The Chapel of the Franks: a lesser known jewel

For the last two weeks visitors to the Holy Sepulchre have noticed a certain bustling around the “Chapel of the Franks”. Many visitors and pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre don’t know its name, even though they have seen it. The Chapel of the Franks, whose real name is the Chapel of the Torment or Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows or Chapel of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is literally against the basilica’s façade at the top of the stairs, a site where many groups of pilgrims will remember having taking the traditional souvenir photo.

In the Middle Ages, a need was felt for an entrance directly to Calvary from the forecourt, as can be learned in the richly informative article by Fra Eugenio Alliata, an archeologist of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. (You can read the article by clicking here.)

Built by the Crusaders, the entrance allowed freer access to the basilica by the numerous pilgrims of the era and was richly decorated with mosaics and capitals. At the end of the Kingdom of the Franks, when the basilica’s doors were closed by Saladin, pilgrims became attached to this chapel dedicated to the memory of Mary at the foot of cross, which was the only part of the basilica that could be accessed without paying an entrance tax. Later it was ornamented with a painting on this theme placed in a gilded wood altarpiece that dates to the 17th century. (See the article cited above.) In this way, the entrance became a place of worship.

The reason for the present activity is that the chapel, a property of the Franciscans, is being restored. This morning, Fra Sergio Galdi came to meet the experts at work. He said, “The Custody, as guardian of the Holy Places, is fulfilling its role. Charged with administering the patrimony in the name of the Latin Church, the Custody takes care of it. This chapel is one of the jewels of the basilica.”

For their part, the experts consult among themselves. Alessandra Didonè, painting restorer, entered the chapel for the first time this morning. She discusses her first observations with Osama Hamdan, archeologist. Father Eugenio Alliata came to the newcomers asked about their preliminary evaluation of the mosaic and the first trials of cleaning the stone and capitals, using vinegar and ultrasonic waves. “We are looking for the most effective and least invasive means,” Osama explains.

“The fact that the chapel has been maintained over the centuries contributed to its preservation and its general condition is good,” explains Fra Eugenio. “However, according to the archeologists, in the past it was entirely covered in mosaics. The altarpiece dates to the 18th century, while the painting at its center could be from the 19th.”

“The Custody has made a number of restorations of this chapel, as various texts in our possession testify, allowing us to understand the evolution of the site. Before the windows that are now in place, there was stained glass. They were removed during the 70s of the last century, but accounts from the past differ in their description, giving us to understand that over the centuries there have been at least three different types of windows.”

The restorations are being executed by young Palestinians who were trained at the mosaics school in Jericho, founded by Fra Michele Piccirillo and directed today by Osama Hamdan, Fra Sergio points out. They have also been trained in cleaning the stone and restoration of the altarpiece. They will continue this experience with an internship in Italy to further hone their skills.

The work should be completed by May. During this time, the chapel will not be generally open to the public, but some groups may be authorized to enter and celebrate Mass there in the early morning.

The Custody’s Internet site for the Holy Sepulchre will show the results of the restoration and the discoveries that it allows during the coming months.

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