Contact us to plan your tour of Israel.
by John Stringer
John Stringer is a Classicist who writes on art and historical topics. He has a specialist’s interest in the art and culture of the ancient Iron-Age Philistines and lives in
Christchurch, New Zealand with his wife, three sons and two British bulldogs.
The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre (empty tomb of Christ), the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem, is also the greatest repository of twelfth-century Crusader art in the East. It is a 'must see' for visitors to Israel interested in art, history, warfare and faith.
An artwork of itself, the rambling church complex - dedicated in Jerusalem in 1149 AD by king Baldwin III and his regent mother Queen Melisende - is an assemblage of older Constantinian and Byzantine churches massively expanded and unified under a cohesive and practical Crusader design that houses several holy sites. These include the suggested empty tomb of Jesus, Calvary, the prison of Christ, the Grotto of the Cross, and the tomb of St Helena (who is said to have recovered a relic of the True Cross which later became emblematic in Crusader art) and the tombs of the Crusader kings of Jerusalem.
Elaborately carved delicate ivories and beautiful color Crusader illuminations - many the Psalters of Queen Melisende - from the Scriptorium of the Holy Sepulchre have been removed to European libraries, leaving only sculptural and architectural examples of Crusader art in situ. The church can be enjoyed and studied for its multi-layered architectural wonder; the sculpture for its diversity of adopted, created and assimilated styles. For example, eighth-century Abbasid Corinthian capitals and much Byzantine sculpture were incorporated.
Visitors to the south transept facade will discover a Roman-style facade visually announcing entry in to one of Christendom's holiest spaces. It features entablature, elaborate foliate decorative mouldings, pointed arches, godroons, abaci as well as two impressive figurative lintels recently conserved and reattached above the west and east portals. The art put into this facade had considerable artistic impact on Crusader art in the Crusader States during the latter twelfth century.
Above the west portal a figural processional relief sculpture of various biblical scenes can be seen, including the raising of Lazarus and the devotion of Mary and Martha. Stylistically the work has been linked to several Tuscan church examples (such as the churches of Saints Rufino & Cesido, Trasacco and the Church of Carmine of San Salvatore in Paterno) indicating a strong contribution of Italian sculptors.
Above the east portal is the impressive "vine-scroll" lintel. This celtic-style sculpture writhes and cavorts fluidly with ivy, creatures and men. Unusually, on its reverse side is a Fatimid sculpture of similar theme suggesting an older work that inspired a reactionary redemptive Crusader artwork (Crusaders considered non-Christian art idolatrous).
Inside, within the north transept aisle, can be seen the unusual "winged Solomon" capital suggestive of older Etruscan demonology and within the Prison of Christ, the capitals based on an unusual version of Daniel in the Lions Den. A number of double capitals in the north transept aisle depict quality examples of elaborate Crusader interlacing, mask and acanthus leaf sculpture.
Elsewhere the main decorative focus was on Byzantine-style mosaics, such as the Ascending Christ in the southeast vault of the Calvary Chapel.
Architecturally, the luxuriously decorated church is unusual among Crusader churches for its complex multi-storied complexity and use, for the first time, of ribbed vaulting. The use of a domed rotunda (above the main Sepulchre) matches the surrounding architecture of the Templum Domini, Dome of the Rock, apse of the canon's cloister and St. Helen's chapel. This appears to have been a conscious attempt by the Crusaders to aesthetically unify the site.
The main architectural aspects of the church include: the eastern apse, the choir with its ambulatory and radiating chapels, the domed crossing, the facade and portals of the south transept, the Franks Chapel to Calvary, and the rotunda.
Coming from European areas with well-established artistic heritages, the first Crusaders' art tended to be tentative practical responses to need, such as the humble Euro-Medieval tomb of the first Crusader king of Jerusalem Godefroy de Bouillion in the Adam Chapel. The tombs of Baldwin I-V, Fulk of Anjou and Amaury I (the eight Crusader kings of Jerusalem) can all be viewed in the chapel along with some of their supposed military accoutrements.
At first, the Crusaders were not interested in art other than for its religious content. Their humble approach to artistic imagery is also demonstrated in the Crusader coinage of the era. However, as the religious warriors absorbed their environment, their art responded. The overall layout of the church follows European notions of pilgrimage-roads (the church was designed to accommodate thousands of pilgrims) but the rotunda, mosaics and domed crossing all exhibit Eastern influences.
Problematic was the rich diversity of nations represented within the Crusader culture. Thus Crusader art during the first period, under king Baldwin I (1100-1118) demonstrates a bewildering diversity of style. It was only cohesively unified within the conception and construction of the Holy Sepulchre project over several decades, particularly under king Baldwin III between 1140-50.
Pilgrims and Crusaders believed the site to be the literal centre of the earth, based on various biblical references. In Crusader times the actual centre point was determined as the triporticus area, later the domed crossing of the Crusader Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Visitors to the church can then be said to be "at the naval, or centrepoint, of the earth."
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in East Jerusalem.
02/ 627-3314 TEL
Web site: The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre
Visiting Hours: Winter, 4:00 AM – 7:00 PM, Summer, 4:00 AM – 8:00 PM.