“Shhh”: This is the sound you hear at Calvary these days. Could this be a prayerful faithful who is asking for silence? No! This is the soft hiss of a water sprayer, a part of the huge makeover project for the mosaics at Calvary.
Pressurized water, sponge, ammonium carbonate, soap: that is how “to deeply clean and etch the mosaics without moistening the joints,” said Raed Khalil, who supervises the project.
Behind the darkness of candle smoke residue, we can rediscover these glass mosaics with vivid colors. Where we once saw a ceiling tarnished by a layer of dust and burnt oil, we now see a deep blue vault dotted with gold shards. What was once the dark chapel at the top of Golgotha, now displays the blue intensity of Jerusalem’s night sky. Tourists, pilgrims and religious are are all wowed: they all look up to heaven, or what appears to be the sky of the Holy City on a summer night.
The vaults and arches are filled with symbols and biblical figures from the Old and New Testaments: Abel, Moses, Elijah, but also Peter and Paul, etc. Over the altar, twelve white doves hover around a large gold cross.
On the walls, the vaults are being prepared for the placement of three large semi-circular paintings. It is a triptych of biblical scenes: the binding of Isaac, also called sacrifice of Abraham; the women and John at the foot of the Cross on the side wall; and the Crucifixion on the wall behind the altar. The chapel, the eleventh station of the Via Crucis, is regaining its splendor from… 80 years ago.
These mosaics were only laid in the 1930s. By restoring the chapel in this way, the Franciscans made ties with the medieval history of the place. Indeed, the witnesses of pilgrims describe this place as covered with mosaics.
Among them, there was the witness of the Russian abbot Daniel since 1106, when even the Church of the Resurrection that transformed the Crusades was not yet complete. Only a few elements of these medieval decorations have survived and they can be found in certain parts of the neighboring chapel called the Chapel of the Franks, and here, there is a medallion on the ceiling depicting Christ. It belonged to a larger work of art, specifically described by pilgrims as depicting the Ascension where the Lord was in the midst of his disciples. The medallion had been restored in 2001. Having been cleaned once again, if its colors seem more dull, it is only because its tesserae are made of stone and the mosaics are made up of glass pieces.
Over time, looting and the great fire of 1808 had left few decorations in the chapel. When photography appeared in the Holy Land, we noticed that the only picture that was taken in the chapel was of the altar. In fact, the place is in an advanced state of decay but the Franciscans were not able to do what they wanted with it.
In 1930, they finally were able to undertake a comprehensive restoration of the chapel. It was completed in 1937. This restoration consisted of consolidating and decorating the walls and ceilings, but also re-doing the flooring, and building a new Stabat Mater altar.
The project was led by the architect Barluzzi. He had already designed and chosen the decorations for the Basilica of Nations in Gethsemane, as well as many other Franciscan sanctuaries in the Holy Land.
On the occasion of the destruction of the existing Stabat Mater altar, which had been considered “insignificant,” the Franciscans were pleasantly surprised to discover the rock of Calvary poking up through the flooring. So, the new altar was made so that the rock could be visible for the veneration of the faithful. Until then, as is evidenced by the old photos, while the rock was covered with marble, only under the Greek Orthodox altar could one find a small opening through which to touch the rock, as is still the case.
To restore the mosaics of the Chapel of the Crucifixion, Barluzzi and the Franciscans sought the help of painters and they invited them to draw inspiration from descriptions by ancient pilgrims.
The triptych window was created by Luigi Trifoglio in 1933, while the ceiling and arches are the work of Pietro D’Achiardi in 1935. The construction was entrusted to the Italian company Monticelli.
By reaching out to Trifoglio and D’Achiardi, Barluzzi did not call upon just any artists. D’Achiardi, an art critic, museologist, painter and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, worked everywhere from Chicago to the Vatican. He is responsible for the mosaics on the tomb of Pius XI. In the Holy Land, he worked in other sanctuaries belonging to the Custody: in Ain Karem, Capernaum and at the Mount of Beatitudes.
Trifoglio was known to be a representative of an artistic current that attempted to make everyday images into classical paintings, and other works of his are still on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Rome.
The architect Giovanna Franco Repellini, author of a book on Barluzzi (1), noted, however, that he would not have approved Trifoglio’s drawings. Nevertheless, these works were carried out and have now been restored to their former glory.
The current cleaning project was entrusted to the Mosaic Center of Jericho. Founded by the Franciscan Michele Piccirillo, with the aid of the Italian Cooperation, it trains and employs Palestinians for the preservation of local heritage. This restoration will require a month and a half of work. But at the end of each work day, the scaffold is dismantled so as to respect the holy place and the prayer.
The restoration project is supported by the Italian Consulate, the Custody of the Holy Land, ATS pro Terra Sancta, the Mosaic Center of Jericho, the City of Rovereto (Italy) and the Opera Campana dei Caduti Foundation.
Now, at the place where Christ died, pilgrims and tourists, can look toward heaven more than every before.
TD and MAB
1. Antonio Barluzzi Architetto In Terra Santa
By: Giovanna Franco Repellini
Publisher: Edizioni Terra Santa
Year Of Publication: 2013