Hebrews 9

A Sanctuary Not Made with Hands

Commentaries by Robin Griffith-Jones

Works of art by Christopher Wren, Giovanni Bellini and Unknown artist

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Unknown artist

The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window, 12th century, Stained glass, Abbey Church, Saint-Denis, France; Photo: Bulloz © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

A More Perfect Tent

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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In the 1140s Abbot Suger rebuilt and beautified the Abbey of St Denis, outside Paris. Suger himself wrote an account of the work. Among its wonders were the new stained-glass windows. Here is the most famous.

The lowest of the five roundels was once the scene of St Paul turning a mill. (This is now the middle roundel.) Suger explained: ‘One [window], urging us onward from the material to the immaterial, shows the apostle Paul turning a mill and the prophets carrying sacks to the mill’ (Suger 1996: section 34). From the edible but hard outer bran Paul extracts inner grains of spiritual truth.

None of the roundels shows a story from the Bible; each, instead, combines biblical and theological motifs into a single stylized, emblematic, and revelatory scene. They are following the example set by Hebrews 9, in its progress from the material to the immaterial Holy of Holies.

Once at the window’s centre (and now at its top), the most startling of all Suger’s images brings old and new ‘Ark’ together. Beside the scene are two Latin verses:

From the Ark of the Covenant the altar is set up with the cross of Christ;
It is under a greater Covenant that Life wishes to die.

Beneath is the simple phrase: CHARIOT OF AMINADAB. This is a reference to the Song of Solomon 6:9, ‘My soul has troubled me on account of the chariots of Aminadab’.

Aminadab had helped manage the joyful transport of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem at King David’s command (1 Chronicles 15:10; cf. Abinadab’s cart, 1 Samuel 7:1–2; 1 Chronicles 13:6). The twelfth-century commentator Honorius (Expositio in Cantica canticorum) interpreted Song of Solomon 6:9 as follows: the Shunamite woman who is speaking represents the Synagogue as she will be when at last she is led by the Gospel to belief in Christ; the chariot of Aminadab represents the Gospels, its four wheels the Evangelists.

For Suger as for Honorius, everything that was opaque in the Old Covenant is being revealed and fulfilled in the New; and above all, the character of the Holy of Holies, its priest and offering.



Abbot Suger. 1996. On What was Done in his Administration, trans. by David Burr, available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/sugar.asp [accessed 8 January 2018]

Cusimano, Richard, and Eric Whitmore (trans.). 2018. ‘The Book of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis: His Accomplishments during His Administration’, in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint Denis (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press), pp. 66–126

Honorius Augustodunensis. Expositio in Cantica canticorum. 1895. Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina, vol. 172, ed. by Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris), pp. 352–53

Ark and Crucifix

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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What was once the central, pivotal roundel (and is now at the window’s top) shows the cart that brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem; on it, the Ark, beautifully decorated, is shown open, with Moses’ two tablets and Aaron’s rod visible inside.

Now comes the dazzling elaboration. At each wheel is the symbol of one of the four Evangelists: Matthew’s human, Mark’s lion, Luke’s ox, John’s eagle. Everything here is visionary; the symbols, wheels, and cart recall the great chariot-throne of God seen by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1  & 10). Emerging—almost growing—from inside the Ark is a crucifix, bearing the same decoration. (It is, then, the depiction of a crucifix; not of the crucifixion itself.) God the Father is behind the crucifix and holding it. Between him and the cross hangs an altar-curtain representing the veil of the Holy of Holies.

In the Holy of Holies a cherub was set at each end of the Ark; two more, far vaster cherubim loomed behind the Ark, with outstretched wings. These four creatures have in the roundel become the four Evangelists. The throne of God has become the altar of his Son. The Mercy-Seat of the Old Covenant is now united with the source of all mercy in the New. We can hardly tell if the Ark and crucifix belong on earth, or—like the Ark’s prototype—in heaven, or in both at once.

