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Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Manuscript Illustrations

 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s scriptorium was founded in the first decades of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by monks from Europe, who brought their skills and understanding of the medium with them. For roughly 200 years, they produced illustrated manuscripts in the Holy Land. Their products exhibited exceptionally high quality and also evinced a unique hybrid style mixing elements from a variety of artistic traditions from Byzantium to the Mongols.


A portrait of King Louis IX of France from a bible produced for him in Acre.

By 1134, the Jerusalem workshop produced one of the most remarkable works of Frankish art still extant today: Queen Melisende’s Psalter. While this work created for royalty is the finest example of the quality of work performed in Jerusalem’s scriptorium, other works show it was no aberration. Throughout the half-century that followed, high-quality liturgical books were produced for those who could afford them. All testify to the hybrid artistic culture evolving at this time in which Western artists borrowed native and Byzantine Orthodox techniques, motifs and saints. Unsurprisingly, Byzantine influence was at its height in the latter two decades of this period, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was allied with the Byzantine Empire, and Byzantine queens resided in the Frankish capital.

The negotiated surrender of Jerusalem in 1187 enabled the canons of the Holy Sepulchre to survive with their skills (and probably most of their unfinished works) intact. After the establishment of the Second Kingdom, the scriptorium was re-established in Acre. Other ateliers grew up around it, making Acre a centre for book production. One of the most outstanding books produced and illustrated in Acre is the ‘Arsenal’ bible produced for King Louis IX of France. This and other works testify to the continued existence of the Frankish or ‘crusader style’ of book illustration that incorporated Eastern and Western elements. Surprisingly, many of the existing examples of Acre’s manuscript workshops are secular works. William of Tyre’s ‘History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea’ was evidently popular, and multiple illustrated versions of this history have survived. More unusual is an illustrated version of John of Jaffa’s ‘Assizes of Jerusalem’.

Astonishingly, manuscript production continued right up to the fall of Acre. In one surviving manuscript, all the illustrations but the last are done in the distinctive Frankish style; the final illustration is distinctively Venetian. One can imagine this manuscript being rescued aboard a Venetian ship in the final days of Acre, while the artist remained behind to fight and die in the Mamluk onslaught.

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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