Jill, Duchess of Hamilton on a spectacular exhibition of Franciscan treasures brought to the Palace of Versailles from the Holy Land

Treasure of the Holy Sepulchre, Palace of Versailles, until July 14

“Formidable!” is the only way to describe the eight new rooms at the Palace of Versailles.

For two months they will be packed with oil paintings and antique objects made of silver, solid gold, emeralds and diamonds transported to Paris from Jerusalem. They are on loan from the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

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Treasures include the sword used by Godfrey de Bouillon when he led the Crusaders in 1099, gold and silver sanctuary lamps, torches, gilded silver candelabras, liturgical vases inset with precious stones, processional crosses, ceremonial vestments, sold gold metalwork, sumptuous chalices, crucifixes, lamps, ciboria and liturgical vestments. While much has been confined for centuries in vaults and storerooms of the Custody in the Old City of Jerusalem, many items have been used in church ceremonies. Most were donated to the Franciscans by European monarchs during the 700 years of Muslim rule after the Crusades until the end of the First World War.

“This is the first time that the most impressive pieces of the Franciscans’ collection in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, have been on view together to the public,” Catherine Pégard, présidente de l’établissement public du château, told me last week at the glittering opening at Versailles at which guests included the former French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. One art expert told me the value of the work displayed ran into tens of millions of dollars.

The Franciscans have one of the most valuable silver and gold collections in the world. Each piece is a testament to the presence in the Holy Land, after the Great Schism, of the Latin Catholic Church as a separate entity, distinct from the Greek Orthodox Church. To maintain European connections with the places of Jesus’s birth and crucifixion, European monarchs took to sending lavish gifts to demonstrate their faith – and their power. The recipients were naturally the Franciscans. After the Crusades they were the sole western Christians recognised by the Ottoman sultans and the Holy See as co-sharing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the Greek Orthodox Church. Indeed, visitors to Versailles can see a papal bull signed by Pope Clement VI in 1342 bestowing his authority.

It is not just the generosity of European monarchs that is staggering, but also the way the Franciscans managed to preserve their collection throughout the centuries. Until the 19th century, challenges ranged from pirates on the Mediterranean to punitive imperial taxes on silver and gold – as well as demands for baksheesh by corrupt officials. Sometimes different governments – the Mamluks, for example – saw the wealth of the Church as a source of revenue. Once anything valuable was in the monastery or church it had to be vigilantly guarded against thieves, wars, invasions.

Of all the pieces of ecclesiastical silver and gold on display, the most exquisite craftsmanship can be seen in the processional crosses, staffs, chalices and sanctuary lamps. One of the most impressive was given by Louis XIII in 1625. Large, spectacular and decorated with distinctive fleurs-de-lis, this solid silver lamp was hung directly below the star that marked the birthplace of Jesus in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As with some of the other objects he gifted, the provenance can be distinguished by the domination of French lilies in the surface decoration.

Even more lavish than the gifts of Louis XIII were those of his son, Louis XIV, the Sun King. Among these, a gold chalice with the coat of arms of France and Navarre on the base has caught much attention.

But even more eye-catching is the pastoral staff of gilded silver, studded with emeralds and amethysts, crafted by Nicolas Dolin in Paris in 1654. Although raised fleur-de-lis makes this baton clearly French, its coat of arms is the cross of Jerusalem encircled by palm leaves. Any French ecclesiastical plate made during the Bourbon monarchy is of immense interest as most other examples from their reigns were destroyed in the French Revolution.

In monetary value, though, the most lavish exhibits in the exhibition are masterpieces from Naples and Spain. Two items from Naples are heavily sculpted and titled “Throne of Exposition”. The earliest, dated 1714, by the master silversmith Domenico d’Angelo, is elaborate and features God the Father, the dove of the Holy Spirit, two angels and much scrolling foliage. But the “Throne of Exposition” made of solid gold 40 years later is more eye-catching. Indeed, the spectacular emerald-studded cross and crown dominating its apex fills the posters of the exhibition on billboards across the Paris Métro.

Not to be overlooked is the magnificent collection of religious copes, chasubles, canopies and other embroidered textiles used by celebrants in Masses and processions. The dry weather of Jerusalem has kept them as if they were new, making them the best preserved examples in the world.
Anyone who misses seeing these Jerusalem treasures in Versailles has another opportunity. The exhibits will form the core of the Terra Sancta Museum, which the Custody plans to open in Jerusalem in 2015.

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