The Treasures of the Holy Sepulcher Unveiled: An Interview with the Superior of St. Savior’s Monastery in Jerusalem

The following is an interview with Brother Stéphane Milovitch, OFM, superior of the Franciscan monastery of St. Savior in Jerusalem, about his role in caring for the patrimony of the Holy Sepulcher. He tells us about some the most striking pieces from the collection, and the exciting new Terra Sancta museum opening this fall in Jerusalem. Also published at Liturgical Arts Journal.

1) In addition to your responsibilities as Guardian of the Franciscan Community at St. Savior Monastery in Jerusalem, you are also the person in charge of the Cultural Heritage of the Custos of the Holy Land. What does that job entail?

I entered the Custody of the Holy Land in 1992 after studying mathematics in France. Ordained a priest in Jerusalem in the year of the Grand Jubilee of 2000, I was given the obedience of studying liturgy in Rome at the Benedictine Academy of Sant’Anselmo. The subject of my doctorate was a study of the daily procession that the Franciscans have performed for the last 700 years without interruption out of love for the Holy Sepulcher, re-enacting the Paschal Mystery of the passion, crucifixion, death, deposition, embalmment, placing in the tomb, the glorious resurrection, and apparition to Mary his Mother and to Mary Magdalene.

The Franciscans are celebrated the eighth centenary of their uninterrupted presence in the East. The only Catholic religious in the Holy Land for many centuries, we have peaceful recovered, one after another, the various sanctuaries of the Redemption that in the 12th century the Church seemed to have lost forever. These sanctuaries are places to which pilgrims from the whole world come to prayer and celebrate they are also places where the Franciscans celebrate the Latin liturgy every day in the name of the Catholic Church.

Franciscan friars pray during the Lenten procession inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)
Franciscans perform a Lenten procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Source)

In the sanctuaries of the Holy Land pilgrims celebrate every day the Mass “of the place” and not the place “of the day,” for actually it is always the Annunciation at the Grotto in Nazareth, Christmas in the Grotto in Bethlehem, Good Friday on Calvary, and Easter at the Holy Sepulcher, etc.

When the Mass of the day and the Mass of the place coincide, i.e. when we celebrate a feast of the calendar on the very Gospel place that is the origin of that feast, we have a statio: a liturgy celebrated solemnly throughout the whole day (Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist) by the Custody by the Franciscans of the convent of St. Savior in Jerusalem.

In the West, everyone (sovereigns and faithful) grasped the spiritual importance of these stational liturgies. Throughout the centuries, the friars have received gifts of great artistic quality with the intention that, during these celebrations, these gifts would represent the donors who were not able participate in these liturgies in person. Over the centuries, we have found ourselves with a very rich liturgical, artistic and cultural  patrimony coming to us from the entire world, which we would now like to present to all those who appreciate the human artistic genius fostered by faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the quality of these objects testifies to the faith of their artisans and donors.

Until a decade ago, the rich liturgical and historical patrimony of the Custody was jealously preserved by our sacristans who would employ it intelligently in liturgical celebrations. They have also transmitted it to successive generations of Franciscans.Today, following the great exposition Treasure of the Holy Sepulcher that took place in 2013 at the Palace of Versailles, the Custody has become more aware of the exceptionality of its patrimony and decided to create—in addition to its numerous liturgical, social, educational, and welcoming activities—a department of Cultural Heritage that will continue to educate, study, and safeguard its patrimony.

2) The Franciscans are opening a new museum called Terra Sancta Museum. What is the motivation for the project? 

Jerusalem is a city where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live together. Jews and Muslims already have their own museums that manifest their presence in the Holy City. But Jerusalem is also a holy city for Christians. However, native Christians are not very numerous, barely 1% of the total population. Nevertheless, many millions of pilgrims come each year, showing thereby that Jerusalem is the city of the Resurrection of Our Savior, to which Christians from all over the world are attached. The creation of the Terra Sancta Museum will render a debt of justice to Jerusalem. The ensemble of these museums and cultural sites will show that Jerusalem is a universal city for all people, and thus also for Christians.

The Terra Sancta Museum will be composed of two sections, now in the construction phase: the archeological section and the historical section.

