“NO OTHER sentiment”, Paulinus of Nola (354-431) wrote, “draws people to Jerusalem than the desire to see and to touch the places where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from their own experience, “We have gone into his tabernacle, and have worshipped in the places where his feet stood.’”
As then, so now. The present entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, is through a 12th-century doorway in the south façade. Straight ahead, on the floor, is the Stone of Unction, on which Jesus is said to have been laid out and anointed for burial (John 19.39-40). The present stone was installed in 1810. Pilgrims, most of them women, kneel around the stone and lean forward almost to prostrate themselves as they kiss it. They pass their hands across its surface, and rub it lightly with cloths of their own, as the Gospels’ women rubbed clean the body of Jesus — as if the pilgrims could transfer on to their own cloths — and so take home — some trace of the ointment that once honoured the body of their Lord.
Xinhua/AlamyThe Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, with the aedicule: the Holy Fire on Holy Saturday
UP STEEP stairs to the right are the two chapels of Calvary, Latin and Greek. Under the simple open-fronted altar-table of the Greek chapel is a circular hole in the marble floor. To reach it, the pilgrims — one at a time — must stoop low to kneel down under the altar. They reach down, elbow-deep, through the floor, to touch the rock of Calvary itself.
Down the stairs, back past the Stone of Unction, and onwards into the Rotunda: at its centre, the aedicule (“little house”) built round the remains of the tomb that was discovered by Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem in 325, and was instantly declared to be the grave-chamber of Christ himself.
The chamber was once the central small room of three, excavated from the rock, with long rectangular silos dug horizontally further into its walls to take successive bodies. All the surrounding rock was cut away by Makarios, leaving just a shell of stone which has since been encased in marble. On the right is a stone slab placed over the ledge on which Jesus is said to have been laid.
The chamber is glittering but cramped; it can hold, at most, four people at a time, cut off from the crowds in the Rotunda outside. In a huddled circuit, pilgrim after pilgrim touches and kisses the slab. Christ lay dead here, at the moment of his most evident and pitiful humanity; and from here he rose into glory through the power of God.
More than mere recollection is engaged. Christ, by the touch of his presence here, blessed and sanctified the tomb; and he can seem vividly to bless and sanctify those who come and touch it in their turn. Their death is like his; and so he will bring them to his risen life.
(Dumbarton Oaks)Oil flask, late 6th c., showing Calvary“DO NOT touch me,” the risen Jesus orders Mary Magdalene, when at last she recognises him on Easter Day. Jesus is no longer there to be touched; but it is touch that still makes him vividly present in the Sepulchre. Touch is so intimate and personal, and makes an immediate connection with the place and its sanctity.
A far richer connection may be made — and sensed — by our contact with Christ at the eucharist, but that calls for an imagination steeped in more obviously symbolic thinking: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share Christ’s divinity who came to share our humanity.”
The tomb and its ledge, by contrast, are palpably, physically, inescapably there. Jerome’s friend Paula, “on entering the tomb of the resurrection, kissed the stone which the angel had removed from the Sepulchre door; and then, like a thirsty man who has waited long and at last come to water, she faithfully kissed the very shelf on which the Lord’s body had lain”.
SO FAR, so good, for those who could — or can — get to Jerusalem. But the tomb’s power could be spread far afield. A beautifully painted box of the sixth century (now in the Vatican) holds stones from various sites in the Holy Land, including one from “the life-giving resurrection”. A reliquary-icon in the Louvre (formerly in Constantinople) is decorated with a silver-gilt relief of the angel at the tomb; a compartment behind it held another such stone.
Far cheaper than these diplomatic displays were earthenware oil-flasks, moulded with scenes of Christ’s death and resurrection, and filled with oil from the Sepulchre’s lamps. The flasks would fit into the palm of a pilgrim’s hand — a permanent presence from Christ’s tomb.
Others mementoes have been created on a far grander scale. Jerusalem and its numinous buildings have been reimagined and re-presented in the design, topography, decoration, and dedications of wonderfully beautiful churches and cities. Some are famous; others are in the West almost unknown. The contributors to Tomb and Temple uncover the links between Jerusalem and Byzantium, the Caucasus, Russia, and — most startling of all — the underground city, modelled on Jerusalem, of Ethiopia’s Lalibela.
Northern Europe comes finally into focus: from Iona and Aachen to the English rotundas, most of them built by the military orders. Among them was the Temple Church, in London, its rotunda — in use by 1162 — clearly built in imitation of the Sepulchre, to recreate its shape and so its sanctity.
THE Sepulchre in Jerusalem was mimicked — and even outshone — by the Muslims’ octagonal Dome of the Rock (691) on the Temple Mount. The Crusaders, and among them the Templars, believed that the Dome was the Temple of the Lord in which the infant Christ had been presented at the first Candlemas.
Jerusalem, then, had two glorious buildings: one of them octagonal, a scene of Christ’s infancy; the other round, the scene of his death and resurrection. So Jerusalem celebrated the beginning and the end of Christ’s time on earth.
(Dumbarton Oaks)Oil flask, late 6th c., showing the women approaching the tomb on Easter Day
The Templars’ headquarters in Jerusalem were in the Aqsa Mosque, facing the Dome. Their Temple Church in London was consecrated, more than 20 years after its completion, at Candlemas, in 1185, in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Connections shimmer in the air. By the fifth century, links had been made between Mary’s womb and Christ’s tomb, the only two containers of the uncontainable Christ; neither of which had ever before contained a person.
As Christ was conceived through Ezekiel’s closed gate (Ezekiel 44.2), so he left the sealed tomb. “The Sepulchre of Christ”, Maximus of Turin wrote, “is like a womb; from there is he born more glorious than he was from his mother. This second nativity is more glorious than the first. The first brought forth a mortal body, the second an immortal. After the first he descends to hell, after the second he returns to heaven.”
The very shape of a rotunda encourages such reflections: its orientation is vertical, from earth to heaven, from burial to ascension — and, in a Templars’ Church dedicated in honour of the Virgin, from Christ’s presentation on the Temple Mount to the Sepulchre, and to Easter Day. “I am ascending”, Jesus explained, “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
His ascent leads to ours — up, in another call on our imagination, through the rotunda’s dome to heaven’s dome beyond.
The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple at the Temple Church in London and Senior Lecturer in Theology at King’s College, London. Tomb and Temple: Re-imagining the sacred buildings of Jerusalem, eds R. Griffith-Jones and E. Fernie, has just been published by Boydell at £50 (CT Bookshop £45).