Sanctity for Sale
Amy E. Schwartz on the marketing of the holy land
SELLING JERUSALEM: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks.
By Annabel Jane Wharton. Univ. of Chicago Press. 272 pp. $32.50
Every summer, a few tourists in Jerusalem fall prey to something psychiatrists call Jerusalem syndrome. Overwhelmed by the sight of the actual holy city, they become convinced they are biblical figures and wander the streets prophesying, often wrapped in white sheets from their hotel beds. Jerusalem authorities and paramedics take these episodes in stride: They know they live in a city whose daily reality pales beside its existence in the world’s imagination.
How Jerusalem came to belong as much to its visitors as to its residents intrigues Annabel Jane Wharton, a professor of art history at Duke
University. Jerusalem, she points out, didn’t become the pinnacle of world sanctity without the church’s active “selling” of that status throughout the centuries. (Though Jerusalem is holy to three religions, the book treats its role in Judaism and Islam only in passing.) And selling Jerusalem, in her account, has been accomplished not by devious or unscrupulous means but by the production of a long series of material objects—from relics to postcards to Bible theme parks—that allow believers to experience Jerusalem vicariously. It’s wonderful terrain for an art historian, especially one interested, as Wharton is, in authority, authenticity, and fakery. Who would guess that the Vatican collections contain the alleged foreskin of Jesus? Or that even today purportedly authentic pieces of the True Cross and Jesus’ crown of thorns are hawked on eBay?
But Wharton doesn’t pursue such themes far; she has a broader and odder argument to make. The evolving nature of these surrogate objects over two millennia, she contends, shows curious parallels to the development of the global economy in the same period. In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, when the world ran on a gift-and-barter economy and profit and usury were considered sins, believers trafficked in relics of saints and pieces of the True Cross. These could not be legitimately bought or sold but only given as gifts. Later, the Crusades spurred international contact and commerce. The Knights Templar, an order of military monks based in Christian Jerusalem, may have been the first to build replicas of the Jerusalem “temple”—the Holy Sepulcher, the structure traditionally considered to house Christ’s tomb—in Paris and London. When Jerusalem came under Muslim rule, the Franciscan order encouraged the construction in France and Italy of sacred mountains, actual mountains reconfigured into detailed landscapes that reproduced the experience of traveling to the Holy Land. A trip to one of these could earn a pilgrim the same plenary indulgence, or remission of sins, as a visit to the real thing, which was then relatively inaccessible.
This drift toward copies, Wharton argues, mimicked the rise of negotiable currency and credit. In today’s electronic, postmodern age, in which money is virtual, concrete souvenirs or experiences of Jerusalem have yielded to “the progressive abstraction or commodification of sacred space.” As examples, Wharton cites Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ and places such as the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida, where visitors can “experience” the events and characters of the Gospel in roughly the style of Disney World.
One may quibble with these definitions—what makes a movie rendition of the Passion more abstract than, say, a medieval passion play?—but the real problem with Wharton’s argument is that it seems overly schematic, or worse, simply beside the point. People pay for their pilgrimages today with credit cards instead of gold coins, but their religious impulses—to stand on holy ground, to take away a piece for themselves—appear consistent from age to age. If believers have so utterly embraced postmodern abstraction, then why, as Wharton reports, would the official website for The Passion of the Christ offer fans the opportunity to buy their very own concrete object, a replica of one of the iron nails used in the movie’s crucifixion scene?
—Amy E. Schwartz