To enter the Holy of Holies was to cross the threshold of heaven. The High Priest did so for a few minutes every year; Christ, just once for all time. The Ark and the crucifix are on earth the two great humanly-made correlates of God’s evolving Covenant in heaven.

We are hardly used, now, to such density of reference, demanding such intensity of vision. Abbot Suger wrote of the High Altar’s sculptures that they shone with the radiance of delightful allegories and were intelligible only to the highly literate (Suger 1996: section 32). Hebrews 9 calls for just such awareness too; and rewards it, beyond measure, in our own access to its imaginative and devotional world.



Abbot Suger. 1996. On What was Done in his Administration, trans. by David Burr, available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/sugar.asp [accessed 8 January 2018]


Christopher Wren

Reredos, The Temple Church, London, Church built 12th century; interior 17th/18th century, Architecture, London, UK; Photo: Christopher Christodoulou

Before the Throne of God

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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As London recovered from the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral and to rebuild or refurbish fifty-one churches. The altarpiece shown here is in the Temple Church. The style is ostensibly austere, formal, didactic: on this central panel are the Ten Commandments; on the side-panels, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.

There was, in Wren’s day, an intense interest in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 CE and never rebuilt. It had, in the grandest architecture, replicated the layout and roles of the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle) created by Moses in the wilderness to house the Ark of the Covenant wherever he pitched camp (Exodus 25–31).

As Hebrews reminds us (9:3–4), the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies. There King Solomon had placed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Ark’s lid was the Mercy-Seat, God’s throne—or the footstool of God’s throne—on earth. At each end of the Ark was a carved cherub. The Holy of Holies itself was decorated with carvings of trees and fruits to mimic the loveliness of Paradise, where God had once walked with humankind (Genesis 3:8).

And Wren’s altarpiece? Here in the centre is the altar or Lord’s Table, the Mercy-Seat of the New Covenant. Above it are the two round-topped panels of the Ten Commandments. Above them in turn are two tiny cherubs’ heads. On each side is a carved frieze of fruits and flowers. Wren has created a version, pared down and open to view, of the Holy of Holies.

I celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday in the Temple Church. We are clearly the heirs here of the great Western tradition, its classical forms and three-membered altarpieces. (Such triptychs in Roman Catholic Churches are painted; Wren replaced images with more suitably Protestant words.) But we are the heirs too of a still more ancient setting for worship. I stand before the altar here as the High Priest stood in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago, in the Holy of Holies—before the throne of God.

The Blood that Intercedes

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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The design of the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle) and its implements was shown to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25:9, 40; 26:30). The Letter to the Hebrews invokes this event too (8:5). The Ark of the Covenant was chief among the ritual artefacts that Moses made in obedience to God’s instructions.

Once the Tent had finally been dismantled, the Ark was unlike any other structure on earth: it realized at first hand a heavenly prototype.

In Judaism the court of heaven was the home of God and of his indefeasible purposes. Once the Temple was built, there was one fixed point of almost perfect intersection between the divine and human worlds, eternity and time, heaven and earth: the Temple’s Holy of Holies. It was a perfect cube.

Ever since the Babylonians sacked the Temple in 586 BCE, the Holy of Holies lay empty; only a low platform marked the spot where the Ark of the Covenant had once stood. To pass from the blazing sunlight of Jerusalem into this windowless sanctuary was to pass through two vast, double veils. One of them was decorated with the sun, planets, and stars on a dark blue background; to pass through it was indeed to pass through the heavens to God’s throne-room beyond. The High Priest alone came in here, and only on the Day of Atonement.

The High Priest entered three times: first with a tray of burning incense; then with the blood of a bullock; finally with the blood of a goat. He sprinkled the blood on the front of the platform, to atone for the pollution with which the sins of the priests and the sins of the people had infected the Temple over the preceding year. As the Holy of Holies represented heaven, so the Temple as a whole represented, in microcosm, the whole earth. On the Day of Atonement, in this one building, the whole of creation was cleansed and re-purified.

When I celebrate the Eucharist in Wren’s sanctuary, I am in a new Holy of Holies; as is every celebrant of every Eucharist in the Christian world.

