Copying the Aedicule of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem: Architecture as a spiritual vector

Published: October 19 Thu, 2017

Copying the Aedicule of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem: Architecture as a spiritual vector Available in the following languages:

INTERVIEW – On the occasion of a conference presented at Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem by Charles-Edouard Guilbert-Roed, PhD in the History of Architecture, the history of the evolution of the Aedicule of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem was highlighted from research on copies of this small edifice. The copies constitute an exceptional heritage that makes it possible to study the reception of the Holy Sepulcher outside of the Holy Land since the Byzantine period.

Why did you decide to research copies of the Tomb of Jesus?

When I was little, I discovered a copy of the Aedicule of the Holy Sepulcher at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Oak in Vion, Sarthe, because it was in this region that I spent part of my childhood. But it was only years later that I discovered the richness of such a place. As a student at the Sorbonne in History of Art and Architecture, I was always sensitive to Heritage, and particularly the religious. During this period of study, I had the chance to serve at the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Paris, also known for preserving relics the of the Passion, guarded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher. It is from the Crown of Thorns relic I understood that the study of the architecture of the copies of the Holy Sepulcher could be a vector of understanding of the spirituality of the Tomb, of the Faith, and also of this interest that surrounds the Holy Places. After the visit of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal to Notre Dame in Paris in 2009, I decided to devote myself to an in-depth knowledge of the Christians of the Patriarchate. Engaged with the young people of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, I was entrusted with organizing spiritual retreats. It seemed natural to me to organize these events at this tomb of Notre-Dame du Chêne, which I knew well. Then, after three months of work with the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem in 2014, and with an increased understanding of the reality of the Tomb in Jerusalem, I decided to start research on these copies.

What do you think was the reason for the construction of these copies of the tomb of Jesus?

Currently in the doctorate in History of Architecture, parallel with my research, I decided to study the existence of other copies in the world, and little by little new copies appeared to form today a real corpus. There is indeed research on the copies, but no one has yet made a general corpus on the question. The mystery of the resurrection, central to the Faith, for example, is at the origin of the spiritual steps that led to the construction of caves with a round stone, or the construction of a copy of the Aedicule that encases and protects the Tomb of Christ. To date, with the corpus and the sources, it is possible to identify several origins in the construction of these copies. On pilgrimage, access to the empty tomb to witness the resurrection is at the origin of the construction of many copies. Pilgrims who cannot go to the Holy Land are indeed offered the opportunity to perform the same step of Faith by going to pray in a copy of the same tomb. In addition to the pilgrimage approach, there is also the devotional one, initiated especially with the creation of Stations of the Cross in order to meditate on the mysteries of Jesus. The Liturgy is also central to the construction of these copies, because it is a way of living during Holy Week and allowing us to live, in close contact with the place, the scriptures from Good Friday to Easter. Finally, many copies are built as tombs in a public cemetery. The model of the Aedicule is indeed reproduced to receive deceased persons, perhaps with the idea of obtaining by this tomb the assurance of the resurrection.

How many copies are there? What are the periods in which they were built? What are the different architectural styles?

To date, my research has identified nearly 130 copies of the Aedicule of the Holy Sepulcher, and others remain to be discovered. The construction of a copy of the tomb corresponds to the architectural reproduction at scale 1 of the Aedicule as it was in Jerusalem. The Aedicule has known four forms: a first, Byzantine; a second, presents from 1012; a third from 1555; and finally, the Aedicule that we know, from 1810. Today, the first three forms have disappeared physically, but thanks to their copies it is possible to find them life-size. Thus, these copies are a real wealth, to know the spread of the Tomb but also to better understand it. In the corpus that I presented at the conference at the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem on October 12, the copies were made between the 10th and 20th centuries. With almost a thousand years of chronology, these copies have evolved and their styles have also evolved according to the place where they were built. In a general way, it is possible to classify the copies according to the original one wishes to be copied, a Byzantine style, Romanesque, Gothic, and Modern and ultimately even a free interpretation of the original that I called “fantasy style”.

Why do some copies look like the original tomb but others differ?

This is part of my discoveries on the subject. Many buildings are intended to be a copy of an Aedicule that was present in Jerusalem. The common point of these buildings is the series of columns surrounding the building. These are reproduced each time, which allows one to distinguish the building from a simple chapel. The probable explanations of these differences are certainly due to a partial knowledge of the original, errors in the scales, but especially a cultural appropriation of the tomb. Thus, it is possible to see that the stylistic influences are present in these copies in order to allow a better understanding of the one who visits it because this building is integrated into an environment which is familiar to it. Finally, there are copies that have no architectural similarity with the original Aedicule. These, in my opinion, are also very interesting because they allow us to imagine how the Aedicule in Jerusalem could have been built in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, for example, if it had to be rebuilt.

Who were the people who initiated the construction of these copies?

To date, the study of the corpus of copies does not make it possible to give a final conclusion to this question. Already, we can see that various groups have been involved in the construction of these aedicules. The first are the Franciscans, Guardians of Holy Places, who are at the origin of the creation of many copies especially in the Holy Mounts. A certain number of Franciscan monasteries even have an Aedicule in their interior, such as that of the Washington Custody, which also preserves a copy of the Tomb of the Virgin, the Dome of the Assumption, and the Cave of the Nativity. Moreover, it became obvious that most of these copies were made between the end of the 17th century and during the 18th century; this was the initiative of Capuchin friars, branches of the Franciscans after the Council of Trent, or Jesuits. In addition to these religious communities, even former pilgrims, bishops and private individuals have commissioned the construction of copies.

Most copies of the Holy Sepulcher exist in Austria and the Czech Republic. What would be the reasons, according to you?

One of my great discoveries in the making of the corpus is that the majority of these Aedicule copies were built during the Counter-Reformation in the ancient kingdoms of Bohemia, Austria, and the possessions of the Habsburg family. Today, these copies are in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia. Other copies have been referenced in France, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, United States of America, Georgia and also in Jerusalem!

Are there copies of other important sacred places in the world?

It is indeed possible to create a parallel with the cave of Massabielle. Like the Tomb of Christ, a strong impetus to construct replicas of this grotto of Lourdes is evident. After the promulgation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, the message of Lourdes in 1858 became a very important spiritual medium in the nineteenth century and even today. It is possible to see a copy of the Lourdes Grotto in the Vatican. It is still too early in the research to make a decisive link on the motives between the copies of the Lourdes caves and the Aedicule copies, it is however possible to see that it is the same dynamic of reproduction of a holy place. With regard to the copies of the Holy Sepulcher, we can still see new achievements today. A copy in Canada very faithful to the present Aedicule was thus made at the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame-du-Cap, thanks to the initiative of Blessed Frederic Janssome OFM, who was Vicar Custodial for ten years and twenty-eight years as Commissar of the Holy Land in Canada. With the corpus now established, it is possible to build a real network of Aedicule copies. Whether located in churches, monasteries or private homes, a significant number of these buildings continue to be used for pilgrimages or the liturgies of Holy Week. These places are true witnesses to the mystery of the Resurrection and can be a spiritual or liturgical instrument. Moreover, the deepening of this research will allow a better understanding of this phenomenon of construction, and also to be an instrument for the preservation of these places. These empty tombs are strong links that unite all the faithful in the world near the tomb of Jerusalem.

Interviewed by Saher Kawas