All content on this blog is protected by copyright.
Content used elsewhere without attribution constitutes theft of intellectual property and will be prosecuted.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Religious Architecture

From its inception, the Kingdom of Jerusalem viewed itself as the guardian of Christianity’s holiest shrines. The Frankish rulers understood these heritage sites belonged not to them or the residents of the Holy Land but rather to all of Christendom. Yet, ‘guarding’ holy sites also entailed preserving and honouring them. After 450 years of Muslim rule, many of the sacred sites were marked by little more than ruins. Most Christian monuments had been damaged, desecrated, or partially – if not totally – destroyed. The rest were in poor repair. The Franks embarked on a massive building programme designed to restore, expand and beautify the shrines of Christianity.

In addition, houses of worship were necessary for the Christian population, who had been denied the right to build such structures for more than 400 years. Altogether, more than 400 Frankish ecclesiastical buildings have been identified by archaeological surveys to date. The costs incurred by this comprehensive programme of restoration and construction were astronomical. Indeed, the financial resources required for these diverse and expensive building projects far exceeded crown revenues, yet, in the absence of other evidence, we can only speculate on how these projects were ultimately financed. The most likely scenario is that wealthy secular and ecclesiastical patrons in the West, possibly supplemented by contributions from small donors raised by the religious orders across Christendom, donated the needed funds.

Beyond their sheer scale and number, one of the most striking features of these various projects was the degree to which the Franks sensitively and respectfully incorporated the remains of earlier buildings into their renovation projects. In sharp contrast to the prevailing view of crusaders as bigoted barbarians, when it came to architecture, the crusaders sought to preserve rather than destroy. This was true of Muslim structures as well as Christian ones. For example, rather than levelling the two great Umayyad mosques on the site of the Jewish Synagogue (The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), the crusaders simply ‘repurposed’ them. The Dome of the Rock became a Christian church known as the Temple of God, and the al-Aqsa mosque was first converted into a royal palace and then turned over to the Knights Templar as their headquarters. 

Christian ruins were viewed as semi-sacred, so the Franks made no attempt to obliterate the early Christian or Byzantine character of existing shrines but instead enhanced and expanded surviving fragments. For example, the Frankish Church of the Holy Sepulchre preserved both the mount of Golgotha and Christ’s tomb in their original state but incorporated them into a larger building. If the resulting structure is less harmonious than the famed Romanesque and Gothic churches of Western Europe, this was not due to incompetence or the absence of architectural vision. Rather, the apparently disjointed plan was a conscious attempt to ‘preserve the original building in as complete a way as possible within the new structure’.[i] This was the rule rather than the exception in Frankish ecclesiastical architecture across the Holy Land.

Yet, in many instances, earlier Christian structures had fallen into such disrepair or were so severely defaced that only new construction would serve. In these structures – notably St. Anne’s in Jerusalem, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Cathedrals of Sebaste, Lydda, St. George’s Ramla, Bellapais Abbey in Cyprus, St. Sophia in Nicosia and St. Nicholas in Famagusta — Frankish architectural style prevailed. Without a doubt, Frankish architecture was fundamentally Western, namely Romanesque in the twelfth century and Gothic in the thirteenth. The former dominated in the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the latter in the Kingdom of Cyprus. Yet while borrowing the fundamentals of the Western styles, the Franks incorporated local elements using mostly local artisans, who brought their traditions with them.

As a rule, the architecture of Frankish churches in Syria was extremely simple. Frankish churches consistently employed a flat rather than a gabled roof, which seems primitive to observers accustomed to the soaring ceilings of Europe’s grand cathedrals. Yet, the functional shape of the churches provided a platform for elaborate decoration, including frescos, sculpture and mosaics. Representational art forms offended Muslim sensibilities and were viewed as a form of idolatry, however, resulting in it being rapidly obliterated as soon as Muslim control over an area was restored. Thus, even where Christian structures survived the last 800 years, the frescos have been obliterated, the sculptures smashed and defaced, and the mosaics chipped away. What remains are structures of deceptive austerity.

Crusades archaeologist Adrian Boas has identified five fundamental types of Frankish ecclesiastical architecture. The simplest was the single nave church ending in an apse for the altar facing east, a form familiar from Byzantine churches. This simple style was commonly used for small private chapels inside castles and equally suited to smaller or poorer rural communities. It could, however, be modified into something quite grand. For example, the parish church in Atlit had only a single square nave, but the apse was seven-sided with rib-vaulting and stained-glass windows on each side. The pillars were decoratively carved, and the walls painted.

Equally popular, especially for larger structures, was the basilica, consisting of a central nave flanked by one, or more commonly, two side aisles. Usually rectangular and built on an east-west axis, basilicas usually ended in three east-facing apses either carved out of the heavy walls or extending beyond. The ceilings were either barrel or groin-vaulted, and the central nave was usually taller than the side aisles. Again, the basilica was a traditional Christian design dating back to the formative years of Christianity and popular among the Byzantines and Franks. It was used in such important churches as the Church of the Annunciation Nazareth, the Cathedral of St. Peter in Caesarea, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Tortosa and St. Mary Major, a nunnery in Jerusalem.

A variation on the classical basilica was the basilica with transepts. This form, so popular in the West, never caught on in the Holy Land. Existing examples have stubby transepts which do not approach the grandeur and dimensions of transepts familiar from churches in England and France. The best-preserved crusader churches of this kind are St. Anne’s in Jerusalem, St. George in Lydda and St. Nicolas in Famagusta, the latter being Gothic rather than Romanesque. Only a small number of Frankish churches have the cruciform plan familiar in the West.

However, Frankish churches sometimes turned the entire east end of the nave into a chevet with ambulatory and radial chapels. Boas believes this plan was copied from Santiago de Compostela; this was the plan used for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. It was ideally suited for pilgrimage churches because it dispersed pilgrims across multiple chapels. Finally, polygonal churches built by the Franks in the Holy Land have been found only in the Templar castle at Atlit and the church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

In summary, the Franks undertook a comprehensive ecclesiastical building programme to ensure the holiest sites of Christendom had appropriate and functional shrines. In so doing, the Franks sought ‘to [meet] the needs and predispositions of the pilgrims’.[ii] While the quality of the masonry and the craftsmanship displayed in the decorative elements was high, ecclesiastical architecture in the crusader kingdoms — unlike military architecture — was not innovative and had no particular impact on architectural history.

[i] Juergen Krueger, ‘Architecture of the Crusaders in the Holy Land’ in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 218.

[ii] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 82.


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


           Buy Now!                                                  Buy Now!                                                    Buy Now!

          Buy Now!                                               Buy Now!                                                      Buy Now!



No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome feedback and guest bloggers, but will delete offensive, insulting, racist or hate-inciting comments. Thank you for respecting the rules of this blog.