The Arts and Battles in the Holy Sepulchre

“Unfortunately the arts are not exempt from the tedious bickering on display at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.”

Since the 18thcentury the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been managed jointly by a complex system of “zones” governed by six different Christian denominations, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox.


In this most holiest of places, the air is taught with tension as the six denominations seem to bicker and argue over the most trivial of matters.

A Recent Timeline

In 2002 an Egyptian monk was “guarding" an area controlled by the Coptics. In the heat of the summer he moved his chair to a spot in the shade. Unfortunately this spot was in the territory of the Ethiopians. A fight broke out that resulted in broken bones and eleven monks being sent to the hospital.

In 2004 during a procession to honor the finding of the True Cross, a Greek priest was offended by the fact that a Roman Catholic chapel was left open. This led to a fight that resulted in spilled blood and several arrests.

On Palm Sunday, 2008, a riot broke out when some Armenian priests tried to eject a Greek priest whom they felt was trying to crash their procession. The ensuing brawl consumed priests and worshippers beating each other with palm fronds. Israeli police had to step in to quell the riot.

That event led to another. On the Feast of the Cross, Greek priests tried to block an Armenian procession which they perceived as a threat to their guardianship of the tomb of Christ. The fight that followed resulted in injuries, arrests, and damage to the church.

What Might Have Been

In the Gospel according to Mark we are given a glimpse of what might have been. The tension between Judaism and Christianity did not need to happen. Jesus is questioned by a scribe and the answer he gives is completely acceptable to the Pharisee. (Mark 12:28-34) They agree on the greatest commandment and they agree that love of neighbor is inextricably connected to our love for God. Jesus acknowledges that the scribe is “not far from the Kingdom of God,” and the scribe asserts that this two-fold commandment is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In doing so the Pharisee is simply recalling something already present in Jewish tradition. The Book of the Prophet Hosea tells us that God prefers our love and loyalty to burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

Focusing On What We Have in Common

Sometimes we focus too much on the things that keep us apart and not enough on the things that bring us together. Love binds all people of every age and every culture. By His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus shows us the true nature of love as well as the true nature of worship.

Unfortunately the arts are not exempt from the tedious bickering on display at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. When I was studying iconography I searched for a master to study under and I was appalled by some of the attitudes I encountered. One orthodox monk flatly told me that unless I was an orthodox monk, I had no business painting icons. I eventually found a master iconographer who was regarded as a national treasure by two different countries and had no such prejudices when it came to painting.

Certainly there are guidelines, issued by the Church, that artists should follow. But these are not as numerous or as strict as it is sometimes believed and it should be remembered that these guidelines apply only to liturgical art. Liturgical art is the art that adorns our liturgical spaces, such as our churches; and our liturgical books, missals, psalters, "worship aids," etc..

One of the tensions within the art world that has always confused me is the distinction between artist (or painter), and illustrator. I once had a conversation with a curator at an auction house. He told me that early in his career he worked at a major art gallery and one day the owner of the gallery was presented with the work of a new young artist. The gallery had the opportunity to be the exclusive representatives of this painter. The gallery owner looked over the work and dismissed the artist as "just another illustrator." The artist was Norman Rockwell.

The same segment of the art world that is so quick to dismiss "mere illustrators," is quick to recognize the genius of the Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Leonardo DaVinci, to name only a few. But some of the greatest works of these masters were illustrations of Bible scenes and historical events.

Some "illustrators," it should be noted, show their own disdain towards "graphic designers."

This is only one example of our tendency to place vocations into ever smaller categories, author vs. writer, composer vs. songwriter, artist vs. craftsman, and so on. In the end this is all vanity. Everyone is given gifts for the same purpose, to build up the Kingdom of God, and there are no small gifts.

Is it not time to put petty distinctions aside and recognize that all of us are here for the same purpose, to achieve the same end? And each of us have been given different tools to do this.

"Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills." 1Corinthians 12:4-11

Pax Vobiscum

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Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at