The Stone of Unction (or Stone of Anointing)

Updated: Jan 2

Immediately entering the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, visitors are facing a large slab that many people come to kiss. This is the Stone of Unction, also called Stone of Anointing, where, according to Christian tradition, the body of Jesus was washed and oiled (hence the word unction or anointing) after being removed from the Cross and before being placed into a burial cave nearby that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea who donated it for Jesus' burial.

To the right of the stone is the Golgotha where Jesus was crucified, and to the left is the rotunda and the Aedicule over the Tomb of Jesus. Excavations have proven beyond doubt that this entire location was outside the city walls at the time of Jesus (burials were never done inside cities) and was indeed a burial place as several caves have been found, including one next to the Aedicule that can visited today. Long ago, the tomb was itself a cave but nothing remains of it today as a church has been built instead of it since the Byzantine era.

The Stone of Unction is considered to be the 13th station of the Via Dolorosa. In fact the Holy Sepulcher building contains the last 5 stations out of the total of 14:

- 10th station: the beautiful Chapel of the Franks (managed by the Franciscans), where Jesus was stripped from his clothes

- 11th and 12th stations: the Golgotha: divided in two sections (and stations), one station being Latin/Catholic (managed by the Franciscans) where Jesus was nailed onto the cross, and, next to it, the station managed by Russian Orthodox where where Jesus was crucified

- 13th station: the Stone of Unction, as mentioned above

- 14th station: the Aedicule where the Tomb of Jesus is, and where his Resurrection took place

Coming back to the Stone of Unction, the station is somehow "disputed" because the tradition started in the late Crusader period and the present stone was only added after refurbishments made by the Greek Orthodox to the Holy Sepulcher following the fire of 1808. When these repairs were made, a wall behind the stone was also added, some say to support the weakened arches above but, in fact, it sealed the direct passage from the entrance of the Holy Sepulcher into the Catholicon that was built by Queen Melisande, the Crusader Queen of Jerusalem about year 1140: the repair works of 1808 were carried out by the Greek Orthodox church so this may explain that... In addition, by doing this wall, the graves of the Crusader kings, who were laid to rest in the Holy Sepulcher, were alas destroyed. And therefore, today, there is nowhere to look for the historical graves of the famous characters such as Godefoy de Bouillon, the Baldwin kings and Fulk of Anjou. This added wall is decorated today with a mosaic added in 1990 which proves quite useful to visitors and tour guides as it provides a visual explanation of the 3 main steps: crucifixion, unction and burial.

The people from Orthodox faith are the ones executing most rituals about the Unction Stone. They usually buy some oil that they spread on the stone and then wipe it with the white cloth that they bring with them: they later return to their home with this cloth from the Holy Sepulcher, kept as a "personal relic" in other words. More rarely, some local people bring their newborn baby to place for a short moment on the stone for blessing as shown in the video below.

Despite the dispute over the genuine character or not of the Stone of Unction, it has become an integral part of the stations of the Via Dolorosa and a must-see when visiting the Holy Sepulcher. As a person keen on keeping historical places, I can only lament the forever destruction of the graves of the Crusaders kings: these graves were even respected for centuries by their Muslim enemies until they were finally removed by the Orthodox church after the fire of 1808.

Albert Benhamou

May 2017

Private Tour Guide, Israel

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