Monday, 29 September 2014

Jerusalem in Miniature

The Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton is one of the earliest and most important architectural recreations of Jerusalem in Britain. It was built by an early twelfth century crusading landowner, Earl Simon de Senlis of Northampton and Huntingdon.
Round nave of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton: Laura Slater
Yet a recent research trip to the town revealed not one translation of Jerusalem in Northampton, but two:

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

This model of the Holy Sepulchre is owned by the Hutton family and can be visited at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. It dates to between the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth century, a high point for the production of these objects. Inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, it is made out of shittim or shittum wood- better known today as the acacia.

Museum label: Laura Slater

The shittah tree, identified with either the acacia nilotica or more usually, the acacia tortilis, can be found across the Middle East, especially in Egypt and the Sinai peninsula. It is probably from here that our model's materials were sourced. The use of shittim wood to make the Northampton Holy Sepulchre model was not simply a question of using cheap, locally available timber. Shittim is mentioned numerous times in the Bible: it is the material from which God commanded that the Ark of the Covenant and parts of the tabernacle, including altars and holy vessels, be made in Exodus 25-27. The connection back to the Old Testament, and the sense of continuity with a lost sacred object it might provide helps us understand why these models were so treasured. So the museum label for the model, which suggests it may have been made in Russia and only consecrated in Jerusalem, is perhaps open to doubt.

The labels 'Occidens' and 'Oriens' on the lavishly decorated exterior of the model help its owners to correctly detach and rebuild the church part by part:

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater
And in this view of the south transept facade of the church, still the main public entrance of the church you can see the attention to detail: just as it still is today, the right hand side of the door has been blocked up. The building on the right, up the tiny staircase, is the medieval Chapel of the Franks, now the tenth station of the Via Dolorosa.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

South transept facade of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Source: Wikimedia Commons

And on the other side of the miniature building is the Anastasis Rotunda, where the empty tomb chamber can be found.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

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