The Saving Balm of Beauty: Of Mosaics, Art and a Prayerful Heart in the Holy Land

In the land of Jesus, beauty is everywhere, in churches, mosaics and God’s creation.

Clockwise from top left: Mosaic ‘Peace’  tiles on the wall by the Gaza Strip; a Marian image at the Church of the Annunciation, and the ceiling and exterior of the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane reflect beauty.
Clockwise from top left: Mosaic ‘Peace’ tiles on the wall by the Gaza Strip; a Marian image at the Church of the Annunciation, and the ceiling and exterior of the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane reflect beauty. (photo: Hannah Cote photos)

I had no expectations and hardly any preparations heading to the Holy Land. How do you prepare to walk where Jesus walked?

But this lack only created a deeper space to let the beauty of Israel strike my heart.

Tucked away in every corner and fold of column and stone; glimmering in sun beams atop steeples and towers; and hidden under thousands and thousands of footsteps — there is beauty everywhere.

Maybe I’ve just stated the obvious. Although there is an overwhelming amount of beauty in the Holy Land, more importantly, there is the healing, saving power of its beauty.

For those who haven’t visited Israel before, it’s honestly quite a mess. Jews, Muslims and Christians all fight for space — the tension and intensity is tangible.

For example, I attended 5:30am Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. This church is shared by multiple Christian denominations, primarily Catholics and Greek Orthodox.

Even at the early sunrise Mass, distractions and disruptions filled the space. As we celebrated the liturgy, Greek Orthodox priests walked around us shaking bells and incense during their prayers. I was trying desperately to hear the Gospel reading, but our priests were as calm as ever.

They were a perfect example of virtue in tension. This was my second visit to the church, and it was still so difficult for me to understand the beauty in this chaos. Our tour guide previously shared a powerful quote from Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor that has begun to transform my vision of this mess:

“One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness: The six groups of occupants — Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians — watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here; it epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate; those who permit the church to question them may begin to understand why hundreds of thousands thought it worthwhile to risk death or slavery to pray here. Is this the place where Christ died and was buried? Yes, very probably.”

Our selfishness, weakness, brokenness and humanness are made apparent in Israel. But why do Christians take pilgrimages to the Holy Land? To see where Jesus walked, lived and performed miracles; to pray and intercede; to learn; and to receive healing in that brokenness. And I believe the beauty of Israel helps us heal.

Upon entering Israel, the natural beauty is immediate, profound and rich. On my first day, I woke up to a perfect view of the Mediterranean Sea, in awe of its sheer size. As my group moved round and around the Sea of Galilee, exploring mountains, beaches and cities, the natural beauty of rock, sea and sky enveloped us.

But beyond just the natural beauty, I found the artists’ beauty; creations from ages ago. And one artform that continuously captured my attention was the mosaic.

For some, it’s just colored and cracked tile. But for the artist, it’s a vessel for storytelling, a paint made of glass and a saving balm amid chaos and confusion.

This reality fell upon me at the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory that’s only 25 miles long and varying between 3.7 and 7.5 miles wide and somehow holds more than 2 million people. This place has been controlled by Hamas, an Islamic terrorist group, since 2006. People cannot freely enter or leave the territory.

My group stood about a mile from a massive wall that surrounds the Gaza Strip. A second wall protects parts of Netiv Ha-asara, a town nearby. But this wall is not just bleak and gray like the Gaza Strip wall.

It’s covered in millions of mosaic tiles, all painted and created by one woman from the town. One message covers the majority of the wall: “Peace.”

“Peace” is spelled out in thousands of tiles across an entire section of the wall, while the small pieces also include that plea.

In the place that contains arguably the greatest turmoil in all of Israel, beauty transforms the disturbance and disruption of the wall.

In St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” he reminds artists of their immense power and duty to create and communicate the mystery of creation: “None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands.”

Israel has witnessed many artists upon its land. Architect Antonio Barluzzi created mosaics at the churches of the Garden of Gethsemane, Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and more, and each of his works exemplifies the story at that site. At the church at Gethsemane, the stained glass and mosaic ceilings are deep and dark, helping us to imagine the night of the Agony in the Garden.

Holy Land Hannah Cote 2
Clockwise from top left: The Peace Wall by the Gaza Strip, a Marian image at the Church of the Annunciation, and mosaics in Jaffa as well as at the Sea of Galilee and Mount of the Beatitudes also reflect beauty. (Photo: Hannah Cote photos)

In Jaffa, a seaside town, artists are invited from all over to exhibit galleries and paint buildings. Homes are built to match the traditional stone architecture of the old city, while mosaics are found on walls and streets alike.

At the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the surrounding walls of the church are flooded with images of Mary gifted by countries from across the world.

These are only a few examples; everywhere you turn in the Holy Land, there is art communicating the beauty of God to its audience. My visit to Israel brought me to the “Letter to Artists” again and again. At the climax of this letter, St. John Paul II tells us, “The Church needs art.”

“Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable,” writes St. John Paul II. “Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.”

I feel that St. John Paul II has perfectly wrapped up my experience of Israel, most especially when he quotes Fyodor Dostoevsky in his letter: “Beauty will save the world.”

Israel is far from peace, it seems. There is division between Christians and Jews; constant efforts to gain territory from others; and a deep, deep history of suffering and trauma.

But hidden everywhere in this pain is a mysterious beauty, realigning our eyes to Jesus and his miraculous work in the Holy Land.

Beauty has drawn my heart closer to Christ’s:

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like St. Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: Late have I loved you!’” (“Letter to Artists”).

Now, I pray for Israel and its suffering. When I open the Psalms and read about Jerusalem and David’s hope for peace, the reality is greater. Israel opened a deeper space for intercession in my life. I pray for the land, the people, dissenting religions, those who go unnoticed, those desperate for a home, and those who will never know a life without desperation; these people and this land need our prayers.

The Holy Land is steeped in beauty, and I pray that its beauty continues to save, heal and transfix hearts and eyes to the Lord. It has done exactly that to me.

Hannah Cote visited the Holy Land in early January.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.