Holy Sepulchre Chapel in Washington, D.C.

The Sepulchre in Washington, D.C.

The Franciscan Monastery Sepulchre is a small sacellum chapel or tempietto (little temple) of prime importance built inside the Byzantine-Romanesque Memorial Church of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C. The church and sepulchre were brilliantly designed in the 1890s by the Italian architect Aristide Leonori (1857-1928), who took his inspiration loosely from the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The architect cleverly created the sepulchre as a replica - a faithful counterpart - of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Our Lord was entombed. He placed it opposite the main entrance, in the east transept, in view of the priest as he celebrates Mass atop the main altar under the baldacchino canopy. The sepulchre was completed in time for the church's dedication in 1899. On top of it was built the altar of Tabor and the Transfiguration (see photo below), reached by a staircase on either side of the sepulchre.  This is where the Blessed Sacrament has been traditionally reserved. Above this altar is a large painted gypsum relief panel that depicts Christ's Ascension into Heaven with a golden background, entitled "The Transfiguration" (cf. Mark 9:4), based on Doré's conception from his epic illustrated Bible.

The beautiful main altar in Washington, D.C.

The golden funerary sepulchre alludes to the aedicule seen in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - this is a small free-standing chapel, located in the Basilica, housing the Holy Sepulchre, the actual burial place of Christ. The word aedicule is taken from the Latin word aedicula, in reference to a small shrine. Below is an illustration of what the Holy Sepulchre looks like in Jerusalem. 

Image of the original Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

The exterior in Washington, D.C. resembles in some ways the original in Jerusalem. It is rectangular in shape, with outside pillars, a bronze balustrade (that was originally of stone), with an image above the main entrance. Lamps are strung from the exterior front of the original, with a Muscovite style tower crowning the tomb (a decorative element in the shape of the flame of a candle, also used for ventilation). 

Image of the Sepulchre in a vintage guidebook

The inside of the Washington, D.C. version was laid out according to the exact same measurements of the original tomb in Jerusalem, taken by the architect during his 1898 trip to the Holy Land, which ensured the perfect reproduction of the floor plan. The stucco reliefs inside and outside are by the Irish-born artist James Earley. The Resurrection bas-relief sculpture above the main entrance is in gypsum, covered in gold-leaf.     

The Sepulchre with stairs to the Mt. Tabor altar

True to the original tomb in Jerusalem, the sepulchre has two small rooms. In the original tomb in Jerusalem, the first room, a little vestibule or antechamber, is called the "Chapel of the Angel," because it was here that the angel, sitting on the recently rolled away stone, announced the Resurrection. The angel told the weeping women that Christ was not there, that "He is risen" (cf. Mark 16:1-7). In Jerusalem this room holds the "angel's stone," a pedestal holding a framed stone believed to be a fragment of the stone that sealed the tomb (the stone is today small on account of pilgrims over the centuries taking pieces of it home). The sepulchre in Washington, D.C. has instead a stone with the carved Latin words Ex Jerusalem, meaning the stone is from Jerusalem.  

Stone taken from the Holy City of Jerusalem

An even smaller door leads to the other room, the tomb of Christ. All that can be seen in this tiny dark cell, where three is a crowd, is a slab of Italian marble (with a large fissure crack) covering the rock upon which the body of Christ was laid. In the original, a profusion of lamps hang from the ceiling, with dozens of icons and flowers, tokens of visitors to the shrine, with the sweet odor of incense lingering in the air.

Floor plan and shape of the church - 3 is the Sepulchre

A true pilgrimage site must give the sense of the nearness of God, the kinship of the saints, and the holiness of the spot. The site of the Holy Sepulchre meets all of the above. Christians have prayed at this location in Jerusalem since the earliest centuries and there has been a permanent chapel marking the spot since the day when the Roman Empress Helena came to Jerusalem in the year 324 and removed the pagan temple of Aphrodite (Venus, Patroness of Rome) that had been built over the site by the Roman conquerors. In its place was built a triumphal Christian temple, some of which still remains today. Over the centuries many millions of human hearts have visited this holiest of sites and have found immense consolation while experiencing many graces, the fruits of a good pilgrimage.

Recreation of the tomb of Christ inside the Sepulchre

Pilgrims visit both places in Jerusalem and Washington, D.C. to see the empty tomb in order to return home to the ends of the earth as witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ (cf. John 20). In both places Mass is celebrated over the marble slab, with room just enough for a few people. The room of the tomb is tiny; it measures seven feet long by five feed wide. While there is room enough for at the most three people in this room, about twenty can be fit in the antechamber room. Three feet above the floor is the slab of marble, covering the tomb, making it a low altar. For Mass, the stone is dressed with altar clothes, candles, and flowers.  

Holy Thursday tabernacle of repose inside the Sepulchre

Overlooking the empty tomb in Washington, D.C. is the above silver frieze, a copy of the Baroque original Italian version in Jerusalem. Christ can be seen, "His countenance was as lightning; and his regiment as snow" (cf. Matt. 28:3). He holds the palm branch of victory, while He rises from the empty tomb. "The guards were struck with terror and became as dead men" (cf. Matt. 28:4). A small tabernacle is also included that has been beautifully purposed as an altar of repose for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. 

Entrance to the recreated tomb in the Sepulchre

The door to the sepulchre is low and narrow. In order to enter, visitors bend over and make their way in, as with the original in Jerusalem. The space is dark and evocative of prayer. Many Catholics from across the nation and beyond make pilgrimages here to pray and do penance in conjunction with a visit to the nearby National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. 

