Christian Religious Tattoos
In the 4th century AD, Saint Basil the Great, one of the most distinguished doctors
of the Church, admonished the faithful: "No man shall let his hair grow long or
tattoo himself as do the heathen, those apostles of Satan who make themselves
despicable by indulging in lewd and lascivious thoughts. Do not associate with
those who mark themselves with thorns and needles so that their blood flows to
the earth. Guard yourselves against all unchaste persons, so that it cannot be
said of you that in your hearts you lie with harlots"
An edict issued by the Council of Northumberland in 787 makes it clear that
the Fathers of Church distinguished between profane tattoos and Christian
tattoos. They wrote: "When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for
the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be
tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no
benefit there from." The heathen tattooing referred to by the Council was the
traditional tattooing of the native Britons, which was still practiced at the
Medieval crusaders who reached the Holy Land had crosses tattooed on their
arms as souvenirs of their travels, and it is likely the custom that continued
throughout the Middle Ages.
One of the oldest souvenir religious tattoos is referenced in a manuscript
written in 1612 by William Lithgow on writing about a pilgrimage to the Holy
Early on the morrow there came a fellow to us, one Elias Areacheros, a
Christian habitour at Bethlehem, and perveierfor the Friars; who did ingrave on
our severall Armes upon Christ's Sepulchur the name of Jesus, and the Holy
Crosse; being our owne option, and desire; here is the Modell thereof. But I
deciphered , and subjoined below mine, the four incorporate Crowns of King
James, with this Inscription. In the lower circle of the Crowne, Viva Jacobus
Rex; returning to the fellow two Piasters for his reward.
accounts of tattooing in Palestine can be found in travel journals of Christian
pilgrims and the practice continued well into the twentieth century. In 1956, a
professional tattooist, Jacob Razzouk was using tattoo designs carved on
woodblocks that had been handed down from father to son in his family since the
seventeenth century. The blocks he used were copied and published in Carswell's
book Coptic Tattoo Designs, printed in a limited edition of 200 copies in 1956.
The book contains reproductions of 184 prints together with descriptions of the
traditions and symbolism associated with each design. There are only two
definite dates in the collection of woodblocks and one is Armenian and dates to
1749 and the other is Resurrection one dating to 1912.
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