Tag Archives: British Museum

Pistachio, olive and mother-of-pearl: a scale model of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, at the British Museum.

12 Apr

The 'front' of the Holy Sepulchre model

Visitors to the British Museum at the moment should allow themselves a few minutes to go into the small exhibition immediately on the right, in the first room (Room 3) as one enters the Museum from its main entrance on Great Russell Street: Sacred Souvenir: A Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which runs until May 7. The exhibition, of a single object, showcases a late example of the tradition being examined by the Remembered Places project: a scale miniature, made out of pistachio and olive woods, mother-of-pearl and bone, of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, produced in Bethlehem in the early seventeenth century. The exhibition is a natural counterpart to the excellent Hajj exhibition, about to come to a close, also at the Museum.ImageImage

The model shows the Church as it was in the seventeenth century, the kernel of which is the Crusader-era building that survives today. Those familiar with the Church today will be able to see the main doorways appear exactly as they do today. The model would have been made by craftsmen in Bethlehem, possibly as a pilgrimage souvenir; however, it’s also designed, as the following photos show for ‘virtual pilgrimage’. The model comes apart, into individual pieces, like the ‘loci’ – places or stations – of a remembered journey: one finds one’s way around the Church by literally reassembling it.


Such models made their way to England and Western Europe directly from the Holy Land, probably via Turkish merchants. This beautiful model was then probably not used as a souvenir of a place actually visited; but, rather, it offered its owner a chance to go to an ‘interior’ Jerusalem, a Holy Sepulchre of the mind and of the imagination. As Susan Stewart argues in her brilliant book On Longing, in which she looks at similar ‘miniature’ artefacts like dolls-houses, ‘the miniature does not attach itself to lived historical time’ (p. 65); just as in the tiny world of Lilliput, so too the miniature of the Holy Sepulchre is governed ‘by a clockwork set of laws and customs’ (p. 67).