mount of Olives
From Adomnán of Iona, On the Holy Places, c.685

Footprint relics at the site of Christ’s ascension, Mount of Olives (January 2018)

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