The Forgotten Lintels of the Holy Sepulchre

By: Cécile Leca/ lpj.org - Published: December 14 Tue, 2021

The Forgotten Lintels of the Holy Sepulchre Available in the following languages:

JERUSALEM - Located in the heart of the Christian quarter of the Old city, hidden by the many stone houses that surround it, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is undoubtedly one of the most famous holy places of Jerusalem. Yet its entrance does not look like much. After following the Via Dolorosa, it can be reached by walking down a narrow path that passes in front of the Mosque of Omar before leading to a small courtyard. The entrance, which consists of two doors, stands in the parvis of the courtyard. If you were to be immersed in your thoughts, you would not notice it. As for pilgrims from all over the world, it is inside, so rich of history and symbolism, that this place takes all its meaning...

Doors of the Holy Sepulchre.

However, this modest entrance also has some secrets that are not without interest, whether religious, historical or cultural. Indeed, its bare wall has not always been so. It is impossible to guess it without knowing it beforehand... and yet, the two doors that make up the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are incomplete.

Almost a hundred years ago, these gates were decorated with two marble lintels, carved during the renovation of the Holy Sepulchre by the Crusaders (around 1149). Removed in the 1930s, they can now be found in the Rockefeller Museum, a few steps away from the Old City and more precisely from Herod’s Gate.

Picture of the doors with the lintels (1857), found in the Rockefeller Museum.

According to several sources (including the Rockefeller Museum), it was because of a fire that the lintels were removed. Other sources, however, mention an earthquake. Whatever the case, these two blocks of marble have since then never returned to the tomb of Jesus Christ. Their marble is indeed very fragile and would suffer greatly from the weather. Besides, it would need a complete and difficult cleaning to regain its whiteness. Thus, if we want to see these lintels on the doors of the Holy Sepulchre again one day, the best solution would probably be to benefit from a patronage that would allow enough funds to be collected to create copies. In this way, the doors could be restored to their original appearance, while the original lintels would remain untouched and protected in the Rockefeller Museum.  

The engravings of the two lintels

The lintel of the left door, located on the west side, depicts parts of Jesus’ life. The scenes include the resurrection of Lazarus, the supplications of Martha and Mary, Christ giving instructions before the Last Supper (that scene is partially damaged), the entry into Jerusalem, and then, on the far right, the Last Supper.

According to the Rockefeller Museum, the order of these scenes, which does not correspond to the New Testament, has given rise to another interpretation, closely related to the Crusades. This interpretation states that the damaged part represents the cleansing of the Temple – in reference to the expulsion of the infidels by the Crusaders. Still according to that interpretation, the supplications of Martha and Mary are in fact a representation of the resurrected Christ, and the resurrection of Lazarus the resurrection from the dead. The entry into Jerusalem would be a reference to the triumphant entry of the Crusaders into the city, and the Last Supper a reminder of Jesus’ human nature.

Drawing of the left lintel's engravings.

The right door’s lintel is more mysterious. Far from representing biblical scenes, it features a host of mythological creatures, birds and naked men clinging to each other. Sources differ as to its meaning, although many see it as a symbol of evil and sin, in contrast to the lintel on the left. Art historian Lucy-Anne Hunt has proposed an alternative hypothesis (HUNT, Artistic and Cultural Inter-Relations), based in part on biblical quotes from the Old Testament. According to that hypothesis, the right lintel would be a representation of man's mortality and of the human condition in general. The believers entered through the right door and were brought back to their human nature; then, by leaving through the left door, they walked under the sign of the purity of Christ and the resurrection. That hypothesis has however been refuted by art historian Avital Heyman, who cites another possible interpretation: the right lintel would represent the defeat of the infidels and their destruction, acting as a mirror of the left lintel and its references to the Crusades. 

Drawing of the right lintel's engravings.

These hypotheses however lack a crucial piece of information to fully grasp the true meaning of the two lintels. Indeed, it can be assumed that the tympana of the two doors, which are today made of simple bare stones, were once also decorated with engravings. This is the case of most French churches dating from this period, such as Notre-Dame de Paris or the Vézelay Abbey.

If this was the case, why then did the ornament of these tympana disappear? Was it destroyed because of religious conviction when Saladin retook the city from the Crusaders? According to Fr. Dominique-Marie Cabaret, of the École biblique et archéologique de Jérusalem, "this is a possibility, although it is also conceivable that the event took place later.” However, this hypothesis does not explain why the lintels were spared. Did the Muslim religion of the time, which generally disliked Christian artistic representations, rule that the latter were acceptable, unlike the tympana? Or did time and weather simply destroy them?

The same question can be asked about the Western entrance of the Holy Sepulchre, now bricked up. Although there is no trace of a lintel, it has a tympanum without any ornament. Was it ever engraved? And if so, did it suffer the same fate as the tympana of the present entrance to the church? Today, no one knows the answer to these questions, and there are but a few studies on the subject.

Western entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. It can be found at the crossroad of The Greek Patriarchate St. and Christian Quarter St.

Be that as it may, today, anyone can come and admire these two carved marble blocks provided they pay a visit to the Rockefeller Museum. It is interesting to note that another architectural treasure removed from its original site can be found there: the decorative fragments from Khirbat al-Mafjar (Hisham's Palace), located in the city of Jericho. So, whether you are a pilgrim wishing to visit the tomb of Jesus or just a visitor, you should make a detour past Herod's Gate to admire these magnificent remains, rich of an incredible past.