  1. An archeological pilgrimage through the Holy Place, the archeological section will help visitors understand, by means of extraordinary pieces—frescos, ceramics, Byzantine mosaics, coins, capitals, vases found in tombs from the bronze age, sarcophagi, jewelry, lamps, ossuaries, etc.–the succession of different historical periods. It will also include collections originating in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This section will support the legitimacy of the sanctuaries venerated for centuries by the Franciscans and so many pilgrims. This archeological section is also provided with a multimedia room that presents the Way of the Cross (biblically, historically, and spiritually) and serves as an introduction to the pilgrims before they take the Via Dolorosa. This section covers the first Christian millenium.
  1. The historical section will gather together documents and images from the archives, from rare collections of painting and sculpture, but especially all the sumptuous presents that flowed here from the royal courts of Europe throughout history. Jerusalem drew the attention of all the Christian powers, anxious to leave a sign of there presence there. Chalices, candelabras, ciboria, works in solid gold, processional crosses, and rich liturgical ornaments…the works of art exhibited in this section will certainly attract the admiration of the public. This second section covers the second Christian millenium.

 

3) What sort of objects will be on display, is there a “theme”?

On the day of Pentecost, the Church was born in Jerusalem: this was the universal Church of Jesus Christ, but also the local Church of Jerusalem. Since its beginnings and up to the present day, Jerusalem has kept its dimensions as a church both local and universal. The historical section of the museum is divided into two parts that put these two aspects of the Church on display.

Introduction: the first room presents up front the central theme—the Resurrection of Our Lord—by means of a Neapolitan bas-relief in silver from the early 18th century. It is because Christ’s resurrection happened in Jerusalem that Christians come here on pilgrimage. The next room will serve as a transition to the presentation of the second millenium. It will illustrate the birth of the Church with its different rites—the various eastern Churches will also present icons from their patrimony—until the arrival of St. Francis in the Holy Land.

First Part: the arrival of the Franciscans, the recovering of the sanctuaries and the rebirth of the local Church that disappeared after the Crusades, the return of pilgrimage, the return of the local Arab Christian community and a presentation of its patrimony.

Second Part: western pilgrims (universal Church) and their presence in Jerusalem. A Spanish room, the pharmacy where the Franciscans treated Jews, Christians, and Muslims; a Portuguese room, a French room, an educational room to present the Latin liturgy to Christians who do not know it well and to non-Christians who do not know it at all; an imperial room; a room of the Italian peninsula (Genoa, Venice, Naples, Sicily, Lombardy, Papal States…).

Conclusion: today.

Franciscan friars dressed in liturgical ornaments offered by the French king Louis XV prepare to celebrate a mass at the Church of the Saint Saviour Convent, the headquarters of the Franciscans in the Holy Land, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 23, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)
Franciscan friars dressed in liturgical ornaments offered by the French king Louis XV prepare to celebrate a mass at the Church of the Saint Savior Convent (Source)

4) Some people might think it is strange that the Franciscans possess such a rich treasury. Is there a contradiction between serving the poor and having beautiful liturgical objects? Shouldn’t the Franciscans sell some of these objects and give the money to the poor, who are very needy, particularly in the Holy Land?

The Franciscans have no treasury. It is the treasury of the Holy Sepulcher, the patrimony that belongs to the Holy Sepulcher. The donors have not given anything to us; they have offered gifts to the sanctuary. In our capacity as guardians of the Holy Places we have the duty to preserve the patrimony that has been deposited with us. There have been difficult times in our history, times of crisis, economic crisis. Unlike the treasuries of the medieval cathedrals, the treasury of the Holy Sepulcher has never been exchanged for money because we are convinced that it does not belong to us.

The apostolic works of the Franciscans in the Holy Land are the fruit of the generosity of Christians around the world. Already in the time of the Acts of the Apostles, the Church of Jerusalem owed its substance to the generosity of others (Acts 24:17; 2 Cor. 8:9).

The offerings collected around the world for the Holy Land—in particular the Good Friday collection—are not earmarked for the museum or for the restoration of any artifacts but exclusively for the building up of the living Stones who are the local Christians who live around the sanctuaries (salaries, schooling, scholarships, construction of houses for struggling families…) and for the preservation of the sanctuaries.

This is the reason why we humbly ask those who interested in art, liturgy, and culture to help us economically in our worthwhile enterprise.

5) About the liturgical objects in particular: What is the importance of beauty and quality in the liturgy in general, and for the Franciscans of the Holy Land in particular? Did St. Francis have anything to say about this?

St. Francis always invited his friars to be Catholics, which meant inviting his friars “to celebrate the Divine Office according to the use of the holy Roman Church” (Rule of St. Francis, III, 1). For this reason, the friars have contributed to the diffusion of the missal of the Roman Curia. In many of his writings St. Francis strongly urges his friars to give special attention to the liturgy, to liturgical books, sacred vessels and vestments that all the friars must consider “very precious” (Letter of Francis to the Ministers of the Order, 3). In humility, we have tried to obey the order of our Holy Founder.

