A Turning Point for Christendom

by Brother Donald Mansir, F.S.C.

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“If there is one piece of man’s work on earth that should be durable and perfect, a marvel of gold and precious woods, it is the vault on high, covering this most sacred shrine.”

So wrote Harry Harewood Leech in his Letters of a Sentimental Idler concerning the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, also known in the Christian East as the Church of the Resurrection.

Leech’s words reflect his disappointment with the shrine, first built over the site of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century and rebuilt later, in the 12th century, by the Crusaders. In the 1860s, when Leech wrote his account, the church was shrouded in darkness: the windows were boarded up and the great dome braced by scaffolding.

After more than 100 years of decay, the dome was repaired in the 1970s, but the scaffolding remained. The three custodians of this shrine had yet to agree on the interior decoration of the great dome. Thus, the tomb remained veiled in darkness.

However, on 17 August 1994, Diodoros I, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, invited his brother custodians, the Rev. Giuseppe Nazzaro, O.F.M., Custos of the Holy Land, and Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Jerusalem, to the patriarchal hall of the Greek Patriarchate. Also invited were Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine (PMP); Brother Donald Mansir, F.S.C., Vice President of PMP; the Rev. Denis J. Madden, Director of the CNEWA-PMP Jerusalem office; and Mr. Ara Normart, artistic consultant to PMP. An agreement had been reached.

In preparation for this “historic day,” as Patriarch Diodoros described it, numerous meetings between the custodians of the Holy Land and the representatives of CNEWA and PMP had occurred. Discussions with individual custodians led to the creation of parameters by which the artist was guided. A flurry of faxes and courier mail traveled between New York and Fresno, California, home of the artist, as thoughts on the design, which had to follow the directives established by each custodian, were exchanged. The final version, which embodied common elements of the three communities, was presented by Msgr. Stern to the custodians on that historic day.

The approved design represents the glory of God enveloping the risen Christ. It consists of 12 streams of gold, representing the 12 Apostles. From each ray branch three streams of light, symbolizing the Trinity. Light from the dome’s central skylight, as well as from concealed artificial sources, adds glowing brilliance. The mother-of-pearl background, a reminder of the biblical description of the luminous cloud of the Divine Presence, brightens as it ascends. The artwork will draw the pilgrim’s eyes away from the tomb: as the angel declared, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

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Tags: Jerusalem Christianity Revival/restoration Holy Sepulchre