A vintage pamphlet for visitors

Many of the visitors who make a special effort to visit here include Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (EOHSJ), who have a special devotion to the empty tomb of Christ. The EOHSJ is a chivalric order of knighthood under the protection of the Holy See, dedicated to supporting the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Knights who visit are recognized by their white mantle and black beret. When dames of the order visit, they are cloaked in a black robe with an elegant lace veil (in Spanish, mantilla).

Pilgrims gather inside the anteroom of the Sepulchre 

The design in Washington, D.C. is not entirely unusual. Recreations of the original empty tomb of Christ can be seen in various parts of the world. For example, in Rome at San Nicola da Tolentino there is a replica of the tomb of Christ, dating from the year 1679. In Florence many go out to their way to see the famous 15th-century Rucellai Sepulchre, built in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem. In Poland there is a similar emulation, the 14th-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Miechów. In Bologna an ancient replica can be seen at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the Basilica of Santo Stefano. In Russia there is a replica at the Orthodox Resurrection Cathedral in Istra, near Moscow. In the country of Georgia, the Svetitskhovell Orthodox Cathedral has a beautiful rendition, located in the town of Mtskheta. In France there is one at the church of Saint-Jean in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne. In Canada, a faithful replica stands at the Fourteenth Station of the Cross at the National Shrine of Notre-Dame du Cap at Trois-Rivières, Quebec.  

The author in prayer in front of the Sepulchre

Outside the tomb is a copy of the stone of unction, also known as the stone of anointing. This is in imitation of the reddish stone slab inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, placed at the foot of Mt. Calvary to protect from profane hands the rock upon which Christ was placed. The original is encased in  black and white marble, illumined by lamps hanging overhead and by large candelabra at its four corners. Here two artistic candelabra in the Byzantine style stand guard in front of the tomb replica, donated by Benzinger Brothers of New York. 

Tradition holds that Jesus' body was laid at this spot after it was taken down from the cross where the body was cleansed, anointed, and wrapped in linen cloths for burial (John 19:39). The stone in Jerusalem gives off the aroma of perfumed fragrant myrrh because it is anointed every day. Visitors kneel in prayer and reverence the stone with a sacred kiss. Some place newborn infants on the stone or objects they wish to be blessed. 

The author reverences the Stone of Anointing

Pilgrims and visitors in Jerusalem generally reverence (kiss) the sacred stone after they first visit Mt. Calvary and before they enter the empty tomb. All of this is located within the same church, the massive Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, first built by the Empress Helena in the fourth century AD. The feeling of this real-life experience of the longed for Jerusalem, no longer abstracted as only a vision or a dream, stirs the human heart beyond description. 

The author standing in front of the Sepulchre

The tomb can be seen behind the main altar, as depicted in the photo below, a perfect backdrop for the Easter Triduum. The main altar is in the style of the Italian Renaissance, of native white marble with the emblem of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem Cross, depicted in mosaic stone, a creation of the Vatican Mosaic Studios. In the photo the cross is veiled for Palm Sunday, a venerable tradition of veiling statues and sacred images in Roman purple for the traditional celebration of Passiontide at the end of Lent.    

The Sepulchre visible behind the main altar

The altar adorned for Palm Sunday

The Holy Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem is the most revered site in Christendom. To visit there on pilgrimage is an immense blessing. That being said, not everyone can make it on such a long and distant journey. As an alternative, for those who cannot travel to such a distant land, there is this option closer to home. Catholics are encouraged to visit here as pilgrims and to take time to pray inside this imitation tomb of Christ, a little piece of Jerusalem, to see the sepulchrum Christi viventis, et gloriam vidi resurgentis, "the tomb of Christ who now liveth, and likewise the glory of the Risen One" (taken from the Easter Sequence, Victimae Paschali Laudes).  

The desire of pilgrims and their experience has been beautifully illustrated by the author Runciman in his A History of the Crusades (vol. I, chapter 3):

"The desire to be a pilgrim is deeply rooted in human nature. To stand where those that we reverence once stood, to see the very sites where they were born and toiled and died, gives us a feeling of mystical contact with them and is a practical expression of our homage. And if great men of the world have their shrines into which their admirers come from afar, still more do men flock eagerly to those places where, they believe, the Divine has sanctified the earth."  

Description of the Sepulchre from a vintage pamphlet

And don't miss the Via Crucis. The fourteen Stations of the Cross, made of alabaster and mosaic, begin and end at the sepulchre, with the first station on the north wall and the 14th station, "Jesus is Laid in the Sepulchre," on the south wall. After visiting the Holy Land, all of this takes on new meaning. At the top of each station is a small olive-wood cross from Gethsemane that contains a fragment of stone from the sites of each of the respective stations in Jerusalem.  

Bring your prayer intentions. In the words of the English poet Tennyson: "More things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of."

A vintage guidebook of the shrine (our personal favorite)

Lastly, many thanks to the Franciscans for maintaining this holy shrine as well as for their more than eight centuries of work in the Holy Land. The historic Franciscan presence in Jerusalem and its environs has proven to be of exceptional strength and importance through the centuries. The brave and steadfast Franciscan friars have been poetically described as a "weak but invincible army which alone remained to guard the Holy Sepulchre, when kings had abandoned it."  

Holy Mass at the Shrine on Palm Sunday

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