Mother-of-pearl art from the Holy Land — forgotten for some time — has been rediscovered in America.
Now through March 3, the Washington-based Franciscans’ Holy Land in America is showcasing a variety of items in the "Hidden Treasures Rediscovered" exhibit.
With its shadings, iridescence and luminous reflections and character, mother-of-pearl art is unique. The material is a type of calcium formed on the inner shells of oysters, mussels and abalone. The shells were originally from the Red Sea.
There are crucifixes of several sizes, including one that measures nearly 6 feet. The most ornate crucifix in the monastery’s collection, it highlights several other events and mysteries in Jesus’ life, as recounted by the four Evangelists. The Evangelists are depicted around the arms of the cross. And, around them, there are rondels capturing the Stations of the Cross. Mother-of-pearl rays radiate from behind the suffering Jesus to show the divine dimensions of his sacrifice.
This elaborate crucifix stands atop a base which is a temple, whose dome is described as being like the one on the Shrine of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. Below the dome, the temple base has six major scenes from Jesus’ life: At the top center is the Last Supper. To either side are scenes depicting Gethsemane and the Baptism of the Lord. Below that are the Annunciation and the Nativity. Between these two appears the Resurrection, making this crucifix a summary of the major events of salvation history.
There are Last Supper scenes, Resurrection scenes and smaller Nativity scenes as well. In addition, a few non-religious items are on display: the Great Seal of the United States and a chess table.
One of the Last Supper scenes is in 3-D, painstakingly detailed and exceptionally ornate. It’s like a mother-of-pearl Fra Angelico. Jesus is surrounded by the Twelve Apostles. Before them are loaves of bread, a chalice and wine, all as separate pieces on the table, which is covered with a tablecloth carved with a delicate lacework pattern.
Another piece brings together scenes of the Last Supper and the Resurrection. Mother Mary observes Christ’s victory — and so do Mary Magdalene and Veronica, as well as those who crucified him, like Pilate and the soldiers, who are shown falling down in fear.
Another piece shows Mary and Joseph kneeling before the Infant Jesus in swaddling clothes, while an angel and star appear overhead.
St. Francis and the Franciscan coat of arms make their appearance as well — not surprising, because the history of mother-of-pearl carving in Palestine is deeply rooted in the Franciscans’ presence there.
St. Francis traveled to the Holy Land in 1218, and his friars have been present there since the 13th century. Once the Franciscans became established in Bethlehem in the 14th century, the friars helped the Palestinian Christians make crosses and rosaries for pilgrims, a work that eventually became a major source of income for Palestinians.
By the mid-19th century, the Franciscans brought carvers from Genoa and Venice to instruct Palestinian artists in the intricate design work that soon enhanced much of their work.
Mother-of-pearl art experienced a decline after the mid-20th century, but, in Bethlehem, there’s a renaissance of this art — fitting timing for this exhibit.
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.