For centuries, the Franciscan friars of Jerusalem and the Custodia Terrae Sanctae (Guardians of the Holy Land) have cared for a vast treasure of religious artifacts and artwork, keeping it secret, essentially, from the public. For the first time, two years from now, this treasure will be displayed across three new or renovated venues around the old city.
The Custodia has been historically responsible for guarding the sanctity of Christian holy sites in Israel on behalf of the Catholic Church and the pope. Among their responsibilities has been curating and preserving a collection of Christian artwork and artefacts, collected over the centuries but never used, for fear that they would be stolen. Non-Christian rulers, such as the Muslims or Ottomans, only served to enhance their concern for the treasure. Now, however, modern security technology is enabling its display for the first time.
Much of the collection arrived in the Holy Land as gifts, sent or brought by faithful Pilgrims. The collection includes pieces from France which no longer are available in their native land due to the French Revolution, but which have been preserved in Jerusalem. The oldest known organ in the world is there, too; rediscovered in 1906 during renovations at the friary in Bethlehem. Along with the organ, 13 bells were found, including one of Mongolian origin.
“These objects were never put into use for fear they would be stolen. They were kept in a hidden room, entered through a secret and concealed door. Even most of the friars didn’t know about it,” says Prof. Eugenio Alliata, the director of the order’s Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Jerusalem. Only two people had the keys: the custos and another high-ranking friar.
The three planned museums which will display the collection are the Franciscan Archaeological Museum on Via Dolorosa, now under renovation; a new multi-media museum, which will be opened nearby; and the Custodia’s headquarters near the New Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. Each will feature a different focus on the collection, with artefacts on display to match.
Friar Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the incumbent custos, is said to have played a significant part in the decision to take the treasure public. In his words, “The demand to see the items is high, and requests have been sent to us from all over the world. By means of the museum, the public will be able to learn about Christianity and Christianity’s connection to Jerusalem. A deep familiarity with Christianity will be able to strengthen the relations between the Jewish public and the Christian world.”