Feuding Christians agree on holy site decorations

April 16, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- Just in time for Easter, the three Christian denominations that uneasily share the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have announced that after 17 years of bitter dispute, they have finally agreed on how to decorate the dome of Christendom's holiest site.

If all goes as planned, work should begin in two months on painting the dome of the rotunda, the part of the Holy Sepulcher that houses the tomb where Jesus is believed to have been buried.

Participants in the tortuous negotiations hail the accord as a near-miracle, a rare instance of agreement among churches known more for their quarrels than for their ability to cooperate with one another.

But no one is pleased with the mundane design that was accepted as the one option certain not to offend anyone.

"It is not the best that we could have done," conceded Timothy, who bears the ancient title of Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Lydda and is an assistant to the Greek patriarch in Jerusalem. Timothy participated in 12 years of debate on the committee charged with choosing a design for the dome and made up of representatives of the three denominations -- the Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Latins.

In the end, the committee was unable to decide the issue and referred it to the Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs. The patriarchs set aside the nearly two decades of research, sketches and models by an international team of architects and engineers and commissioned Ara F. Normart, an artist from Fresno, Calif., to paint the dome.

"It was a way out of the deadlock," Timothy explained, noting that the patriarchs deliberately chose a foreign artist "with no connection to any of the communities here."

Mr. Normart plans to paint a pearly white backdrop with 12 golden rays symbolizing the 12 apostles. The simple design is far removed from the elaborate motifs the denominations spent nearly two decades debating.

Several years were spent considering the Greek proposal to decorate the dome with a Byzantine-style mosaic depicting the resurrection of Christ. The original church was built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the seventh century, the Greeks argued, so any restoration or decoration should be faithful to that design.

The Latins and the Armenians protested that the present structure was built in the 12th century by the Crusaders, and that a Byzantine mosaic would be meaningless to most of the church's nearly 1 million annual visitors, mostly Western Christians.

Once the mosaic was vetoed, another three years were consumed considering plans to fill the dome with depictions of cherubs. Both the Western church and the Eastern church use cherubs in their decoration of churches, and it was thought that a cherub acceptable to both would not be hard to find.

But a worldwide search could not turn up an acceptable cherub. Neither could the churches agree on a motif of billowing clouds, nor a botanical pattern.

Each time, said George Hentlian, an Armenian who served as the secretary of the technical committee, the clash between the Western church and the Eastern church over design and materials was so profound as to be insurmountable. The Armenians sided with the Latins.

"We wanted something that would inspire the pilgrim when he looked up at the dome," Mr. Hentlian said. "This design that we agreed upon will not inspire anybody."

Timothy predicted that it will take two years to paint the dome and said that he hopes other repairs still needed to complete the restoration -- including a ventilation system to keep the smoke from incense from damaging the decoration -- will be completed by then, or shortly thereafter.

The issue of who should pay for the dome -- a sensitive point, because payment is an indication of possession -- has been solved by securing an anonymous donor to foot the $300,000 bill.

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