Holiday Tattoos: Wearing the Mark of Jerusalem

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While it was traditional for medieval and early modern pilgrims to acquire pilgrim badges commemorating their journeys — individuals who completed the journey to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, for example, would wear the mark of St. James in the form of a clam shell — travellers to Jerusalem occasionally acquired more permanent mementos of their journey to the Holy Land.

Edward Terry, Chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, Lord Ambassadour to the great Moghul, describes a traveler getting a tattoo in Jerusalem in ‘A Voyage to East-India’, published in 1655:

At Jerusalem this our Traveller had made upon the Wrists of his left Arm the Arms of Jerusalem, a Cross Crossed, or Crosslets; and on the Wrist of his right, a single Cross made like that our Blessed Saviour suffered on; and on the sides of the stem or tree of that Cross these words written, Via, Veritas, Vita· some of the letters being put on the one side of that stem or tree, and some of them on the other; and at the foot of that Cross three Nails, to signifie those which fastned our Saviour unto it: All these impressions were made by sharp Needles bound together, that pierced onely the skin, and then a black Powder put into the Places so pierced, which became presently indelible Characters, to continue with him so long as his flesh should be covered with skin: And they were done upon his Arms so artificially, as if they had been drawn by some accurate Pencil upon Parchment. This poor man would pride himself very much in the beholding of those Characters, and seeing them would often speak those words of St. Paul written to the Galatians, Gal. 6. 17. (though far besides the Apostles meaning) I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

In this account, the Jerusalem tattoo indelibly marks the traveller so that he has a permanent reminder of his journey: an instance of the skin absorbing a ‘pilgrim badge’ which can be displayed upon the return home and act as a permanent link to scripture. Note the comparison which Terry makes between marking the body and drawing with ‘pencil’ upon ‘Parchment’, an echo of the physicality of the book.

The Scottish traveller Wiiliam Lithgow also got a tattoo in Jerusalem. He describes the process in the narrative of his travels published in 1632. His trip to Jerusalem was the culmination of a journey which took in Europe, Constantinople, North Africa, Palestine, and Egypt. Lithgow, rather implausibly, claimed to have walked 36,000 miles (twice the circumference of the Earth). He recalls that:

[…] the last day of our staying there, wee went all of us Frieres and Pilgrimes in againe to the Holy Grave, where we remained all night. Early on the morrow there came a fellow to us, on[e] Elias Areacheros, a Christian inhabiter at Bethleem, and purveyer for the Friers; who did ingrave on our Severall Armes upon Christs Sepulchre the name of Iesus, and the Holy Crosse; being our own option, and desire…But I, deciphered, and subjoined below mine, the foure incorporate Crowns of King Iames.

In joining the name of Christ to the crown of King James, Lithgow ensured that his skin bore the marks of both his religious and his national identity. Lithgow helpfully included a diagram of his tattoo in his narrative – depicted above.

The pilgrim’s desire to have his or her body display a permanent and tangible reminder of the journey to the Holy Land raises the question as to whether converts (particularly Christian converts who did not practice circumcision) also marked their religious metamorphoses in comparable ways. Let us know if you find a tattooed convert!

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