At the end of the 1950s the representatives of the three religious communities officiating at the Tomb reached an agreement to begin restoration works at the church.
This intervention led to the possibility of carrying out archaeological excavations and detailed investigations of the structures, studies that form the basis of our current understanding of the church and its architectural history. While scholars had always been keenly interested in these issues, previously only very few elements were known with certainty concerning works carried out prior to the 20th century. For the most part, historical reconstructions had been based on the accounts of pilgrims who in their time had described what they had seen with their own eyes. Archaeological interest increased considerably after 1844 when, in the nearby Russian Convent, traces of the access to the Constantine Martyrium were discovered, including the staircase on the Cardus Maximus (studies published in 1930).
The best research prior to the archaeological investigations was brought together in the four volumes of “Jérusalem nouvelle” prepared by the Dominican fathers Louis H. Vincent and Felix M. Abel, published between 1924 and 1926. They put forward a reconstructed architectural plan of the Constantinian complex of the Holy Sepulchre, which subsequently served as the basis for Father Corbo’s investigations.
The archaeological excavations
“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: archaeological aspects from its origins to the Crusader period”
The fascinating archaeological investigations between 1960 and 1973 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, resulting from the agreement among the Catholic, Greek and Armenian religious communities for the restoration of the church, were carried out in a step-by-step manner by the Franciscan archaeologist Father Virgilio Corbo.
From the beginning of the works, the archaeologist published preliminary reports at regular intervals in the scientific journal “Liber Annus” as well as a number of more popular articles in various magazines and journals.
The overall work which made available to the world the results of twenty years of research at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and which permitted the linking of details from the Gospels to this venerated site, was divided by Father Corbo into three volumes: the first containing text, the second tables of designs and reconstructions, and the third photographs.
The work was published in 1982 (in Italian) with the title “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: archaeological aspects from its origins to the Crusader period”.
The Italian text was accompanied by a summary and captions in English, prepared by his colleague and dear friend, Father Stanislao Loffredda.
For the first time, the long history of the sanctuary was reconstructed through physical data and archaeological documentation that had been collected by Father Corbo, during the excavations that he himself conducted as well as his direct observations of other excavations carried out in the common areas, and finally as a privileged observer of excavations in areas that had been strictly reserved to the non-Latin communities.
One of the greatest merits of the work is perhaps that of having gathered together in a single place a great mass of data and documentation that otherwise would have remained scattered, and having chosen to present the data in a “bare-bones” style while at the same time providing a historical synthesis for the reader.
The results of the investigations were organized in four chapters:
- 1. The site of Golgotha-Calvary before Constantine the Great
- 2. The Constantinian structures
- 3. The major restoration of Constantine Monomachus – 11th century -
- 4. The Crusader transformation
The reconstruction of the plans for the individual historical stages, highlighting the position of the structures, forms the basis for all of the studies analyzing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that have been carried out over the past thirty years. The plans take into account not only all of the new archaeological information, but also architectural insights, the latter resulting from the uncovering of square-cut stones in walls that had been previously covered over by plaster.
For the common areas within the church, Father Corbo was able to make use of the data collected from the excavations of the narrow trenches that were to serve for the installation of substructures, and only in a few cases was he able to receive permission to enlarge the area of excavation. For the area under Latin control, he had at his disposition the entire archaeological record that was preserved in the area of the Patriarch’s residence, the Latin sacristy, the Latin chorus or Chapel of the Apparition, and the Altar of Mary Magdalene, all situated to the north of the Anastasis, as well as the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross.
Father Corbo had the opportunity to discuss his discoveries and analysis of the structures with Father Charles Coüsnon, the architect entrusted by the Latin community with the restoration of the church. Father Coüsnon, who died in 1976, had two years earlier published his preliminary report on the works entitled “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem”.
The rich and stimulating discussions between the two scholars led in some cases to divergent interpretations of the events and of the reconstruction of the building. One of Coüsnon’s hypotheses that has largely been accepted by successive scholars relates to the columns that make up the Rotunda of the Anastasis: the two original columns preserved from Constantine’s time are believed to be two halves of a single taller column belonging to the portico of Hadrian’s Roman temple.
Later scholars have diverged from Corbo principally regarding his attribution of the temple constructed by Hadrian on the site of the garden of Golgotha to Jupiter Capitolinus. Corbo, influenced by the testimony of St. Jerome, reported that traces had been found of the three-celled temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad. More recent scholars, however, are inclined to believe that, as reported by Eusebius of Caesarea, the temple constructed above both the Tomb and Golgotha was dedicated to Venus Aphrodite, a temple that was perhaps of circular form and from which Constantine’s architects may have drawn their inspiration for the central plan of the Anastasis.
Finally, one of the aspects up to now insufficiently remarked upon in Corbo’s publication is the presence of designs carried out by talented engineers, architects and designers involved in the survey alongside Corbo and Coüsnon. Notable among these was Terry Ball, a talented British artist and illustrator, who was one of the first to understand the importance of recreating the history of the structures by means of reconstruction drawings: the detailed and elegant designs of the facade of the Tomb are his.