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Brass Rubbings

Necessary Symbols

On the churches of the Holy Land.


The benefits of a religious pilgrimage should be—must be—spiritual. Whether we call it revival or conversion or repentance, the change should be from the heart. Hilaire Belloc wrote of a spirit well prepared for pilgrimage, of getting into “the frame of mind that carries . . . humor, gladness at the beauty of the world, a readiness for raising the heart at the vastness of a wide view, and especially a readiness to give multitudinous praise to God.”

That is not to say that one must be single-minded as a pilgrim, though the condition is to be devoutly hoped for in our distracted age. I just completed a Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land accompanied by good and lovely pilgrims and led by two holy, enthusiastic priests. This was my first pilgrimage but not my first time in the East, where I had decades of experience scrambling up rocks, ruins, walls, and holy places, from Constantinople to Cairo. And while my heart was warmed and my faith quickened, my inconstant eye did wander, taking up the details of the land and the physical environment of what is called the Fifth Gospel, the land where the Lord Jesus walked.

While local Christians may be leaving the Holy Land, hemmed in by pressure from both Palestinians and Israelis, the churches remain. They are a mixed bunch. Some ancient ones have survived. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem mostly retains its ancient form. The much-battered Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the navel of the world, is mostly an amalgamation of eleventh- and twelfth-century Crusader/Byzantine work built after the Fatimid “mad caliph” Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah destroyed the previous structure in October 1009. That church, crowded by tour groups, gawkers, and takers of selfies, is best visited repeatedly, with reverence, and especially early in the morning or in the evening for vespers.

Architecturally, the best of all is probably the soaring and spare Church of Saint Anne, built in the early twelfth century by the half-Armenian Crusader Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, a great builder and patroness of the arts. Saladin did not destroy the church after his conquest of the city only fifty years later, but instead turned it into an Islamic school, preserving it for posterity. In the nineteenth century, France regained it for the Latin Church from the Turks as a reward for its participation in the Crimean War on the side of the Ottomans. It is a beautiful Crusader survivor in a much-demolished cityscape, beloved by visiting church groups because of its superb acoustics.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the Fascist architect and lay Franciscan Antonio Barluzzi did great work in Mandate Palestine, at the Garden of Gethsemane and with the Church of All Nations next door. Another Barluzzi beauty is the Catholic Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

With the coming of Vatican II, we seem to enter the age of ugly “Latin” (Roman Catholic) churches in the Holy Land, spaces stripped down to emptiness—“noble simplicity” they call it—in order to symbolize what was supposed to be the dawn of a new and fruitful encounter between the Church and the world. The massive Basilica of the Annunciation, completed in 1969, is a triumph of brutalist concrete with a smokestack of a cupola supposedly representing a lily. A smaller church from 1730 was demolished in 1954 to make way for this behemoth. Barluzzi, by then an old man, tried to get the contract for building this church but was turned down as too old-fashioned.

Does this concrete vacuum at Nazareth draw people towards the infinite or does this exercise in abstraction only confirm in modern man the sense that the world and universe are empty and meaningless, barren of anything beyond the physical? The mosaics and modernist art that try to liven the gray concrete superstructure in the upper church only make it seem more dated. One carved phrase alone, too subtle for the distracted, at the altar of the Grotto of the Annunciation in the lower church perhaps redeems this site—verbum caro hic factum est—here, the Word was made flesh.

The Pilgrimage Church of Saint Peter at Capernaum, finished in 1990, looks like a flying saucer set to land and crush the ruins of the home of Simon Peter below. The nearby Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, completed by German architects in 1984, is another bare, minimalist structure.

Two surprising modern churches, not Catholic ones, were new to me and delighted me most. They are modern in that they were recent constructions on very ancient foundations and decorated only in the past few decades, but their style is eternal rather than contemporary.

