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Tomb and Temple by Robin Griffith-Jones and Eric Fernie, editors

by
24 August 2018

William Whyte on the desire to bring the Holy Land home

THE Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey has many claims to fame. It was there that the committees overseeing the Authorised Version, the Revised Version, the New English Bible, and the Revised English Bible all convened. It was there, in 1643, that the Westminster Assembly of Divines foregathered. And, as anyone who has ever seen Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part II will know, it was there in 1413 that the king expired.

For Henry IV — at least as Shakespeare has it — the Chamber was the realisation of prophecy. “It hath been prophesied to me,” he declares, “I should not die but in Jerusalem, Which vainly I suppos’d the Holy Land, But bear me to that chamber; there I’ll lie; In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.”

As a young man, Henry IV had visited the real Jerusalem. In his death, he imagined — or was believed to have imagined — himself back in the Holy Land. And, of course, he was far from alone. Pilgrimage to the sites of Jesus’s life and death began very early in the Early Church. For those who could not themselves visit the Holy Land, relics and shrines appeared closer to home. Walsingham became “England’s Nazareth” with the addition of a Holy House in 1061. Between about 1100 and 1250, no fewer than 16 round churches modelled self-consciously on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were erected all across the country.

Inspired by their studies of one of these 16 churches, the Master of the Temple Church in London, Robin Griffith-Jones, and the eminent architectural historian Eric Fernie have brought together a distinguished collection of authors to trace the influence of models derived from the Holy Land on the art and faith of other countries.

It is a scholarly enterprise — filled with technical details and untranslated Latin and Greek, and with an expectation that readers will understand terms such as aedicule, anastasis, prothesis, and pastophorion. But it is a wide-ranging, fascinating, and sometimes surprising story that they have to tell, both about the Temple Church in London and about the wider world in which it was created.

A view from the ceiling of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the colour illustrations in the book under review

As its title suggests, Tomb and Temple focuses on two of Jerusalem’s most famous sights: the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the octagonal Dome of the Rock. Three learned chapters on the former are succeeded by four equally well-researched accounts inspired by the latter. These essays range widely: from the building history of the Holy Sepulchre to the way in which the Dome became a model for depictions of the Temple in Renaissance art.

The next section concerns what is probably the least well-known set of examples — and what turns out to be the most surprising. A series of chapters on the Orthodox Churches take the reader from Byzantium to Russia, and from the Caucasus to Ethiopia. It is a fascinating collection of case studies, not least because the authors demonstrate just how little direct impact the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock actually had on a series of buildings that seem — in their shape — superficially the same.

The book concludes by returning to round churches in the West. This is another dense and rich accumulation of different insights — as well as a very valuable gazetteer of examples from England. Not least, they show how little these buildings resembled their supposed models in Jerusalem. They evoked a place through analogy and allusion, instead of direct imitation. They worked because they moved their inhabitants, not literally but spirituality, to the Holy Land.

Among the many achievements of this book is to show how important emotions are in shaping spiritual experience: how somewhere makes you feel is often more critical than how it looks or where it is.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

Tomb and Temple: Re-imagining the sacred buildings of Jerusalem
Robin Griffith-Jones and Eric Fernie, editors
Boydell Press £50
(978-1-78327-280-8)

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