Tag Archives: Calvary

Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with Sir John Mandeville

9 Aug

My current work is concerned with the ways in which late medieval travellers and writers ‘made’ the landscape of Jerusalem, a landscape which was subsequently accepted as historically ‘true’, and in some cases biblically accurate. Often, these medieval sites can be traced back to the Crusades, and many of them endure today.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, now in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City but once outside the city walls, presents the visitor was a wonderfully rich, sometimes chaotic, accretion of religious traditions and narratives. The Church is one of the few religious sites shared by eastern and western Christian traditions, and it is busy with visitors from all over the world: when I visited earlier today, the languages I heard most frequently were Russian, Italian, French, and Arabic.

I toured the Church using Sir John Mandeville’s fourteenth-century Book of Marvels and Travels. The author of this book almost certainly did not visit the Church, but some of his readers, such as William Wey in the fifteenth century, did, and would have likewise have had to rely on Mandeville to help them find their way around the Church, busy with altars, inscriptions in foreign languages, and sites of dubious authenticity.

Here are some quotations from Mandeville’s book, with photos I took of the sites as they are today. For those who haven’t visited the Church, you can have your own ‘virtual pilgrimage’ experience, just like medieval readers in Europe did…

“…when people go to Jerusalem, they make their first pilgrimage to the church of the Holy Sepulchre…in the middle of the church is a tabernacle like a little house, beautifully crafted in the manner of a semicircle and richly decorated with gold, azure, and other colours…”


“…to the right, inside that church, is Mount Calvary where Our Lord was placed on the Cross. And the Cross was set in the rock, which is white in colour with a little red mixed in; blood dropped onto that rock from the wounds of Our Lord when He was tortured on the Cross, and it is now called Golgotha.”


“And one goes up to this Golgotha by a staircase.”


“Also near Mount Calvary, to the right, is an altar where the pillar lies to which Our Lord was bound when He was scourged.”


“Also near to this altar, in a place forty-two steps down, was found the True Cross, as endorsed by St Helena, under a rock where the Jews had hidden it. And it was tested because they found three crosses, one of Our Lord and two of the two thieves; so St Helena tested them on a dead body, that revived as soon as the True Cross was laid upon it.”



“In the church of the Holy Sepulchre on the north side is a place where Our Lord was put in prison, though He was nevertheless imprisoned in many other places.”


“Outside the church doors, to the right, as one climbs thirty-eight stairs, Our Lord said to His mother thus: “Mulier ecce filius tuus, that is to say, ‘Woman, behold thy son’ [John 19:26]. And then He said thus: “Deinde dicit discipulo, ecce mater tua”‘ that is to say, ‘After that, he saith to the disciple, “Behold thy mother” [John 19:27]. These words He said also on the Cross. Our Lord went by these stairs when He carried the across upon his shoulders.”


“Underneath this staircase is a chapel where priests sing, not according to our rite but according to their own rite. They always perform the sacrament of the holy bread as well as the prayers with which the bread is consecrated by saying the Paternoster and little else, because they don’t know the additions that many popes have made; but they do sing with sincere devotion.”


Kalvariestenen, Stockholm

21 Jun

Whilst the medieval city of Stockholm was centred on the low-lying islands of Riddarholmen and Stadsholmen, the city is overlooked by an impressive hill, known as Pelarbacken (or Pelarberget), now part of the fashionable and bohemian Södermalm area.


Calvary Stone, Stockholms Medeltidsmuseet/Museum of Medieval Stockholm

On this hill, in 1511, three monumental limestone carvings were erected, one of which can be seen today (photograph below) in Stockholm’s Medeltidsmuseet, the Museum of Medieval Stockholm. These stones were a Calvary installation; a picture here shows the stone in situ in 1896 and a drawing here suggests the state of the stone c. 1870. The weathered surviving stone, pictured here, shows Christ on the cross, with figures at either side: apparently the grieving Virgin Mary to his right and, according to the museum, John the Baptist to his left (although elsewhere this figure is said to be Mary Magdalene). The stones were reached as the culmination of a procession from Stockholm’s Old Town, from the city to the hill, mirroring Christ’s route to Golgotha. The distance from the Old Town to the Calvary Stones was said to be identical to that of Christ’s route from Pilate’s House to Calvary, reflecting an interest in late medieval religion in the empiric, measurable details of Christ’s Passion (the number of footsteps, the length of his sepulchre etc.). This procession was given added resonance because of two particular features of the hill of Pelarbacken: first, from the fourteenth century, the hill had been the site of a Chapel of the Holy Cross, at which pilgrims would ask for protection on their travels, and second, the hill was also where the city’s gallows were located – literally, a place of the skull – so Stockholm’s physical geography came to be understood as similar to that of Jerusalem. Such an arrangement had recently been built in the city of Lubeck (1493). On a map of Stockholm from 1733 the hill is still called ‘Gollgata’ – Golgotha, the place of the skull.

