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Monday, June 19, 2023

LIfe in the Crusader States: Architectural Decoration

The most important remnants of Frankish art dating from the twelfth century are the decorations of the key crusader shrines: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem), the Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem) and the Church of the Annunciation (Nazareth), as well as lesser crusader structures such as the Church of St. Anne, the Baptistry on the Temple Mount and the Templar and Hospitaller Headquarters.

Mosaics in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated on the fiftieth anniversary of the crusader capture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1149. The decorations which adorned the new structure reflected Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque and even Arab decorative motifs along with Franco-Italian imagery. This was achieved by employing artists and craftsmen from the West and East, sculptors, masons, masters of mosaic work, and painters. Altogether, ‘it was a magnificent ecumenical statement of East and West unified in this unique Crusader sculptural ensemble’.[i]

The Church of the Nativity, the next spectacular renovation of the Frankish era, exhibits even more Eastern influence primarily because the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I was a joint sponsor of the project along with King Amalric. Here, mosaics dominated the decorative scheme, building on the remnants of the sixth-century church while adding new mosaic panels. The latter were designed and executed under the guidance of a Byzantine master by Frankish, Venetian and Byzantine craftsmen. Texts worked into the mosaics are in Greek, Latin and Syriac. In addition to the extensive mosaics, the columns were painted.

Work on a major church in Nazareth to mark the site of the Annunciation did not begin until after 1170. It was an ambitious project, with a 73-metre nave. The decoration differed dramatically from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, emphasizing sculpture rather than mosaics or frescoes. Work was not completed before Saladin’s invasion in 1187, and five of the column capitals intended for the church were buried for safekeeping. These have since been discovered and the outstanding quality of these figures initially led scholars to suspect a sculptor from southern France. Now, however, it is widely accepted that the artist was local — bearing witness to the high standard achieved by local artists in this period. The figures of the portals, tragically, have survived only as broken fragments because Baybars razed the church in 1263.

Much of the stonework done for Templar headquarters in Jerusalem, on the other hand, survived through reuse in Islamic structures because human figures were not depicted. It can be seen today, particularly in the Al-Aqsa mosque. In addition, based on sixteenth-century sketches, it appears the tombs of the first seven rulers of Jerusalem were excellent works of art. Unfortunately, the tombs themselves were severely damaged when Jerusalem fell to the Khwarazmians in 1244 and later utterly destroyed in an a fire in 1808.

Likewise, nothing remains of the furnishings and decorations of Frankish dwellings. Nevertheless, visitors from the West frequently commented on the interior adornment and paintings of the houses in the Latin East, albeit without providing descriptions precise enough to enable us to visualise them. The account of the hall in Beirut’s palace cited earlier informs us that artisans capable of producing everything from water-spewing dragons to polychrome marble that imitated flowers or hanging curtains and paving stones that mimicked ripples in the sand could be found in the crusader states. For those who could not afford polychrome marble, there was glazed and painted ceramics, wood, and plaster. The two latter media could be painted in monochrome colours or with patterns, foliage or entire scenes.

[i] See note 10, Folda, Crusader Art, 44.

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.


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