Tag Archives: golgotha

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.