The two other stones showed a pair of episodes from Christ’s Passion: one showed Jesus carrying the cross, the other showed him falling under the cross. These other stones were damaged in the seventeenth century, but the surviving stone was in place until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Stockholm installation is interesting to me in part because it shows how this kind of holy landscape was far from being a southern European phenomenon, as it is often said to be. However, it may be the case that the Calvary Stones were influenced by the Passion devotion emanating from southern Europe – in particular, that of pseudo-Bonaventure’s Mediatationes Vitae Christi which urged one to imagine oneself as being at the Passion, within the Passion; such texts also had a considerable influence on St Birgitta of Sweden (d. 1373). In her meditations and visions on the Passion (in particular chapter 15 of the seventh book of her Revelations), Birgitta, who visited Jerusalem, does not describe the sites of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and she certainly does not give a pilgrimage guide, but rather she is transported across time and space into the Passion of Christ. The Calvary Stones in Stockholm would have fulfilled a similar role, transporting medieval Swedes to a Jerusalem of the mind.

At the Whipping Post, Florida

23 May

I’ve been based in the USA since August 2012, at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, with not many medieval Calvary sites close by. I did, however, make the journey in May 2013 to Orlando, Florida, to the Holy Land Experience theme park, a large and apparently successful venture only a few miles from popular tourist destinations like Universal Studios, Walt Disney World, and Wet n Wild. I was interested in seeing what the Holy Land Experience had in common with the medieval sites I’m studying and how visitors interacted with the sites there. One scholar, Annabel Wharton of Duke University, has written some interesting material on the Holy Land Experience in her book Selling Jerusalem; in brief, she explores the park through a Marxist/Situationist lens, thinking about the relentless commercialisation and commodification of Jerusalem-as-spectacle, as spiritual capital is turned into financial capital. I was interested to see if my reactions to the park chimed with those of Wharton.


Whipping Post

This picture shows the Whipping Post, a replica of a non-site, ‘the place Pilate had Jesus scourged’: a place known from liturgy and iconography, rather than archaeology or history. It’s one of the first sites one encounters on entering the park, in a dazzling and rather bewildering jumble of religious times and narratives: the Whipping Post is situated on top of the Tiny Town of Bethlehem, a miniature model of Bethlehem, and just in front of a bold and rather dazzling replica of the Second Temple. The Whipping Post does not strive for authenticity – the ‘blood’ is so thickly applied that it appears that someone has dropped a pot of paint onto it. Most of the visitors to the site walked past it, apparently oblivious, but one little girl walked up to it, touched it, as if to check if the blood/paint was dry. She examined her fingers and walked away.

There are many things to be said about the Holy Land Experience, but here I’ll restrict myself to just a few of the things that struck me most about it.

The most noticeable thing about the park is its thoroughgoing and strident Christian Zionism. In the car park, the Bethlehem Bus Loop is surmounted by a giant Star of David. One enters through the ticket booth to be greeted by staff with a ‘Shalom’; staff wear name badges saying ‘Shalom my name is …’. In the entrance area the bracing sounds of Hava Nagila blast out on a loop. In the gift shop, one can buy a menorah, a kippah, a tallit. There is mock-Hebrew signage (pictured below). In the restaurant, ‘authentic Israeli food’ was on offer, though lamb kebabs don’t seem to me particularly authentically Israeli. This uninflected Zionism is messianic and eschatological in flavour, and uses Jewish narratives as a way of constructing a Christian story. It is telling that, nestling amongst the Judaica in the gift shop, one can buy the Life of Jesus. The politics of the project are revealed in the labelling of Bethlehem as being in Israel, when the town is, in fact, in the West Bank area, occupied by Israel in 1967.

The other thing that very much struck me was that very few of the visitors were wandering, gazing, exploring – that is, they were not acting like tourists. The Holy Land Experience is organised by itineraries and activities, recalling the directed, teleological itineraria that governed medieval pilgrims’ journeys. On entry to the park, one is handed a timetable of the day’s events: this includes ‘Holy Communion with Jesus’, in which one sits at a Last Supper-style table, with a little piece of matzo and a tiny communion cup made of Israeli olive wood, and takes communion under the instruction of an actor playing Jesus; ‘Sermon on the Mount’, a live drama on the He is Risen hillside, complete with a living hedge bearing the legend ‘He is Risen’; and emotive playlets based, loosely, on biblical narratives (I found myself gripped by the melodrama of the repentance of Hosea’s wife, the harlot Gomer, but the canned applause was bathetic).