Here is a letter of St. Francis written to the clergy:

  1. Let us attend, all clerics, to the great sin and ignorance, which certain men have concerning the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the most holy Names and His written words, which sanctify the Body.
  2. We know, since there cannot be a Body, unless first it is sanctified by the word. For we have and see nothing corporally of the Most High Himself, in this age, except the Body and Blood, Names and words, through which we have been made and redeemed from death and life (1 Jn 3:14). However, all those who minister such holy mysteries, should consider within themselves, most of all those who minister illicitly, how vile are the chalices, corporals, and altar linens, where the His very Body and Blood are sacrificed. And by many in vile places He is placed and abandoned, borne about in a wretched manner and consumed unworthily and ministered to others indiscreetly. Even His Names and written words are sometimes trodden under foot; since the bestial man does not perceive the things that are of God (1 Cor 2:14). Is not our piety stirred concerning all these things, when the pious Lord Himself offers Himself into our hands and we handle Him and consume Him each day with our mouth? Or are we ignorant that we must one day fall into His Hand? Therefore, let us correct quickly all these things and the others; and wherever the Most Holy Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ has been illicitly placed and abandoned, let Him be removed from that place and let them be placed in an honorable place. [All these things all the clerics are bound to observe above everything even to the end of the universe. And those who will not have done this, let them know that they must render an account before the Lord on the day of judgement (cf. Mt 12:36). This has been written so that it may better be observed; let them know themselves to be blessed by the Lord God, who would have it copied.]

A Letter to the Clergy

  1. Let us attend, all clerics, to the great sin and ignorance, which certain men have concerning the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the most holy Names and His written words, which sanctify the Body.
  2. We know, since there cannot be a Body, unless first it is sanctified by the word. For we have and see nothing corporally of the Most High Himself, in this age, except the Body and Blood, Names and words, through which we have been made and redeemed from death and life (1 Jn 3:14). However, all those who minister such holy mysteries, should consider within themselves, most of all those who minister illicitly, how vile are the chalices, corporals, and altar linens, where the His very Body and Blood are sacrificed. And by many in vile places He is placed and abandoned, borne about in a wretched manner and consumed unworthily and ministered to others indiscreetly. Even His Names and written words are sometimes trodden under foot; since the bestial man does not perceive the things that are of God (1 Cor 2:14). Is not our piety stirred concerning all these things, when the pious Lord Himself offers Himself into our hands and we handle Him and consume Him each day with our mouth? Or are we ignorant that we must (one day) fall into His Hand? Therefore, let us correct quickly all these things and the others; and wherever the Most Holy Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ has been illicitly placed and abandoned, let Him be removed from that place and let them be placed in an honorable place. [All these things all the clerics are bound to observe above everything even to the end of the universe. And those who will not have done this, let them know that they must render an account before the Lord on the day of judgement (cf. Mt 12:36). This has been written so that it may better be observed; let them know themselves to be blessed by the Lord God, who would have it copied.]

6) What is the most beautiful piece in the collection? [Attach a photo]

It is difficult to say which one is the most beautiful piece: de gustibus non disputandum…That said, one must admit that the Neapolitan throne given by King Charles de Bourbon and Maria Amalia of Saxony is very beautiful. It is composed of a throne that seats either a superb cross in lapis-lazuli or an extraordinary monstrance.

The throne consists of a niche surrounded by rocailles, with a marbling done in sapphires that accompany, at the summit, grape vines adorned with grapes made of rubies. The whole is surmounted by a closed royal crown terminating in a starry globe supporting a shining cross at the summit. Many other precious and semi-precious stones, such as emeralds and garnets, enrich this composition.

7) The most historically interesting piece? [Attach a photo]

During construction work at the end of the 19th century, the friars discovered in 1906 the 250 pipes of an organ from the time of the Crusades. Of course, this organ does not play any longer, because only the pipes remain, but it is the oldest known organ in the world. Along with the organ was found a carillon of 13 bells from the same period. It is thought that the organ and bells were buried in the 1=4th century by the Franciscans who wanted to protect them from destruction by the Muslims at that time. The ensemble of these instruments is obviously important for the history of music.

8) Are any of them still used regularly in liturgical celebrations?

On of the characteristics of the Terra Sancta Museum is that the works on display will not be imprisoned behind hermetic glass but will continue to be used to give glory to our Lord. We have no desire to build a museum of the past. Our intention is to continue to celebrate the liturgy using this age-old patrimony.

For example, each year, on Good Friday, during a liturgy that is unique to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, we celebrate the Funeral of Christ by visiting the different sites of the Passion, reading the relevant Gospel text at each stop.

The Custos and four deacons wear the cope and dalmatics donated by Queen Isabella II of Spain. The nails, the crown of thorns and the instruments of the Passion are placed upon four silver-gilt plates offered by the Spanish King Charles II. On the other hand, it is the Holy Roman Empire and Poland who gave the “pokal,” 16th century vases containing the ointments that are used for the Embalmment of Christ in the Stone of Unction.