The first, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Apostles at Capernaum, was only redecorated about thirty years ago. Although a church had been there since the time of Saint Helena (both she and her son Constantine the Great are still depicted in the church as imperial Roman autocrats), the current structure was built in 1931. The church was damaged in the 1948 war and made off limits for decades. It was used as a cowshed by the local Druze. Restored in 1978 and painted later, it now dazzles with color.

Filled with icons and filigreed chandeliers adorned with gilt double-headed Byzantine eagles, the walls commemorate the apostles who came from Capernaum and, of course, the healing of the paralytic who was lowered into the house through the roof because the house where Jesus stayed was so crowded. In the cupolas, Christ is portrayed as both Pantocrator, the All-Ruler, and the white-haired Ancient of Days. But most striking of all is the wall-size portrayal of the Last Judgement. Above are Christ and rows of His saints, the Theotokos bowing on His right hand. Below, the panorama of judgement unfolds, divided by a mighty river of blood-red fire. At the bottom is judgement, with the angels and devils weighing the deeds of the dead, the damned taken off in chains to Hell. The lands of the damned are depicted with dragons and other beasts. This is modern work but done strictly according to well-established standards of Orthodox church painting.

In Palestinian-ruled Jericho the walls of still another modern Greek Orthodox church shine with storytelling. The Church of the Prophet Elisha is one of three traditional sites in the ancient town claiming to have the sycamore tree which Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed up in order to get a view of the passing Jesus.

As in Capernaum, this is an ancient site freshly painted in the past few decades. If I am not mistaken, some of the paintings here are only a few years old (some are dated 2023). The most striking color inside the pristine church is a background of blue. Zacchaeus the Publican is portrayed as a bishop, following an Orthodox tradition that says that Peter chose him to be the first bishop of Caesarea Maritima. In the main cupola, still another vivid Pantocrator gazes down, surrounded first by a border featuring angels and the Dormition of the Virgin. The next border down is that of the saints. A nearby icon of Christ is festooned with the prayer ropes, rosaries, and watches of the faithful in thanks to answered prayer or the performance of a vow. All is as it should be. The heavens and the world are alive with the wondrous things of God.

Neither of these churches, among so many others commemorating such great events in the Holy Land, is particularly special in terms of history or art, and yet they are still robed with the lavish splendor of faith in paint and gold. Neither is frequently visited, especially by Western Christians. That they were unexpectedly splendid, ordinary and new, and yet beautiful was no doubt part of their charm.

And yet I wondered if these painted churches, which follow rigid, some might say stilted, rules of decoration dating back centuries, have something more to teach us today. Belloc once said of the churches of his day that they were full of “symbols, but necessary symbols of the great business you are at.” Ours is a distracted age, saturated by color and sensation. Our attention span constantly erodes. Certainly, God can reach hearts in any venue, through any path, including in the meanest, noisiest and unlikeliest of places, not just churches but prisons, alleyways, and the darkest corners of our despair and lostness. He can do so even in schlocky Sixties- and Seventies-era structures and plain churches that look like factory buildings or flying saucers.

Some have justified the great art seen in the mighty Western cathedrals of the Middle Ages—as if beauty and faith needed any justification—because that was the way the Church communicated biblical truths to our illiterate and uncouth ancestors. But we are rapidly becoming far more illiterate and ignorant today of even simple Bible stories that those supposedly benighted past generations understood. Sometimes it really helps to see a blood-red river of fire.

That the Orthodox portray Christ as a stern, compassionate, and all-powerful judge, that we are reminded of judgement and of the end of all things is a lesson that too many in the modern church in the West often seek to avoid or water down. There are some splendid Pantocrators in Catholic churches in the West, in Sicily, but they are also Byzantine imports.

As we sang the Troparion of Pentecost in English, Greek, and Arabic in these little painted churches, I was vividly reminded that safety lies not in conforming with bated breath to the latest fashion, whether theological, architectural, or pictorial, but in trying to truly see clearly with the mind’s eye the Eternal around us while living in a world of sensation and constant distraction.

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