A recently-opened exhibit of 75 ecclesiastical treasures at Lisbon’s renowned Calouste Gulbenkian Museum previews the stellar permanent display that will be showcased at the new wing of Jerusalem’s Terra Sancta Museum when it opens in 2026.

“Treasures from Kings: Masterpieces from the Terra Sancta Museum” will be on exhibit at Portugal’s most famous art museum through Feb. 26, then travels to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and to the Frick Collection in New York. From there, the international tour may include other key European cultural institutions before returning to Jerusalem.

The exhibit — curated by the team of Gulbenkian Museum director Prof. Antonio Filipe Pimentel — represents 500 years of gifts from various European Catholic monarchs to the Franciscan brotherhood whose Custodia Terrae Sanctae (Custody of the Holy Land) has administered Christian holy sites here for more than eight centuries.

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Those kings and queens, including João V of Portugal, Felipe II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Carlo VII of Naples and Maria Theresa of Austria, expressed their piety and power by supporting the Holy Land’s churches and Catholic parishioners. The most prominent of these basilicas was — and continues to be — Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The royal gifts include vestments, textiles, silverware and furniture intended for use during worship or to decorate religious spaces. Among those on display are a church lamp sent to Jerusalem by João V and the baldachin that housed a monstrance or crucifix that was given by Carlo VII. The selection of silver liturgical objects includes a basin donated in 1675 by Pedro II of Braganza used by the Custos for washing the feet of pilgrims. The Portuguese gifts are at the center of the temporary exhibition.

The exhibit details the life of Istanbul-born tycoon Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, nicknamed “Mr. Five Percent.” A member of the Ottoman Empire’s persecuted Armenian minority, he and his family had long-standing ties with Jerusalem. 

In 1929, the petroleum magnate and philanthropist was the chief benefactor to the establishment of an extensive library at the St. James Cathedral, the principal church of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Gulbenkian Library today contains more than 100,000 books.

A large gold crown with jewels of different colours(Photo courtesy of Pedro Pina/Custody of the Holy Land) 

Gulbenkian’s connection to the city is symbolized by a 15th-century illuminated manuscript which he bequeathed to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem Guregh Israelian in the 1940s when Gulbenkian retired to Portugal after decades in London and Paris. Also on display are firmans signed by Caliph Mehmet IV pertaining to the empire's Armenians.

“This exhibition is an important stage in our future historical section of the Terra Sancta Museum, which will open in 2026 at St. Saviour’s Convent, and it reflects what we do on a daily basis in Jerusalem … look after relations with other institutions and other cultural entities. We are delighted that our works are on display in Portugal together with Portuguese works,” said Stéphane Milovich, director of the Cultural Heritage Department of the Custody.

Some of the artifacts were shipped from Jerusalem to Lisbon this past May to be conserved by experts at the Restoration Department of the Gulbenkian Museum and of the José de Figueiredo National Laboratory.

“Only at [the] European level is it possible to find experts who are so well prepared, capable of knowing the technical characteristics of this specific heritage, in this particular case, of the baroque period,” he said.

The exhibition was inaugurated on Nov. 9 in the presence of Gulbenkian Foundation president António Feijó, curator Jacques Charles-Gaffiot (who is a consultant of the scientific committee of the Terra Sancta Museum), André Afonso (curator of the Gulbenkian Museum) and Béatrix Saule, president of the scientific committee of the Terra Sancta Museum and honorary general-director of the Palace of Versailles.

What is really important is that the Custody has preserved and protected an exceptional European heritage, which is unique in many cases. For example, when a devastating earthquake struck Portugal in 1755, the artistic works of an entire historical period were lost. Only we have kept lamps and liturgical vestments from the time of John V of Braganza, King of Portugal.

“It is fine to know that the Portuguese people can get to know, experience and see works which belonged to this heritage before the earthquake,” said Rodrigo Machado Soares, a priest and master of ceremonies of the Custody. “Portugal has always had an important relationship with the Custody, and through this exhibition we have been able reconnect relations and allow local experts and scholars to get to know our heritage, which is above all theirs.”

Gil Zohar was born in Toronto and moved to Jerusalem in 1982. He is a journalist writing for The Jerusalem Post, Segula magazine and other publications. He’s also a professional tour guide who likes to weave together the Holy Land’s multiple narratives.