3-D technology brings Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to life
Since 2017, the District of Columbia has been awash in Biblical archaeology. From the opening of the Museum of the Bible to the National Geographic Museum’s exhibit, Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience, visitors to the nation’s capital have myriad opportunities to explore Biblical studies. The Tomb of Christ exhibit, located at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, opened in 2017 and closed in 2019.
The focus of the Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience exhibit is Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the recent restoration and conservation project conducted by the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA). The church, first constructed by Roman emperor Constantine in 335 C.E., stands over the suspected site of the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion at Golgotha.
Over the last two millennia, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and interior Aedicule—the shrine that houses the tomb—have been subjected to destructions, renovations, and alterations. In the 20th century, church leaders recognized the need to perform serious restoration and conservation of the church’s artwork and infrastructure. It was not until the past decade that the church seriously considered the application by the NTUA and secured a private donation to carry out the exploratory and innovative restoration.
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Upon entering the Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience exhibit, the visitor first steps into a waiting room with images of the inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre accompanied by a short video that introduces the exhibit. Every few minutes, intimate groups of about a dozen are led into the first room, which offers a quick video on the history of Jerusalem and the site of the church itself.
The group makes its way past a few shop stalls like one would find in Jerusalem’s Old City and into a room with projections on the walls that place the visitor in the middle of the courtyard of the church. A virtual tour guide explains many of the more intriguing aspects of the practices and agreements of monks of the six Christian sects—Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox—that reside in separated areas of the structure. The guide highlights the “Immovable Ladder,” an old wooden ladder that rests on a window balcony in a common space and has come to symbolize the “status quo” that no monk may alter an aspect of the common space of the church without the unanimous consent of the five other orders.
Next, visitors are adorned with 3-D glasses and step into another virtually projected courtyard. This dizzying adventure is a rollercoaster ride through many of the nooks, crannies, and hidden passages of the church. The 3-D experience through the massive structure focuses on the Aedicule and takes the viewer inside the tomb itself. Many interesting discoveries made by the NTUA team are presented along the way, such as the uncovering of an original Constantinian tomb stone.
After the 3-D experience visitors pass through a traditional exhibition with photographs of the restoration, details about overcoming challenges in the project, and explanations about techniques and technologies used by the NTUA team and how they work. The short exhibition hall is adorned with a thorough timeline of the history of the church as well as labels that present odd and intriguing pieces of niche historical trivia.
Though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre holds a brilliant and vibrant history through many eras of occupation by different cultures and faiths, the exhibit lacks significant critical engagement with the Islamic period prior to the conquest of the Crusaders and the Ottoman period before the British mandate in Palestine. These periods in history had a critical effect, culturally and aesthetically, on the city of the Jerusalem, and on the continuity of the church, yet see little engagement in this exhibit.
Just before visitors exit the exhibit, they have the option to slip on a virtual reality headset and take a self-guided tour of the church interior. As you move about the 3-D reconstructed church, a voice narrates the history of individual monuments, shrines, cathedrals, and artifacts housed inside.
The exhibit does well to explain many of the history and processes that transformed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over time, a composite of styles and ideologies. The exhibition hall ends with a message emphasizing that the appreciation of the church and its restoration is not restricted to a single faith. All can enjoy and participate in the lush history and beautiful, artistic features of this cultural landmark.
The National Geographic Museum’s Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience is a great opportunity to learn about the ancient cultural heritage of one of the Near East’s historic and culturally vibrant cities. If you do not have the opportunity to visit the holy city and tour the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in person, the museum has certainly done an exceptional job of rendering the adventure and intrigue of the church in an accessible exhibit.
Samuel Pfister is the collections manager at the Badè Museum in California. He wrote this post while an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society in 2018.
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in 2018
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