Debut: The Ledge

by societyofsmallness

This is third in a series of essays featuring venues, artists, curators, and other actors participating in Mini-exhibtiothon ii. Terah Walkup’s essay provides background for her exhibit of  pilgrimage souvenirs that will consecrate The Ledge, that long, narrow strip at the top of the stairway.

Pocket Sanctity: Pilgrimage Eulogia
by Terah Walkup

pilgrim souvenir

In the 6th century A.D. an unnamed pilgrim from Piacenza, Italy visited the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. Among his observations were the following:

“In the place where the Lord’s body was laid, at the head has been placed a bronze lamp. It burns there day and night, and we took a blessing from it…Earth is brought to the Tomb and put inside, and those who go in take some as a blessing.”

For the medieval pilgrim who made the harsh journey plagued with marauders, bandits, and, of course, plague, thousands of miles to visit the city of Jerusalem, the desire to bring back tokens of that experience drove a thriving souvenir industry. Pilgrims who visited loca sancta, the sacred sites mentioned in the biblical narrative, would collect earth, pebbles, water, or oil. In tiny, portable amounts that could survive the journey, these were carried back not only to bear witness to the journey but also to represent the geographical and chronological expanse of the Holy Land.

By the time medieval European pilgrims made their way eastward to the Levant, the urban topography of Jerusalem had dramatically changed from the ancient narrative for which it was valued. Pilgrims could visit shrines, stay at hostels or visit the churches and monastic fraternities that had sprung up around sacred sites. Most important of these was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In the 4th century A.D. the Emperor Constantine built a rotunda around the place where his mother, Helena, discovered the tomb of Christ. Over the centuries that followed several building campaigns eventually resulted in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, encompassing both the tomb of Christ and Golgotha, the site of the Crucifixion.

​At these and other shrines pilgrims would collect oil that burned in the lamps, oil or water that had been poured over a shrine, relic, or altar, and even the readily accessible stone and earth that lay at their feet. Serving as more than just mementos or souvenirs, these were materials that had come into contact with the divine. They were referred to as eulogia, Greek for “blessing.” Though “blessings” could be quite abstract, for the medieval pilgrim they included the very materials brought back from their visits to loca sancta. Acting as a synecdoche, these bits of pebbles or vials of oil stood in not only for the geographical site, but even for the entirety of the sprawling “Holy Land.” Moreover, they stood for the simultaneous chronologies of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and the Jerusalem of the pilgrim’s own journey. Such blessings were carried as amulets on the often treacherous journey back home and were even hailed for their miraculous powers in healing the sick. Augustine of Hippo relates in his 5th century work the City of God that a man “had also received from a friend some holy earth brought from Jerusalem…and this he had hung in his bedroom in case he, too, should suffer some harm from demons.” Today pilgrims still collect oil, water and earth from loca sancta and can even purchase eulogia sets from the tourist shops that have sprung up around them.

collecting eulogia

Eulogia tokens differ from relics which can be loosely defined as the clothing, objects associated with, or the physical remnants of, a holy person. Unlike most relics, eulogia exist and are gathered in the pilgrim’s own time and place. While there was a lucrative market for holy relics that involved buying, trading, seizing, thieving and forging, there is little evidence for a secondary market for eulogia. Rather, the humble bits of dirt and vials of water were kept or given as gifts. The surviving examples of eulogia that inform us about their purpose and significance were usually donated to a church’s holdings or buried with the deceased. What underlines the pilgrim’s consumption of eulogia since the earliest pilgrims to Jerusalem in the 4th century to the heyday of pilgrimage in the 12th century, through to today, is the idea of continuity of both time and space. For the pilgrim, time–including the vast number of political and cultural changes that have occurred in Jerusalem– remains suspended for the purpose of using eulogia. For instance, one popular eulogia still used in religious ceremonies is water collected from the River Jordan, the river in which Christ was baptized. Recently, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William elected to have their son, Prince George baptized with water from the River Jordan. Despite the fact that rivers often serve as a metaphor for constant change and flux—the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus proclaimed that “no man ever steps in the same river twice”—the concept of continuity so underlies the use of eulogia that even something so ephemeral as a flower collected on the Mount of Olives can play the role of a memory token, a source of sanctity, and perhaps even a performer of miracles.

Terah Walkup has been collecting pebbles of sacred and not-so-sacred significance since childhood. She studies and works with Ancient and Byzantine art at the Art Institute of Chicago.