Immediately after entering the St Sepulchre 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) when 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, 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 made 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 the cave itself today as a church has been built around it since Byzantine era.
The Stone of Unction is considered to be the 13th station of the Via Dolorosa. In fact, the Holy Sepulchre itself contains the last five stations:
- 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 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 were made by the Greek Orthodox to the Holy Sepulchre 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 Sepulchre into the Catholicon: the repair works 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 Sepulchre, were alas destroyed. And therefore, today, there is nowhere to look for in this church for the historical graves of Godefroy de Bouillon, of the Baldwin kings and of 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 having 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 return to their home with this cloth from the Holy Sepulchre, as it would be done for a holy relic. Some bring their baby to be placed on the stone for blessing as shown in the video below.
Despite the dispute over the potential truth in the Stone of Unction, it is difficult not to realize that it is today an integral part of the stations of the Via Dolorosa and a must-see when visiting the Holy Sepulchre. As a person keen on keeping historical places, I can only lament the forever destruction of the graves of the Crusaders leaders, graves that even Muslim invaders had respected and refrained from destroying, until the fire of 1808 caused their removal from the Holy Sepulchre.