Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Chinese-style bell from the court of Mongke KhanPhoto by Custodia Terrae Sanctae
Eucharist vessel sent by Mexican Emperor Maximilian I in the 19th century.Photo by Custodia Terrae Sanctae
a 16th-century golden chalice with an inscription from King Philip III of SpainPhoto by Custodia Terrae Sanctae
In 1906, during renovations at the Franciscan friary in Bethlehem, the workers found a treasure. Buried in the ground was the oldest known organ in the world − built in the 12th century − as well as 13 ancient bells. Twelve of the bells had been cast in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The 13th, however, was a big surprise: a bell in the Chinese style.
The Franciscan friars who researched it concluded that it had come from the court of the Mongolian Emperor Mongke Khan (a grandson of Genghis Khan). In 1245, the king of France had sent a diplomatic delegation to Mongke, headed by the Franciscan Friar William of Rubruck, with the aim of forming a military alliance between the Crusaders and the Mongols. After his return, the friar journeyed to the Holy Land and gave the bell from Central Asia to the heads of the monastery in Bethlehem.
The bells and organ were probably buried in the 15th century, under orders from the Turkish sultan, who prohibited the sounding of Christian bells in the land of Israel. And so, for 450 years the bells and organ were buried, until being unearthed just over a century ago.
In two years, the Mongolian bell and its companions will be put on display, along with the organ and hundreds of other valuable religious and artistic items − most of which were sent to Jerusalem as a tribute to the Church over the centuries by members of the European nobility and carefully preserved without being displayed to the general public. The items will be shown in no less than three new or revamped museums that the Franciscan order is planning to open in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The owners of the treasure are members of the Franciscan order in Jerusalem and the Custodia Terrae Sanctae − Guardians of the Holy Land, an organization that, for some 800 years, has been charged with guarding the holy sites in the Holy Land on behalf of the Catholic Church and the pope.
The Custodia controls, among other things, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Heading the Custodia is the custos (custodian), a high-ranking Franciscan who is appointed by the pope.
Historically, the generations of custodians were responsible for curating and preserving this property. Opening the gates of the Custodia to the masses never crossed their minds, and it certainly never occurred to them to put the treasures held there on public display. This caution was fed by the Christians’ sense of insecurity under Muslim or Ottoman rule, and the perception of their role as the Catholic Church’s last line of defense in the Holy Land.
Presumably, the trauma of the order’s ejection from its “mother base” on Mount Zion in the 16th century did not add to the friars’ sense of security. In any case, over the years the most stunning trove of religious artifacts and art in the land accumulated in the cellars of the Custodia. Most of the objects were sent by kings and nobles from Europe, or brought by delegations of pilgrims, beginning in the Middle Ages. Throughout most of its history, the collection was semi-secret and hidden.
“These objects were never put into use for fear they would be stolen. They were kept in a hidden room, entered through a secret and concealed door. Even most of the friars didn’t know about it,” says Prof. Eugenio Alliata, the director of the order’s Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Jerusalem. Two people held the keys to the room: the custos himself and another high-ranking friar. Now, says Alliata, security has improved and modern devices are making it possible to display the treasure publicly without fear. “This is part of the land’s cultural heritage. It is important that people see it,” he notes.
The collection is a faithful representation of the art popular among the European nobility in Catholic countries over the last centuries. Most of it consists of gifts sent or brought by pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It includes liturgical paraphernalia made of gold and silver, inset with precious stones and made by Europe’s finest artists. There are gifts from nearly every self-respecting Catholic king. Some of the items − from France, for example − are rare works of art, the likes of which no longer exist in their country of origin because of the French Revolution (which settled accounts with art objects, as part of the eradication of the noble class) but were preserved in Jerusalem vaults.
Of the three planned museums, the small Franciscan Archaeological Museum − currently open as part of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum − on the Via Dolorosa will be renovated and significantly enlarged before its reopening in 2015. The archaeological collections will be exhibited there, including impressive finds unearthed by Franciscan researchers or purchased from antiquities dealers. Among other items on display in the museum will be fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls that are owned by the order.
Nearby, a multimedia museum will open, which will have a 3-D installation depicting the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Via Dolorosa.
But the museum due to attract perhaps the most interest will open on the Custodia’s premises near the New Gate, and will feature a historic collection of liturgical objects and works of art. Among the thousands of items, there are, for example, a ceremonial scepter donated by King Louis XIV of France, and a 16th-century golden chalice with an inscription from King Philip III of Spain. King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy sent a silver candlestick decorated with two eagles. Mexican Emperor Maximilian I (a brother of Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph) ruled his country for two-and-a-half years, but in 1865 − a year and a half before his death − he paid 15,000 francs to a Parisian artist for two valuable ritual articles. These were a chalice and a monstrance (a vessel for the display of the consecrated Eucharist), gilded and inlaid with precious stones. The chalice was lost and the monstrance was sent, in Maximilian’s name, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and is in the collection.
Elite European art
The collection also includes vestments made of silk, gold and wool, censers (a covered incense burner), crucifixes, crowns, trays, paintings, sculptures and more.
According to art historian Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar of Tel Aviv University, the entire collection is considered elite European art, with the prevalent styles being Baroque and Rococo. “You won’t find avant-garde here − it is mainstream and conservative. These are also things that correspond with art made in Europe, not here,” she says.
In this context, one item that was actually made here stands out: a lovely miniature model of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, crafted from olive wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory. The model was apparently made by friars in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.
The museum near the New Gate will also display the collection of hundreds of apothecary jars that constituted the first pharmacy in Jerusalem, which operated under the auspices of the Custodia in the 17th and 18th centuries. A part of the collection is already on display at the archaeological museum.
All concerned agree that the decision to establish the museums and open the secrets of the Custodia to the public bears a close connection to the personality of Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the incumbent custos. Pizzaballa is a graduate of Hebrew University, he speaks fluent Hebrew, is very familiar with Israeli society, and has extensive connections in academia. In the coming days, the new Pope Francis is expected to announce the name of the next custos. Church sources speculate there is a chance Pizzaballa will be asked to remain for another three-year period, which would make him the longest-serving custos since the position was established 800 years ago.
“The demand to see the items is high, and requests have been sent to us from all over the world,” says Custos Pizzaballa. According to him, the museums are planned in a way that will be inviting to the Israeli public and not only to Christian pilgrims: “By means of the museum, the public will be able to learn about Christianity and Christianity’s connection to Jerusalem. A deep familiarity with Christianity will be able to strengthen the relations between the Jewish public and the Christian world.”