By Lucy O’Connor
During Late Antiquity, large numbers of Christians travelled vast distances from the west and undertook perilous journeys over land and sea to reach the land of the Bible. These pilgrims longed to visit the places described in the Old and New Testaments: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Bethany, Galilee, the River Jordan, to name just a few. The ancient city of Jerusalem was deemed the holiest of all; it was the place where the final events in Christ’s life took place. Pilgrims longed to worship at the site of the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the place of Christ’s Crucifixion on Golgotha, His Tomb close by, and the site of His Ascension on the Mount of Olives. Lavishly decorated shrines and churches were built at many of these holy places (loca sancta). Some of them such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Fig 1), housing the site of the Crucifixion and the Tomb, accommodated large congregations during special feast days.
Pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land for various reasons: some went to be baptised in the same waters that Christ had been baptised in the River Jordan, some sought healing from sickness, some went to reaffirm their faith in God, whilst others purely wished to worship the ground upon which Christ had walked. Above all these reasons, they went to see and touch. These pilgrims strongly believed that the spiritual power of a holy site, a holy person or a treasured relic was transferrable through touch. Earthly materials were thus consecrated through physical contact with sacred matter.
From the fourth century, contemporary written sources reveal that pilgrims began to collect natural objects from loca sancta that they believed were infused with the holy. These souvenirs or eulogia included pieces of wood, stone, bread, fruit and even fish. By the sixth century, holy oil, water and earth were the more standard souvenirs collected. A new form of art and craft was developed in the Holy Land during this time to contain and transport these sanctified substances. The array of material culture related to Late Antique pilgrimage in existence and the widespread location of their find spots suggests that manufactured eulogia once existed in large numbers and were popular items to collect amongst the pilgrims from this early period.
One popular form of pilgrimage object was tokens, tiny roundels (almost coin-like) that were constructed from holy earth or clay and stamped with images of holy figures and scenes from the life of Christ. Another type of eulogia was flasks or ampullae containing blessed liquids taken from the oil lamps that burned at the holy places or that had passed over the bodies of saints. These were made from a variety of materials such as glass, clay and tin-lead pewter. Like the tokens, they too were decorated with images of saints or scenes from Bible.
My research interests lie in the art of Late Antique pilgrimage and the purpose of my application to the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Travel Grant was to research and document the eulogia held in the museum institutions and church collections of Jerusalem, including the Israel Museum, where many pilgrimage artefacts are held (Fig 2).
This was actually my third trip to Jerusalem. Although very little of the original church from the fourth century survives, my favourite place to visit in Jerusalem is the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Whenever passing (and if I could spare the time), I always tried to pop in. There were always new sections to discover and the light through the church changed dramatically throughout the day (Fig 3).
The church was usually always full of pilgrims and huge groups of tourists, which made getting close to the holy sites quite problematic! 6am mass in the tomb helped to avoid the queues! (Fig 3) I also enjoyed coming across groups of pilgrims singing hymns whilst retracing Christ’s final footsteps along the Via Dolorosa.
The souvenir shops that line Christian Quarter Street are filled with candles, rosaries, icons, models of the Holy Sepulchre, and interestingly many share similarities to those from Late Antiquity. There were bottles of various sizes of holy water from the River Jordan, holy oil taken from the lamps at the Sepulchre and small terracotta oil lamps that had been decorated to mimic those from the fourth century. I bought a number of miniature sets of holy oil, water and earth that had been placed in tiny phials. They each came with a card to certify their authenticity, though as many of the bottles could be opened, I didn’t quite trust their “holy” nature…!