In the year 326 CE, Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine (c 272–337 CE), travelled to Jerusalem, where, with the help of local Christians, she officially identified the site recognized as the tomb of Christ. The tomb, which became the focal point of the subsequently-built Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was ‘beautified with rare columns’ and ‘profusely enriched with the most splendid decorations of every kind’ (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 34). The Constantinian tomb of Christ, which still gives shape to the present-day tomb, remained intact until the Persian sack of Jerusalem in 614 CE.
What exactly did the Constantinian tomb of Christ look like?
One written source and two collections of material objects – each associated with a location near Milan – give us a good idea.
The first is the written description of the so-called Piacenza Pilgrim (ca. 570 CE), one of a few textual sources that mention the tomb. The tomb of Christ ‘is hewn out of living rock . . . and 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, and then put it back. . . . The stone which closed the tomb is in front of the tomb door . . . [on the outside of the tomb] there are ornaments in vast numbers, which hang from iron rods: armlets, bracelets, necklaces, rings, tiaras, plaited girdles, belts, emperors’ crowns of gold and precious stones and the insignia of an empress. The tomb is roofed with a cone which is silver, with added beams of gold. In front of the tomb stands an altar’ (Piacenza Pilgrim, Travels, 18).
The first of the material sources is just fifteen short kilometers north of Milan and is on display in The Museum and Treasury of the Monza Cathedral. It is a collection of sixteen Holy Land ampullae dating to the 6th/7th century CE, the largest collection of its kind, which originally belonged to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda (c. 570 – 627 CE), whose court was based in Monza. A second collection of ampullae, which was discovered in a burial site, can be found in The Museum of the Bobbio Abbey, approximately 120 kilometers south of Milan. Together, they are often referred to as the Monza / Bobbio ampullae.
Made of a tin and lead alloy, these round metal flasks, measuring between four and seven centimeters in diameter, were used by pilgrims to collect holy oil from lamps at various shrines in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, a tradition described above by the Piacenza Pilgrim as ‘taking blessings’. The ampullae are important material evidence of early Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which flourished between the fourth and seventh centuries. The artifacts attest to the ‘souvenir’ industry of the Holy Land, bear witness to the pious behaviors of Jerusalem pilgrims and testify to the importance of transporting the sacrality of Jerusalem to one’s homeland.
Moreover, the Monza / Bobbio ampullae provide some of our only visual clues regarding the appearance of the Constantinian tomb of Christ. The exterior faces of the ampullae are richly and finely decorated with scenes of the Christian faith, such as the Resurrection and the Ascension. These biblical scenes are set around the then-contemporary tomb of Christ, and despite their small scale, the ampullae provide us with a good idea of the tomb’s physical appearance The road reconstructing the Constantinian tomb of Christ necessarily leads through Milan – or, at least, the nearby places of Piacenza, Monza and Bobbio.
Reconstruction of the tomb of Christ from Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, p. 174.
Along with the Monza / Bobbio ampullae is a miniature stone model of the tomb of Christ in Narbonne, France, purportedly dating to the fifth century (depicted above).