I wouldn’t say that the park discourages reflection, but very few, if any, of the guests seemed to be entering it in a spirit of contemplation. It’s a very noisy place, with music emanating from hidden speakers all over the place. Instead, large groups went busily from place to place, tableau to tableau, mostly photographing as they did so. Yet there was a great deal of prayerfulness: the whole park was imbued with a meaningful religiosity for many of the guests, who prayed at various sites, not just in the giant church at the back of the park.

Perhaps most instructively for medievalists, the Holy Land Experience revels in its dizzying mixing of different times and places: it does not seek a seamless authenticity but revels in a medievalish ‘double-think’ (pace the scholarly work of Richard Krautheimer and Sabine McCormack) in which the original and the copy, the old and the new, co-exist quite happily, seamlessly, purposefully. This might be troubling to professional historians, concerned with chronology and authenticity, but it is decidely enabling in the transference of holy space. A case in point is the fibreglass fishing boat (pictures below, with the He is Risen hedge in the background): visitors are attracted to the forlorn boat by a placard asking ‘Was this the boat that Jesus used?’ The boat can be seen in the third picture, below, with a sign saying ‘Please, no passengers! (I’m an antique).’ It’s a copy of a boat found on the Sea of Galilee in 1986, which has almost no relationship to the historical Jesus (it is simply the kind of boat Jesus may have sailed in). The Holy Land Experience deals in emotive simulacra, copies without originals. These things mostly have only a slight resemblance to the physical Jerusalem; even the fruit in the Jerusalem street market (pictured below) is not real. Unique things can disappear, whereas copies, simulations, fakes and replicas certify each other through their mutual, but apparently valuable, inauthenticity.

Further photos are available here: https://rememberedplaces.wordpress.com/the-holy-land-florida-photographs/


Plastic fruit at the Jerusalem street market


Jesus boat with He is Risen hedge in background


Guest Services sign in ‘Hebrew’ script


Second Temple


Calvary in medieval Flanders: Bruges and Jerusalem

2 Apr

The Flemish city of Bruges, or Brugge, has long been connected with Jerusalem. In his book City and Cosmos (2009), Keith Lilley described what he called “the perambulatory geography” of the medieval city, in which a vial of the Holy Blood was processed around Bruges. As Lilley describes it, the processional route of the Holy Blood encompassed both the centre and periphery of the city, symbolically connecting the cityscape in an image of cosmological harmony. This procession was certainly established by the year 1291; the little relic of Christ’s blood was used to protect the city against disaster whilst the city’s male citizens recited psalms and relived Christ’s Passion, as Bruges’ streets were made parallel to those of Jerusalem, a northern Via Dolorosa.

Much later, in the 1480s, a new monumental Jerusalem was built in Bruges. It is called the Jeruzalemkerk and it is very much on the tourist itinerary of this beautiful city. The church was built by the Adorno family, merchants with roots in Genoa but settled in Flanders. In 1483, the body of Anselmo Adorno was moved here from Scotland, where he had died.


Jeruzalemkerk, exterior view


Effigy of Christ, Jeruzalemkerk 'crypt'

The church is on the edge of the city, to the east. It comprises a chapel with a polygonal tower rising from it; below there is a vaulted crypt with a miniature tomb of Christ. The church’s main altar is a large replica of Calvary, in white ‘rock’, showing the Arma Christi, that is the instrument of Christ’s Passion.

By the early 16th century, a fraternity of Jerusalem pilgrims had been established at the church. The Adorno family had visited Jerusalem, and the family Church of Bruges replayed and remade some of the most memorable things they’d seen there. Quite how the Jeruzalemkerk was used is unclear, but once again we see a highly aesthetic, material and remediated landscape of Jerusalem rebuilt in the West.


Calvary rock, ?1420s, Jeruzalemkerk, Brugges, showing the Arma Christi (Instruments of the Passion).

Anselmo Adorno wrote a remarkable itinerary of his Eastern travels, published in French in 1978, edited by Jacques Heers. I wonder how far Adorno’s Jerusalem in Bruges improved on the eastern ‘original’? Is this church in Bruges a souvenir or a replica?

In Gerard David’s early sixteenth-century Baptism of Christ, now in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, the church can be seen in the background, to represent the Jerusalem skyline, Christ’s baptism “brought home” to Bruges.

Red Mount, King’s Lynn: a Calvary in Norfolk?

20 Mar

The Norfolk town of King’s Lynn (formerly Bishop’s Lynn) is a lovely, atmospheric place to stroll around, with its rich medieval heritage – the town had a Hanseatic colony of Baltic traders, and the medieval wharves and lanes can still be seen. It was also the home of Margery Kempe, the fifteenth-century mystic and controversialist whose fascinating Book is one of the earliest examples of women’s literary culture in the English language.


