Photography: David Saad
• Curators: Oree Meiri
The Church of the Glorious Martyr
During salvage excavations conducted south of Ramat Beit Shemesh by the Israel Antiquities Authority with the support of the Israel Ministry of Construction and Housing, remains of an impressive Byzantine church were discovered. It is not known precisely when the church was built but mosaic inscriptions at the site commemorate its expansion under Emperor Justinian, and later under the patronage of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine.
One inscription mentions that the church was built in honor of an anonymous “glorious martyr”, whose remains were kept inside; A martyr (from Greek, meaning "witness") was a sacred figure and model of absolute devotion, willing to die for their faith.
In the Byzantine period, locations traditionally associated with major events of the Old and New Testaments, including sites linked to saints and martyrs, were venerated as holy places. Churches containing martyrs' relics became important destinations for Christian pilgrims. With its ornate design and prominent situation near the main road to Jerusalem, the highlight of a pilgrim's journey, the Church of the Glorious Martyr evidently drew many believers hoping to receive blessing within.
The exhibition “Glorious Martyr” presents finds, which shed light on the importance of the Church of the “Glorious Martyr” as a significant site for pilgrimage during the Byzantine Period.
Photo: David Saad
Mosaic inscription found in the Church courtyard: I Malchus, by the mercy of God, priest and abbot of this holy place, giving thanks to God and the glorious martyr, for my salvation and memory have made the mosaic pavement and the buildings and all the marble work which is in the most holy martyrium and the bronze gates of the crypt in the month of August of the 6th indiction in the year 344*.
*According to the era of Eleutheropolis (Beit Guvrin), year 344 is 543 CE. Photo: Assaf Peretz
What makes a glorious church?
The Church of the Glorious Martyr was built in a basilical plan – a main central hall flanked by two aisles. Visitors to the church entered through a specious courtyard (atrium) and a wide corridor (narthex) that marked the transition from secular to holy domains. The liturgical focal point of the church (chancel) was built as a semi-circular niche (apse) at the eastern end where the altar table stood in the center of a raised platform (bema). Sacramental bread and wine were placed on the altar during the Eucharist to symbolize the body and blood of Christ. A series of marble chancel screens and posts were installed, separating the sanctuary from the chancel, the most impressive of which are complex hand-carved lattice work that reflects the wealth and splendor of the Church of the Glorious Martyr. Underneath the chancel lay the crypt, where remains of the anonymous "glorious martyr" were apparently housed, with two staircases providing access. Pilgrims were probably led down via one staircase and out via another to cater to large groups of worshipers. The walls of the crypt and staircases were lined with marble panels, and a small window allowed light to enter from above. At a later stage an elaborate chapel was built south of the basilica. Mosaic floors were found inside the chapel, including a dedicatory inscription of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine. The Emperor's patronage is yet another indication of the importance of the Church of the Glorious Martyr.
The crypt. Photos: Assaf Peretz
A lamp to my feet and a light to my path
Lighting in ancient churches was designed to create a dramatic environment for a powerful religious experience. Light was often perceived as a representation of the divine. The pilgrim Egeria, upon visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the 4th century, was amazed by the sheer quantity of lamps used in the ceremonies. St. Jerome (4th—5th century) explains that lamps were lit during Gospel readings as an expression of joy. According to Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the early 7th century, the oil lamp was a symbol of God's eternal light.
Excavations at the Church of the Glorious Martyr have uncovered one of the most complete assemblages of Byzantine glass window panes in Israel. These discoveries, along with the many clay and glass lamps that illuminated the church interior, enrich our understanding of the role of light in Byzantine churches.
Clay oil lamp with the Greek inscription, "the light of Christ shines beautifully for all". Photo: Shai Halevi
Photo: David Saad
Photo: David Saad