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Israeli Ambassador on Holy Land Tattoos

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A poster advertises a conference on permanent body marks in Rome on 6 Dec. The conference, titled “Into the Skin: Identity, Symbols and History of Permanent Body Marks,” was organized by Mordechay Lewy, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring) 

09 Dec 2011 – by Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Intellectual curiosity about a very particular aspect of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem has gotten under the skin of Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Mordechay Lewy, the ambassador who has an academic preparation in medieval history, is a student of Jerusalem pilgrim tattoos.

Members of the Vatican diplomatic corps have a variety of interests and specializations — there are several theologians and physicians among them, as well as career diplomats — but Lewy said, "it’s true, I don’t have many colleagues to talk with" about tattoos.

The ambassador is very serious about the subject, which involves questions about identity, art and local cultures, so he organized an international conference Dec. 5-6 called, “Into the Skin: Identity, Symbols and History of Permanent Body Marks.”

The conference brought together scholars from Israel, Europe, North America and New Zealand to explore the history of tattoos, the use of permanent body markings in a variety of cultures, tattooing techniques, social and religious attitudes toward tattooing and the tradition of pilgrim tattoos both in Jerusalem and in Loreto, Italy, site of what many believe is the house of Mary.

Ambassador Lewy said he basically stumbled upon descriptions of the Jerusalem pilgrim tattoos when, in the mid-1980s, he was posted to Sweden and was reading Swedish pilgrim diaries from the Middle Ages.

At that time, the ambassador said, he was “a lone detective looking for sources” that would explain the “body painting” reported to have marked many of the returning pilgrims. His first published article on the tattoos appeared in 1992.

The December conference at the Pontifical Urbanian University was a sign of how many connections he has made with other scholars over the past nine years; he said he hoped the connections would expand with the development of a website that would include an image bank of drawings and photos the scholars have collected.

In many Western cultures, there has been a strong aversion to tattoos and permanent body markings or scarring, which may be traced to a Judeo-Christian idea that one should not intentionally alter the human body because it is a divine creation, speakers said.

Throughout history, the ambassador said, people have been tattooed both voluntarily and involuntarily. The obvious recent example of the latter was the Nazi practice of tattooing identification numbers onto the arms of prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“Personally, I would never tattoo myself,” Lewy said. “The idea for me is a challenge,” but one he is dealing with as a historical phenomenon.





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Tags: Israel Holy Land Vatican Pilgrimage/pilgrims Christian-Jewish relations