Elizabeth Southerden Thompson

Elizabeth Butler, Letters from the Holy Land, London 1903, pp. 18-21

Elizabeth Southerden Thompson (Switzerland 1846, Ireland 1933), better known as Lady Butler, was a noted British painter who specialized in painting scenes of famous military campaigns and battles. Visiting the Holy Land in 1891 with her husband, the British Army officer William Francis Butler, she was able to dedicate herself for four weeks to painting some of the most important sites of Christianity. This experience left such an impression on her that she decided to publish the letters that she had written during this period to her mother, Christina Thompson. In one letter she provides a long narration of her first visit to the Holy Sepulchre, a moment of great emotion that took place shortly after her arrival in Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM, Sunday, 22nd April, 1900

7 April 1891,
[…] Do not imagine that the Church stands imposingly on an eminence, and that its proportions can strike the beholder. You go downhill to it from the street, and it is crowded on all sides but the front by other buildings. But its gloomy antiquity and formlessness are the very things that strike one with convincing force, for one sees at once that the Church is there for the sake of the sites it encloses, and that, therefore, it cannot have any architectural symmetry or plan whatever, and its enormous extent is necessitated by its enclosing the chapels over Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre and many others besides, which the Empress Helena erected over each sacred spot whose identity she ascertained with so much diligence.

[…] The great central dome of the Church rises above the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, which chapel stands in the vast central space, a casket enclosing the rock hallowed out into Our Lord’s Tomb and its ante-chamber. You enter this ante-chamber and, stooping down, you pass on your hands and knees into the sepulchre itself. On your right is the little low, rough-hewn tomb, covered with a slab of stone worn into hollows by the lips of countless pilgrims throughout the long ages of our era. A monk keeps watch there, and beside him there is only space enough for one person a time. I have made many attempts to tell you my thoughts and feelings during those bewildering moments of my first visit, but it is impossible, and you can understand why.