Giovanni Bellini

The Blood of the Redeemer, c.1465, Tempera on panel, 47.6 x 35.2 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought 1887, NG1233, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

The Drink of Immortality

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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Giovanni Bellini painted this small panel in Venice early in his career, around 1460. The panel was probably—not certainly—designed for the door of a tabernacle: a small cupboard in which the elements of the Mass, once consecrated, could be stored on or near an altar. The four empty areas around Jesus’s lower legs were once the heads—in reds, blues, and gold—of cherubs among clouds. At some time and for some reason, both unknown, these were scraped off.

Even without the angels, the scene is strange enough.

The painting’s motifs were familiar in the fifteenth century when stylized images of the Passion and its instruments (the crown of thorns, nails, lance, etc.) were used to prompt sorrow, pity, remorse, and a deepening dedication to Christ and to a new life. The wounds of Christ were a special focus of devotion, and in particular the spear-wound in his side, from which sprang blood and water (John 19:35). This was the wound to Christ’s heart from which flowed his cleansing blood, the mother’s milk of our new birth, the fountain of life, and (in the wine-and-water of the Eucharist) the drink of immortality.

That spring of Christ’s blood, perhaps almost repellent to us now, was topical then. It raised an acute question. The blood of Jesus shed at his Passion had thereby been detached from his body before the event of his resurrection. Was such blood divine (and so a fitting focus for worship) or merely human (and so only for a lesser veneration)? This affected the devotional status of blood-relics. The Dominicans answered, divine; the Franciscans disagreed. Bellini’s painting is surely based on the Dominicans’ view.

There is no hiatus between the blood flowing from Christ’s side into the angel’s chalice and the blood offered at the Eucharist. ‘This is my blood’, said Jesus over the wine at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28). It is as though he says it again in Bellini’s painting—directly to us.

Seeing What God Sees

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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In The Blood of the Redeemer we gaze out of a tiled sanctuary, past Christ and the balustrade—a version of altar-rails—and to the landscape beyond.

Along a winding path walk a figure in dark clothes and a smaller attendant, from the ruined town on the right to the city on the left, just touched with the pink rays of dawn. The path will bring them to the foot of the platform on which Christ stands. Their route from desolation to the new day is via Christ and his redeeming blood. The larger figure holds a white cloth, perhaps such a ‘pall’ as was used to cover the eucharistic vessels. He may even be meant as a Dominican, if we can take his dark blue cloak for the Dominicans’ black.

All of this still leaves us wondering, can we identify, in this mysterious scene, our own stand-point, from which we have this privileged view of Christ and of our world beyond? If we do imagine the tiled area as a church’s sanctuary, and the balustrade as its altar-rails, then the landscape is its (western) nave, and we are looking west.

Christ—both priest and victim—is standing at the east end of the church, in the place of the altar on which his death is recalled at every Eucharist. He is facing still further east, beyond the altar—and towards his own Father in heaven to whom as priest he is for all eternity offering his own blood.

Giovanni Bellini has given us the viewpoint of God.

We see here what God sees. With compassion, yes, and compunction; but above all, we see it with slowly dawning awe. The cherubs were around Christ’s calves; he has risen above them to the highest of heights. We are gazing as God gazes on Christ in the heavenly Holy of Holies where he pleads, on behalf of the world behind him, his blood of the New and everlasting Covenant.

Unknown artist :

The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window, 12th century , Stained glass

Christopher Wren :

Reredos, The Temple Church, London, Church built 12th century; interior 17th/18th century , Architecture

Giovanni Bellini :

The Blood of the Redeemer, c.1465 , Tempera on panel

Once and For All

Comparative commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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It is vital—if Christian theology is to remain true to itself—to find within God’s Covenants an eternal consistency in the blessings offered in the Old Covenant to the Jews and in the New to Gentiles as well. Hebrews 9 still confronts us with the challenge.

