Today it is one of the quieter corners of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but hundreds of years ago the ‘Prison of Christ’ was one of the must-see spots for medieval Christian pilgrims.
In his article, “God’s Cell: Christ as Prisoner and Pilgrimage to the Prison of Christ,” Anthony Bale examines the history of the place and the impact it had on people in the Middle Ages. Currently located in the northwest corner of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the site which according to Christian tradition, where Jesus was crucified and the tomb where he was buried and resurrected – the Prison of Christ is a small chapel.
While the various Gospels do not mention of any place where Jesus was kept after his arrest in Jerusalem, the idea that he was detained led Christians to believe that he was imprisoned for at least some time, and gradually they began to seek it out. It was not until the 9th century that we have any kind of description of a prison cell for Jesus – a Byzantine monk referenced a site as “the guardroom where Christ was imprisoned with Barrabbas.” By then it was already serving as a small chapel.
While originally it was its own building, during the mid-12th century, when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was under Crusader-rule, the small chapel was incorporated into the larger building, where it was redesigned and expanded. “The prions was thus appropriated from local Greek traditions,” Bale explains, “accepted and rethought by the crusaders as part of their spiritual empire, in which devotion to the life and suffering of Christ was paramount.”
While other sites around Jerusalem were also said to be places where Jesus was kept or imprisoned before his execution, it the Prison of Christ chapel that became the most popular, drawing in pilgrims from throughout Europe since the 12th century. Various accounts would leave descriptions of it – one account for example, described how “in this place are also also stocks in which they put the feet of Jesus Christ, and they are made or marble. It also has the table on which the Holy Sacrifice of Mass is performed.” Others mentioned seeing chains in the room.
There was little doubt among these accounts of the genuineness of this site, and the Prison of Christ became widely associated with Jesus’ Passion. Bale adds, “that Christ needed to be imprisoned perhaps uneasily suggest his lack of volition in offering himself for sacrifice, but this imprisonment accorded with medieval ideas of being purged through the painful bliss of corrective suffering, something medieval pilgrims keenly wished to experience.”
Felix Fabri, who visited Jerusalem in the 1480s, offers a vivid account, where his Muslim tour guides provided him and the other pilgrims the full experience of being in the prison:
Now, as soon as we were all inside, the Saracens straightway pulled back the doors of the church quickly behind our backs, locked them with bolts and locks, as men are wont to do after they have pushed robbers violently into a dungeon, and went away with the keys, thus leaving us prisoners in the most delightful, lightsome, and roomy of prisons, in the garden of the most precious sepulchre of Christ, at the foot of the mount of Calvary, in the middle of the world. Oh how joyous an imprisonment! How desirable a captivity! How delightful an enclosure! how sweet a locking in, whereby the Christian is locked in and imprisoned in the Sepulchre of his Lord!
The Prison of Christ neatly joined with Western European Christian views about imprisonment, which saw it as both a place of physical restriction and spiritual awakening. The concept of Purgatory, which was just emerging during this period, was viewed as a kind of imprisonment, and many Western Christian practices, like monastic cells, anchoritism, sanctuaries, and ideas about the infant God in the Virgin’s womb, all had links to the idea of prison. Bale adds:
These are key imagined spaces for introspection, self-knowledge, and self-development. Far from being places of annihilation, abandonment, or disappearance, such small, strait spaces are the true analogs of the Prison of Christ: they can be regarded as individuated cells of godliness, enclosures for the performance of heavenly becoming, the material setting for the soul’s pilgrimage. The Prison of Christ participated in a cultural poetics in which constructive imprisonment played a significant part in the idea of Christian heroism.
Today, the Prison of Christ can be entered – its Crusader-era architecture is still there – but its significance on medieval Christian thought and belief have been largely forgotten.
The article “God’s Cell: Christ as Prisoner and Pilgrimage to the Prison of Christ,” appears in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol.91:1 (January 2016). You can access the article though the University of Chicago Press website. Anthony Bale is a Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck College University of London, where he teaches on medieval literature, culture, and religion. Click here to view his website.