For weeks we have been observing the gut-wrenching news about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Particularly in the festive period the charged epithet ‘Holy Land’ is at the forefront of our minds as we all recall the long, complex, and overlapping histories of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian peoples in this region. This history is sometimes used to suggest the inevitability of violence in this region, but UniFR Art Historian Prof. Michele Bacci, who has been awarded an extremely prestigious SNSF Advanced Grant for his project Holy Networks: Locating, Shaping, and Experiencing Palestinian Loca Sancta (1187-1852), sees things differently. His research suggests a long tradition of worship practices that intertwined the paths of people of numerous denominations and religions in ways that are still little understood, yet which will provide crucial insights into centuries of stable and peaceful coexistence.
Michele Bacci, who has held the Chair of Medieval Art History at the University of Fribourg since 2011, states that he has always been profoundly interested in how art interacted with cultic phenomena in the past. Yet, in the course of his career, this interest shifted from elaborate works of art that adorn, for instance, the altars of churches, to – as he puts it laconically – “holes in the ground” (see the image above which shows the imprints of Christ’s feet in the Ascension chapel on the Mount of Olives). Particularly in the medieval region of Palestine, there were many more significant places that were viewed as invested with divine charge than religious objects that inspired veneration, which have often been the focus of practices of worship in Europe. Bacci notes that such places pose particular challenges for the creation of practices of worship. For the soil needs to be demarcated and singled out as a holy site in some way that underlines its difference from the earth surrounding it. Various tools have been used in the past to do this, including architecture, narratives, performance, ornamental strategies and more. It is exactly this process of transforming earth and stone into holy sites that is at the heart of Prof. Bacci’s Advanced Grant project.
The project is highly innovative since it will investigate holy sites attributed to various Christian, Muslim, and Jewish denominations alongside each other. Much of the existing historiography focuses on the foundational moments of holy sites rather than on the continuously developing of worship practices, as Michele Bacci explains. What is more, the vast majority of this scholarship has been fragmented into investigations considering a single religious tradition at a time. As a result, the current state of research on holy sites in the region of Palestine sidesteps the long history of coexistence of religious communities. The Holy Networks project will adopt a much broader perspective and map the holy sites of the region that are of importance to all three major religious communities of the area. The aim is to produce a virtual map of the Holy Land that will make available a wealth of information about the crucial holy sites to be found there. After the Crusades, these sites increasingly came to be organised along precise itineraries that pilgrims would follow on their journeys. The reconstruction of these pilgrim circuits forms the second stage of the project. Michele Bacci expects that it will be exciting to assess how, for instance, Muslim and Christian pilgrim itineraries overlapped with the help of these digitalised topographies.
It is evident that this research endeavour requires very diverse skills, and Michele Bacci is clear in stating that this project can only be realised thanks to the considerable budget of two million CHF that the SNSF Advanced Grant offers. This allows him to assemble a team of specialists who can work with texts in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Russian, Latin, and all modern European languages and the corresponding historical and religious traditions. The team will comprise six senior researchers, two PhD students, and the PI himself. All of them will come to work alongside each other at the University of Fribourg. Michele Bacci stresses that this immense project with many moving parts can only succeed through a collaborative research approach. It is great to see this prestigious award support this crucial research and the diverse team conducting it. We at the SPR wish the Holy Networks team every success over the next five years!
If you wish to read Michele Bacci’s most recent article on Holy Sites, you can do so here.
For a video on Michele Bacci’s work in the Nativity church in Bethlehem see here.
Are you an established researcher interested in applying for an SNSF Advanced Grant? The next deadline is 31 January 2024 and we at the SPR office are happy to support you throughout the application process. Do get in touch!