Excavations uncover church’s original medieval altar
During building renovations in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, archaeologists came across a stunning discovery, a large section from the church’s original ancient altar. The excavators believe that the stone slab, which measures about 8 by 5 feet, once adorned the 12th-century high altar from one of Christianity’s holiest sites. For hundreds of years, the high priests of the church would have given the liturgy from behind this very stone.
As first reported by Reuters, the ancient altar was discovered in a back corridor of the Holy Sepulchre, where it was likely placed following a large fire in 1808. As its ornately decorated face was hidden against the wall, the slab sat in the corridor for more than 200 years, collecting graffiti from pilgrims and tourists who had no clue what they were writing on. Archaeologists believe the ancient altar is the same one described by pilgrims during the church’s consecration in 1149. The altar was first used by Catholic priests, who controlled the site until the departure of the Crusaders, and then by the Greek Orthodox, who used it continuously until the fire of 1808.
The ancient altar was designed in the “cosmatesque” style, which reflects a combination of classical, Byzantine, and early Islamic traditions. Although the slab has suffered greatly over the years, it originally featured finely worked and colorful marble tiles with detailed engravings. “You cannot see it now, but originally it was inlaid with pieces of precious marble, pieces of glass, pieces of small, finely made marble,” said Amit Re’em, Jerusalem regional archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, in an interview with Reuters. “It was shining, and this was a really amazing artifact.” Similar decorated altars have been found in churches in Rome, dating to the 12th and 13th centuries.
This article originally appeared in Bible History Daily on April 22, 2022.
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