A Virtual Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Published June 04, 2018 by Dr Anna Gannon

Bethany Beyond The Jordan, John The Baptist, Venerable Bede, Holy Land, Incense, Christianity

Anna Gannon reflects on a visit to 'Bethany beyond the Jordan'.

During a trip to Jordan a few years ago, I visited 'Bethany beyond the Jordan', a lovely place associated with several biblical events, and in particular with John the Baptist's ministry and the baptism of Jesus, which marked the beginning of his public life. The location is stunningly beautiful, with a special, radiant light, and is full of luscious greenery.

The River Jordan

I am an Anglo-Saxon scholar with a keen interest in plants, and the book I took with me to read during the trip was the commentary on the Song of Songs by the Venerable Bede. Much of the language of the Bible is concerned with imagery derived from nature and the landscape of the Holy Land, and the fragrances that permeate such places.

I was very conscious of how privileged I was to be experiencing first-hand some of the places that Bede could only imagine and read about. Indeed in this and in many of his works Bede is anxious to make clear that, as a result of having been born and bred far outside the world, that is on an island in the ocean, ... we cannot know about things that go on in the first parts of the world.... except through the writings of those who have lived there. Hence, Bede went to great lengths to 'check things out' for his readers by consulting the writings of Pliny, Isidore of Seville (the Wikipedia of the time), as well as of St. Jerome and others who actually experienced the Holy Land in order to explain more fully about the nature of the many trees and aromatic herbs that are contained in this text.

However, it is no mere didactical 'explanation' that we are given. For example, when discussing the liturgical practices involving the use of incense, Bede carefully listed all the various spices that make up the special 'incense holy to the Lord' to be burnt on the altar of the Tabernacle, and by underlining its association with temple worship, Bede goes on to describe incense as symbolic of prayer rising, like its aromatic smoke, to God.

In my excursion, I was particularly curious to see the Acacia,

A Thorny Acacia Bush

a complex genus with many sub-species, whose name means 'thorn' in Greek. I certainly saw some very spiky plants there! We read in Exodus how God commanded that the ark and the altars in the Tabernacle be made of acacia wood, 'for acacia wood is light and incorruptible in nature'. In Bede's account, once all the thorny barbs are stripped away from the dark and thorny wood of the acacia, it then shines with a pure whiteness, just like our soul when cleansed of sins. In addition this explanation allows Bede to remind us of the Parable of the Sower (Matt.13:22), where Jesus himself describes as thorns the cares of the world and the lure of riches (making unsuitable ground for growth) – and also of 'the pricks of sin'. We can see how Bede earnestly combined the roles of teacher and preacher.

In spite of his earnestly seeking for a deeper meaning of the Word of God in any given text, we cannot escape from the sense of how in all Bede's writing and learned cross-references there seem to be genuine curiosity, delight and awe for the natural world made by God, and where God is to be found. Bede's exegetical writings turn into an evocation and a translation in metaphors of a landscape longed for and conjured up in his mind, and that was envisaged as a mystical prefiguration of Paradise.

Bede's interest in the wonders of the natural world clearly engaged his olfactory imagination when writing of the Holy Land. In his work On the Holy Places, Bede's descriptions of luscious exotic gardens and of trees oozing fragrant balsam and oil, such as the opobalsamum trees and the moringas near Jericho, conjure up vibrant evocations meant to arouse not so much our senses, but 'our zeal for reading and prayer' during what might be called a virtual pilgrimage through the Holy Land.

On his death bed, the treasures he distributes to his friends were incense, some peppercorns and oraria (possibly cloth that had been in touch with holy 'relics'). We may well wonder how Bede came to posses such exotica – probably he actually encountered people who had travelled to the Holy Land, in addition to a knowledge derived from books.

Bede's exegesis, with its discussions of scents and their allegorical significance, laid the foundation for translating collective Mediterranean experiences, particularly in relation to religious rituals, to a literate Anglo-Saxon audience. But not just to the literate: metaphors could work at different levels for different audiences, particularly when presented visually. It is worth remembering how at the time of the Conversion to Christianity plant motifs were an innovation enthusiastically taken up in Anglo-Saxon art. First and foremost is the Cross, the Arbor Vitae, and its paradoxical story: a felled tree made into an instrument of death in order to bring us all Salvation according to God's plan - but also a tree consciously and heroically playing its part in that final divine victory. This is how Anglo-Saxon poetic imagination portrayed the events: in The Dream of the Rood, it is the cross/tree itself that tells its story.

Another common subject is the vine. In its exuberant growth, it lends itself very well to artistic depictions of birds and little creatures ensconced amongst the 'scrolls' formed by its branches (elucidating John 15), offering the promise of eternal life through allusions to the Eucharist, and down to earth, attending to the universal basic needs of food and refuge, as readily observed and understood by all.

Anglo-Saxon stone screen fragment from Jedburgh Abbey (Borders), early 9th century

Thinking of Bede's teaching, we might say that he encouraged people to look again at the natural world and rejoice in God's creation by appealing to the most basic of the senses: smell. After all, as the Song of Songs says: ...and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell.

This article is written by Dr Anna Gannon, of St Edmund's College, who is an Affiliated Lecturer in the Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge. She is currently working on the exegesis of imagined sacred landscapes through the sense of smell.

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