 

9) There are many cathedrals in Europe that possess ancient vestments and exquisite liturgical objects, but often they do not use them. The Franciscans do. Why?

When these objects came to us, they were not locked in the glass cases of museums, or strong boxes in the cupboards of the sacristy. We consider them in no way primarily as works of art but as liturgical objects.

I see two ways of preserving an artifact. The first is to place it in a secure location, hidden and untouchable. The second is to use it. An object that is alive is not forgotten. Because we need it, we look for it, we find it, eventually we restore it, and in this way it is preserved. I think this second  way of preservation is not understood by “civilian” museums. So our museum will be something very different.

10) The Franciscans celebrate the Latin rite in the Holy Sepulcher largely in the Latin language, side by side with the Greeks, Armenians, Copts, and Syrians. Do you think there is an ecumenical importance to the Franciscans’ Cultural Patrimony and to their liturgical ethos?

Pilgrims coming to the Holy Sepulcher are often unpleasantly surprised by the situation they find there. The multiplicity of communities inside the same church appears to be a symbol of division. As one who lives there, I can say that ecumenical relations in the Holy Sepulcher are some of the best in the world.

In Jewish theology, Jerusalem is the center of the world. It is the same for Christian theology. A map of the 16th century presents the world in the form of a pearl. Jerusalem is at its heart, and the three petals represent Europe, Asia, and Africa. Christ’s Church was born in Jerusalem, but following the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christians were afraid and fled from the Holy City and in this way the world received the Gospel. Many different cultures with no relation with one another accepted the Gospel, and so different churches and rites were born.

1581-Bunting-clover-leaf-map-small.jpg

In a sort of centrifugal motion, the Church left Jerusalem and went out into the world. Subsequently, in a centripetal motion, pilgrims and different communities the whole world over returned to Jerusalem. To go back to the idea of the world map, at the Holy Sepulcher there are two African communities (Copts and Ethiopians), two Asian (Armenians and Syrians), and two European (Byzantine and Latin). The world and the entire Church of Christ (though, it is true, without ecclesial communion) is assembled around the Tomb of the only Resurrected One. Each of these Churches prays according to its tradition and culture. The Greeks pray in Greek, the Armenians in Armenian, and the Latins in Latin…Each Church deploys the riches of its liturgical and musical patrimony. Therefore, it is perfectly natural that the Franciscans prayer the Liturgy of the Hours, the conventual Mass, and the daily process entirely in Latin. Nevertheless, the numerous pilgrims who come to celebrate in the various chapels that belong to us (there are about 20 Masses per day) celebrate in general in their language and in the multiplicity of rites known in the Catholic Church.

11) How can people contribute to the Museum project or donate to the Franciscans in the Holy Land?

We need every kind of help possible. The first way is to support us in prayer and to spread news about our project. We are also grateful to anyone who contributes economically to the realization of this great work. For more instructions, you may consult the site ATS pro Terra Sancta http://www.terrasanctamuseum.org/en/  where you will find a presentation of the project, as well as http://www.terrasanctamuseum.org/en/donate-now/  to make a donation online.  

Above all, all are invited to come to the Holy Land: a liturgical pilgrimage to the Land of Jesus allows you to gather the benefits of the whole liturgical year in just a few days.

 

Members of the scientific committee of the Terra Sancta Museum. Historical Section

Beatrix Saule, President of the scientific committee, Honorary Head Curator at the Château de Versailles.

Brother Eugenio Alliata ofm, Director of the Archaeological Museum of Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.

Michèle Bimbenet-Privat, General Curator of the Department of Decorative Arts of the Louvre Museum.

Jacques Charles-Gaffiot, Art historian.

Benoit Constensoux, Art historian, Galerie Kugel.

Andreina Contessa, Art historian, General Director of the Historical Museum of Miramare Castle in Trieste.

José Manuel Cruz Valdovinos, Professor of Art History, Complutense University of Madrid.

Thomas Gaehtgens, Art historian, Director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Gael De Guichen, Adviser to the Director-General of ICCROM.

Barbara Jatta, Art historian, Director of the Vatican Museums.

Brother Stéphane Milovitch ofm, Director of Cultural Heritage of the Custody of the Holy Land, Liturgist.

Przemysław Mrozowski, Honorary Director of the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

Maria Pia Pettinau Vescina, Art historian, Specialist in ancient fabrics.

Paulus Rainer, Conservator of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, previously Director of the Kunstkammer.

Danièle Veron-Denise, Honorary Chief Heritage Curator, Specialist in liturgical and profane embroidery.

Raphaëlle Ziade, Head of the Byzantine Department at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.

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