A Modest Monk
Antonio Barluzzi (1884 – 1960) left his mark on Israel’s landscape. He was a Franciscan monk and an architect, and when he arrived in Palestine in 1918, a sergeant in the Italian Army as part of the conquering Allied forces, he saw possibilities on every hill. By the end of his life, he had designed more than 20 churches between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and while many of them are well-known landmarks, most people have never heard of this self-effacing monk. Though festooned with honors, medals, and titles by the end of his life, Barluzzi refused to claim any of them, or indeed any credit for his masterpieces. “I am just a simple craftsman in the service of the Lord,” he said.
Barluzzi’s aim was to incorporate the message of the Biblical tale into the building’s design. The Church of Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives, for example, marks the spot where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus looked down at the city and wept for the future destruction that he knew would come. Dominus Flevit means “the Lord wept” and the little building is shaped like a tear-drop. Standing inside it one gazes beyond the altar through a huge glass window looking down at the expansive view of where the Temple once stood. The pilgrim is literally inside a teardrop, inside the prophecy, viewing the same scenery, gone now for 2,000 years..
The Church of All Nations, just down the hill, contemplates the last night in the life of Jesus, in which he prayed alone, in the dark, asking that “this cup pass from me”. Hence, while outside the church sits the lovely olive grove that is the Garden of Gethsemane, and gracing the facade is a stunning mosaic, inside, the church is dark. It is one of the darkest places of worship that one will ever find, as it conjures the darkness of despair, the lonely struggle of one who, according to tradition, carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The Church of the Beatitudes, on a hill above the Sea of Galilee, celebrates Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: Eight simple verses of praise, beginning with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Like a simple eight-line poem, or a series of verses from The Ethics of the Fathers, this elegant outdoor teaching is commemorated by a small octagonal building, whose windows all open toward the hilltop view of the lake and the mountains beyond. Of course visitors briefly enter the building, but the natural setting lures them outdoors, where they need to be, where the words were spoken. This was Barluzzi’s plan.
The list is long, but in each case, Barluzzi – gone for decades – pulls in every pilgrim, every visitor, and every tourist. I am a Jew. These aren’t my stories, and they aren’t my traditions, but Barluzzi celebrates them so beautifully that I too can enjoy his spiritual passion decades after his work is complete. Barluzzi’s worship is communicated no less beautifully than a painting or a musical composition. With his buildings, so many years after the artist has finished the work of creation, he is still speaking to us. Of course, if Barluzzi were alive, he would probably say that what I am hearing is not his voice, but rather that of the Lord. But perhaps, with a wink, I could tell him – one tour guide to another – that I know a master storyteller when I hear one.