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Giovanni Battista Ricci

Building of Solomon’s Temple, 1623–27, Gilded stucco, Blessed Sacrament Chapel vault, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Courtesy of the Fabbrica di San Pietro in Vaticano

Unknown artist

'Solomon dedicates the temple; Christ thanks the Father for the Church', from a Bible Moralisée, Early thirteenth century, Manuscript illumination, 344 x 260 mm, Österreichische Nationalbibliotek, Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 50, Courtesy of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

Peter Paul Rubens

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; Right wing of triptych altarpiece of the Deposition, 1614, Oil on panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, The Netherlands, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Transcendence and Sacred Space

Comparative Commentary by

What makes a place sacred?

Some ancient traditions have thought of God as present in some places and not others. Frequently these are places where nature inspires awe and sublimity: mountains, for example. (Many scholars speculate that YHWH, the God of Israel, was originally imagined as a mountain/storm god, e.g. Green 2003).

But if, as in Christianity, it is thought that there can be nothing ‘outside’ God—for then God would be finite, a being among other beings—then it makes no sense to say God is here-and-not-there. Rather than God being more present in one place than another, it is we who become more present to God by particular participations in God’s limitless presence—participations that are sacramental and aesthetic.

The rabbis spoke of the Shekhinah—a word derived from the verb ‘to dwell’—to designate the luminous cloud that signified God’s presence during the Exodus migration. In the narrative in the books of Chronicles and Kings the dedication of the Temple culminates in a supernatural consumption of the sacrifice and the dramatic descent of ‘the presence’ into the inmost sanctuary, as though God replies to the invitation to ‘inhabit’ this place (2 Chronicles 7:1; 1 Kings 8:10). Prior to this, the sanctuary at Shiloh, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, was referred to as the Lord’s ‘temple’ or ‘palace’ (1 Samuel 1:9), and the Ark itself was considered the footstool of God’s ‘throne’. All this was seen as fulfilment of God’s promise to his people, ‘dwell among them’ (Exodus 25:8 NRSV).         

The biblical accounts not only narrate a visible descent of God’s presence into the completed Temple, but also indicate a sacredness in the process of construction: ‘In building the temple, only blocks dressed at the quarry were used, and no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built’ (1 Kings 6:7; cf. Exodus 20:25).

Later rabbinic stories expand this into the idea of supernatural forces at work: Solomon was assisted by demons and angels, and the huge foundation stones were hewn by the magical shamir, a substance that cut rocks by its touch (or according to some, a living creature whose mere gaze split the hardest substances (Gittin 68a-b). According to the Talmud, the enormous blocks set themselves in place unaided (Shemot Rabbah 52:4; Midrash Shir hash-Shirim 1:1:90).

The three works of art in this exhibition show how Christians over many centuries have used images of Solomon’s Temple to develop their own concepts of how God is present in our midst.

By contrast with the rabbis’ stories of supernatural aid, Giovanni Battista Ricci’s reliefs portray men doing realistically heavy construction work at the Temple site, and the dedicatory sacrifice (not shown in this panel) shows no sign of divine intervention. By their location in the Blessed Sacrament chapel of St Peter’s, the reliefs not only point to a new kind of sacred place—the Christian Church instead of the Temple—but also indicate a different conception of divine presence: a sacramental presence by the memorial meal of the Eucharist, a symbol of God’s being found in the communion of faith and love. The ‘sacrifice’ of the Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s self-giving to God in service of the coming Kingdom.

The illuminations from the Bible Moralisée are an earlier example of this Christian shift in thinking: from the Temple as a physical building to the Temple as the spiritual reality of the Church. God is present in the communion of the faithful. The building is the house of the Church, not of God. Christians may continue to ‘constitute’ sacred spaces and times by dedicating places and events to increased awareness of God’s presence, but as the twentieth-century theologian Teilhard de Chardin said, for those who can see, all is sacred; nothing is profane (1958: 59).

Similarly, Peter Paul Rubens evokes several dimensions of the spiritualization of sacred space and action in Christian terms. In the wing of the altarpiece showing the infant Christ’s Presentation, the physical Temple now resembles a Christian church— indeed, it shows marked similarities to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But the real Temple is spiritual: it is Christ’s humanity (John 2:19, 21); it is the assembly of believers (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; Ephesians 2:21); it is the perfect sanctuary in heaven, where the perfect sacrifice takes place (Hebrews 8:1–2; 9:24). That sacrifice, Christians believe, no longer consists in repeated external offerings, but in Christ’s obedient self-giving, symbolized by his blood shed on the cross (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 9:11–14; 10:5–10)—a bloodshed prefigured at his circumcision.

 

References

De Chardin, Pierre Teilhard. 1958. Le Milieu Divin (Paris: Éditions du Seuil)

Fine, Steven. 1996. ‘From Meeting House to Sacred Realm: Holiness and the Ancient Synagogue’, in Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World, ed. by Steven Fine (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 39–65

Goldhill, Simon. 2005. The Temple of Jerusalem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Green, Alberto R. W. 2003. The Storm-god in the Ancient Near East (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press)

Viladesau, Richard. 2014. The Pathos of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—The Baroque Era (New York: Oxford University Press)

Next exhibition: 1 Kings 9:1–9 Next exhibition: 1 Kings 10:1–13 Next exhibition: 2 Chronicles 9:1–12