Monday, March 27, 2023
Tom Tracy - Florida Catholic
Second of three parts
- Read the introductory article here: What's new in the Holy Land for 2023
- Read part 1 here: Holy Land Christians welcome tourism rebound in Israel
JERUSALEM | The priest-director of the Cultural Heritage Office for the Custodia Terrae Sanctae in Jerusalem opened a drawer of vestments and casually dropped a historical tidbit about a clerical chasuble he was showing a group of foreign guests.
The chasuble was part of a collection of vestments that the bishop of Paris wore for the marriage of Napoleon II with the Empress Eugenie, which the empress later donated to the Church in the Holy Land.
The gift was part of an imperial tradition, it turns out, that accounts for no small number of European religious art, objects and other treasures collected and preserved in the Holy Land, even as similar treasures back home were lost, looted and destroyed over the course of European history.
Many of these objects were cared for by the Franciscans in the Holy Land, including a collection of 13 church bells dating back to the Middle Ages that were discovered hidden in Bethlehem and have traveled to some of the great museums of the world.
But now they will have a permanent home in Jerusalem, as the Custody of the Holy Land moves forward with creating a new Historical Section of its popular Terra Sancta Museum, which opened to the public in 2017 and is situated at the Church of the Flagellation, the first station on the Way of the Cross. Until now, that section has been limited to archeological artifacts from the first millennium.
The new section of the museum will serve as a point of dialogue and exchange with the local Arab, Jewish and Christian communities — as well as pilgrims and visitors of all faiths and backgrounds who come to Jerusalem to explore its history and cultures.
The Holy City has its Jewish Museum and a Museum for Jewish Art, but as Father Stéphane Milovitch, director of the Cultural Heritage Office for the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, likes to say of the need for a Christian-sponsored historical museum in the Holy Land: “If you aren’t present, you don’t exist.”
“We want to make a Christian museum here in Jerusalem so there is something Christian to occupy the space of culture even if you are only one-and-a-half percent of the population,” Father Milovitch said. “The Church is still here and has 2,000 years of presence here; it can be a bridge with the different communities.”
The Franciscan Friars arrived in the Holy Land in the 13th century and have had an uninterrupted presence here for the subsequent eight centuries. During that time, they have occupied a unique footing as caretakers of the holy places, a source of spiritual care to pilgrims from abroad, and of service to the local Christian communities of the region, including Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Today, the Custody cares for some 50 Christian shrines and parishes. Until 1850, it was the only Catholic religious order serving the Holy Land. That meant the Franciscans were in a unique position to serve as a voice for the Church with the various Islamic and other dynasties — some of which had hostile relations with Catholicism following the Crusader era.
Over the centuries, European monarchs sent gifts and religious treasures for use in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which have been preserved here. But the Custody also preserved centuries of its own archives, containing singular records of communications with the local dynasties as well as baptismal and marriage documents of the local Christian community.
One well-preserved collection is that of some 450 earthenware pharmaceutical pots from the 17th and 18th centuries, underscoring the role played by the Friars as medical doctors and pharmacies: The first friar-doctor sent to the Holy Land by Pope Pius II in 1460 was Brother Baptist of Lubeck. The medically trained friars cared for visiting pilgrims as well as local residents.
“We had the biggest pharmacy in the Middle East,” Father Milovitch said with pride. “Even today the Christian hospital, St. Joseph, receives patients from many cultures. Many ladies go to give birth at St. Joseph Hospital but also many Muslims from the West Bank come to be cured. We try to make bridges with the community.”
“We would like to display the pharmacy and how it used to be before,” the priest added. “Through some works of art, we can show the Church took care of the body and health of everybody, and not just since the Second Vatican Council but even before.”
The new Historical Section of the Terra Sancta Museum will be installed in the heart of the Franciscan headquarters at St. Saviour’s Monastery. It will be divided into two parts: the history and mission of the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Treasure of the Holy Sepulchre.
Rare collections of paintings, sculptures, archival documents, gifts from European courts — even a 13th century gilded copper crosier of the bishop of Bethlehem — will allow pilgrims to deepen their knowledge of the sanctuaries and discover the beauty of the liturgy in the Holy Land, according to the museum’s organizers.
There is also a research element to the project with international partners anxious to assist and learn from the collection.
Here too in the Holy Land a discovery was made in 1906 of a French-made pipe organ believed to be the oldest such pipe organ in Christianity, which remains fully in its original form. That organ is expected to be part of the new museum collection along with a facsimile made by researchers to better understand the nature of liturgical music from the Middle Ages, according to Father Milovitch.
Likewise, researchers from France are keen to explore the local icons produced in Jerusalem over the centuries and to understand how the Jerusalem school of iconography compares with other iconography styles.
The museum also will include an extensive collection of locally produced mother-of-pearl religious objects along with Palestinian jewelry. Mother-of-pearl craftsmanship was introduced by the Franciscans in the 16th century to enable Christian families in Bethlehem to support themselves. That art is now part of Palestinian cultural heritage.
“The patrimony we have interests not only Christians but also humanity (in general) because everybody likes music and everybody likes art,” Father Milovitch said.
“When you have Caravaggio or Monalisa, even if it is Christian, it belongs to the patrimony of the West, it is important to create a bridge with the different cultures,” the priest added.
The Franciscan collection also includes a one-of-a-kind set of written communications with the Mamluk Sultanate dynasty from Egypt, which held sway in the Holy Land but for which little documentation survived.
“We have many thousands of documents we kept over the years because our archives were never invaded,” Father Milovitch said.
Editor’s note: Tom Tracy was part of a small delegation of journalists who spent Jan. 23-31, 2023, touring Israel’s Christian and Jewish holy places along with other points of historic interest. The journalists were guests of the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which extended the invitation through the Catholic Media Association of the U.S. and Canada.