(Giovanni Bellini addressed a rather different question: how to keep all that is precious in ancient paganism in our passage onwards into Christianity. Between Jesus and those two small pilgrims on the right stands the balustrade, shown with classical-style sculptures of pagan rituals. These pagan figures are shown with respect; but here Christ’s blood has—quite literally—passed beyond them. His right hand both emphasizes and blocks an ancient ritual for the dead.)

For Abbot Suger and the twelfth-century Church, Jewish thought represented a literal, worldly, ‘fleshly’ reading of the Old Testament. Only the New Testament—and the Christ revealed in it—unveiled the true, spiritual, heavenly sense of Scripture. It was a passing from the material to the immaterial, as from darkness to light.

And Christian theology has for centuries been absorbed by light. While the full power of the primordial light (Genesis 1:16) would blind us, the sapphire-coloured light of St Denis suggests the partial illumination of our human ignorance: a dim, ever-changing image of the great light of God’s perfection which is too brilliant for us to see.

Suger wrote of his intense, trance-like contemplation of gold, pearls, and jewels—jasper, sapphire, emerald, etc.—on and around the Abbey’s High Altar. The same jewels had formed the perfect covering of the King of Tyre, God’s priestly ‘Adam in Eden’, as evoked by Ezekiel, priest and prophet of the Old Testament (Ezekiel 28:13); and every such gem had in the Middle Ages a ‘virtue’ or medicinal and magic power of its own.

Suger was applying not just his bedazzled sight to this contemplation, but a fund of biblical, scientific, and moral knowledge. He uses a technical term from biblical exegesis, ‘anagogy’ or ‘leading upwards’, for the elevation that follows. He was swept up not just by allegorical understanding or by moral improvement, but by his soul’s transport towards heaven.

I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven. By the gift of God I can be transported in an anagogical manner from this inferior level to that superior one. (Cusimano and Whitmore 2018: section 32)

We might not today share his views about the worldly literalness of Jewish religion, but here is a move from material to immaterial things that we can still gratefully adapt and adopt: in Suger’s mind, from earth’s ‘slime’ to a hard, glittering purity; in ours, more probably—and just as true to St Denis—from the lustre of gold and of those portentous jewels to the brilliance of Day One of creation, and finally of the one true Light of the World.

And so back to the Eucharist and Hebrews 9. What happens at the Eucharist? Christ died on the cross once and once only (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10); and he makes eternal intercession for us in heaven (7:25; 9:24). In the sanctuary of London’s Temple Church, then, as in every church’s Holy of Holies, we re-present—we make present again among us—the self-offering of Christ in the heavenly Holy of Holies.

Christians try of course to define what happens to the bread and wine at their consecration. When we do so, we are asking not just what we ourselves then eat and drink, but what we, as ourselves the Body of Christ, are offering to God in and through the Body and Blood of Christ. We ask whether we act at an altar (as for a sacrifice) or at the Lord’s Table (as for the banquet of heaven prefigured at the Last Supper). Hebrews reminds us: beyond both, we are before an Ark of the New Covenant, the throne of God and Mercy-Seat, in the Holy of Holies where Creator and creation intersect.

As in Jerusalem’s Temple two millennia ago, at the Eucharist heaven and earth, eternity and time, God and humanity meet ‘in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth not entirely in the purity of heaven’. And yet for the Church the great point of intersection is no longer a ‘place’ at all, but the person of Christ, Bellini’s blood-donating Redeemer.

He is himself the Holy of Holies, the High Priest, and the Victim in his eternal self-offering to the Father.



Abbot Suger. 1996. On What was Done in his Administration, trans. by David Burr, available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/sugar.asp [accessed 8 January 2018]

Cusimano, Richard, and Eric Whitmore (trans.). 2018. ‘The Book of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis: His Accomplishments during His Administration’, in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint Denis (Washington, DC: CUA Press), pp. 66–126


Next exhibition: Hebrews 10:1–18

Hebrews 9

Revised Standard Version

9 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place. 3Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, 4having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; 5above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties; 7but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people. 8By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened as long as the outer tent is still standing 9(which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10but deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. 16For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. 19For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” 21And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; 26for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.