Franciscan Father Stéphane Milovitch, director of the Cultural Heritage Office for the Custodia Terrae Sanctae in Jerusalem,with some of its 450 earthenware pharmaceutical pots from the 17th and 18th centuries. OSV News photo/Tom Tracy

Holy Land Franciscans advance Jerusalem museum

By  Tom Tracy, OSV News
  • March 23, 2023

JERUSALEM -- The priest-director of the Cultural Heritage Office for the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, or Custody of the Holy Land, in Jerusalem opened a drawer of vestments and casually dropped an unexpected historical tidbit about a clerical chasuble he was showing a group of foreign guests. The chasuble was part of a collection of vestments the archbishop of Paris wore for the marriage of Emperor Napoleon III of France with the Empress Eugenie, and which the empress later donated to the Church in the Holy Land.

The gift was part of an imperial tradition, it turns out, that accounts for no small number of European religious art objects and other treasures to have been collected and preserved in the Holy Land even as many similar treasures back home were lost, looted and destroyed over the course of European history.

Some of these objects cared for by the Franciscans in the Holy Land, including a collection of 13 church bells discovered hidden in Bethlehem and dating back to the Middle Ages, have travelled to some of the great museums of the world.

But now they will have a permanent home in Jerusalem as the Custody of the Holy Land moves forward on creating a new "Historical Section" of its popular Terra Sancta Museum, which opened to the public in 2017. The museum is situated at the Church of the Flagellation, the first station of the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. Until now, that section has been limited to archeological artifacts from the first millennium.

A new section of the museum will serve as a point of dialogue and exchange with the local Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities — as well as pilgrims and visitors of all faiths and backgrounds who come to Jerusalem to explore its history and cultures.

"We want to make a Christian museum here in Jerusalem so there is something Christian to occupy the space of culture even if you are only one and a half per cent of the population," said Franciscan Father Stéphane Milovitch, director of the Cultural Heritage Office for the Custodia Terrae Sanctae. "The Church is still here and has 2,000 years of presence here; it can be a bridge with the different communities."

The Franciscan Friars arrived in the Holy Land in the 13th century and have an uninterrupted presence for eight centuries during which time they occupied a unique footing as caretakers of the holy places. They provide a source of spiritual care to pilgrims from abroad and in service to the local Christian communities of the greater region, including Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Today the Custody cares for some 50 Christian shrines and parishes and until 1850 was the only Catholic religious order serving the Holy Land. That meant the Franciscans were in a unique position to serve as a voice of the Catholic Church with the various Islamic rulers — some of which had hostile relations with the Church following the Crusader era.

Over the centuries, European monarchs sent gifts and religious treasures for use in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and which have been preserved here. But the Custody also preserved its centuries of its own archives, containing singular records of communications with the local rulers as well as baptismal and marriage documents of the local Christian community.

One well-preserved collection is that of some 450 earthenware pharmaceutical pots from the 17th and 18th centuries underscoring the space the friars occupied as medical doctors and pharmacies: 

The new Historical Section of the Terra Sancta Museum will be installed at the heart of the Franciscan headquarters in St. Saviour's Monastery. It will be divided into two parts: the history and mission of the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Treasure of the Holy Sepulcher.

Rare collections of paintings, sculptures, archival documents, gifts from European courts — even a 13th-century gilded copper crosier of the bishop of Bethlehem — will allow pilgrims to deepen their knowledge of the sanctuaries and discover the beauty of the liturgy in the Holy Land, according to the museum's organizers.

There also is a research element to the project with international partners anxious to assist and learn from the collection. 

"We have many thousands of documents we kept over the years because our archives were never invaded," Milovitch said.

The museum also will include an extensive collection of locally produced mother-of-pearl religious art objects along with Palestinian jewelry. Mother-of-pearl craftsmanship was introduced by the Franciscans in the 16th century to enable local Christian families in Bethlehem to support themselves. That art became part of Palestinian cultural heritage.

"The patrimony we have interests not only Christians but also humanity (in general), because everybody likes music and everybody likes art," Milovitch said.

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