The fifteenth-century Red Mount Chapel or ‘Chapel of Our Lady’, at King’s Lynn has often been overlooked or disregarded, but seems to me to be an aesthetic idea of Calvary. Building work started on it in 1482 and was finished by 1485, with the Chapel being dedicated to the Virgin. The building is octagonal, and as the pictures show, comprised over three levels: a spiral of rooms placed on top of each other. It is built on an artificial mound, just by the town’s wall, between two gates. It would have originally occupied a rural position, outside the town, and indeed it still stands in a green, tranquil space, in a park.

The Red Mount Chapel seems too to embody a Passion narrative: located on a mount outside the city walls (like Calvary), and polygonal (like the ‘round’ anastasis at Jerusalem), entered through the basement to a tomb, after which one ascended to a chapel of the Virgin. The polygonal form and the walled setting recall the two basic images of Jerusalem one sees in medieval depictions of Jerusalem. The location accords with the description of Calvary read out of the Gospels, a hill-cum-garden (John19:41) outside the city walls (Hebrews 13:12), ‘the whole valley of dead bodies and of ashes, and all the country of death, even to the torrent Cedron, and the corner of the horse gate towards the east’ (Jeremias 31:40).

And what about the various niches, window shapes, turrets and other forms on the building’s exterior? Any suggestions about what they once held would be very welcome. The top storey was added at a later date, in the early sixteenth century – what might this mean? The interior of the chapel is now inaccessible, but my feeling is that worshippers entered at the base of the building and made their way up, an ascent both spiritual and physical.

Jerusalem in Wiltshire: ‘like a fortified mansion’

12 Mar

The Calvary complex stood to the left of the building.

Niklaus Pevsner, in his Buildings of Britain volume on the county of Wiltshire, described the Priory Church at Edington as being ‘so freely embattled that it looks like a fortified mansion’. Pevsner’s choice of words was apt, because in fifteenth-century Edington a complex was built to resemble Jerusalem: the heavenly mansion, so frequently depicted in medieval art as a fortified city with a crenellated wall.

Edington Priory was built in the 1350s, possibly as a college for priests. It then became an Augustinian priory. The building as it stands today is much altered from its medieval form, but it’s still a fascinating site, which once embodied a vision of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre, built according to the designs of William Wey, a scholar, author and pilgrim. Wey visited the Holy Land in the 1460s and then, in his retirement in Wiltshire, set about building a mnemonic recreation of the sites he had seen. Wey had undertaken two pilgrimages to Palestine and one to Santiago in northern Spain.

William Wey’s chapel was ‘made to the liknes of the sepulkyr of owre Lorde at Jerusalem’. A detailed inventory of the chapel’s furnishing and decoration survives in a manuscript in Oxford (Bodleian Library MS Bodley 565): it shows that the installation had numerous hangings and painted-cloths, showing bible scenes (‘owre Lorde with a spade in his hande’, ‘the tempyl of Jerusalem’), relics (in particular, stones from the Holy Land), and furniture for the liturgy (candles, candlesticks, an osculatory, dishes and chalices). There was also a ‘mappa Mundy’ world map, velvet and silk vestments, and various books, including a copy of Wey’s own Itineraries. More theatrically, Wey had several topics depicted ‘in bordys’ – that is planks or panelling: lengths show- ing the measurements of Christ’s sepulchre, the height and width of its door, Christ’s footprint. In the Chapter House there were models of the Church of Bethlehem, the Mount of Olivet and the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Moreover, there was ‘the sepulker of oure Lorde with too howses’, apparently next to the ‘clokke howse’.

The ‘stage-set’ built at Edington shows the importance of ‘virtual pilgrimage’, of imaginary experience, of simulation, and of remaking in medieval Christianity. It now powerfully provides another kind of prompt to the imagination: in the drizzle of the Wiltshire countryside, we need to imagine the artefacts which once animated this quiet rural corner, as the edge of Europe was re-thought as the centre of the world.

The Calvary buildings probably stood in what is now the cemetery, outside the north wall of the Church. One entered this Jerusalem through this door, now bricked-up: Image

You’ll notice the little motif over the door, a delicate Trinity to mark the divinity of the place. This motif, and similar ones, feature throughout the church’s decoration and may have marked some kind of ‘route’, an imaginative pilgrimage, around the building.

An excellent article by Pnina Arad, published in February 2012, sheds a great deal of new light on Wey and his installation. Arad, focussing on the art-historical background of the Edington chapel, shows how Wey’s project was connected to English Easter sepulchres and also indebted to a map of the Holy Land in a medieval manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 389). See further Pnina Arad, ‘Pilgrimage, Cartography, and Devotion: William Wey’s Map of the Holy Land’, Viator 43:1 (2012), 301-22, with appendices of Wey’s inventory of the Calvary chapel’s fittings and the relevant maps.