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Sunday, June 11, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Frankish Art - An Introduction

 Arguably, ‘one of the least known aspects about the Crusades is the art that was commissioned by the Crusaders in the Holy Land from the time they took Jerusalem in July 1099, to the time they were pushed into the sea by Mamluks in 1291’.[i] Yet, considering that the Middle Ages and the Middle East are individually renowned for the artistic embellishment of both practical and sacred objects, it is hardly surprising that the crusader states produced a wide variety of decorative art. Artistic creativity was undoubtedly stimulated by the novelty of sights and experiences that Western craftsmen encountered in the Holy Land in the era of the crusades. Overtime a unique Frankish style emerged.

Frankish art encompassed a wide array of media: stone and wooden sculpture; painting on wood (icons) and plaster (frescos); mosaics; metalworking in iron, copper, bronze, silver and gold; manuscript illumination; ivory carving; leatherworking; textiles, ceramics and glass. A thousand years of violent history, however, has ravaged the artistic legacy of the Franks. Particularly damaging to the survival of Frankish art was Muslim intolerance for Christian symbols and motifs and indeed any depiction of human figures, a popular component of Frankish art. What remains are only tantalizing remnants and references that demonstrate its diversity, quality and uniqueness. 

Studies of these surviving remnants indicate that Frankish art was neither an imitation of contemporary Western European art nor an adaptation of contemporary Eastern art. Although Frankish art was strongly influenced by European traditions, notably Romanesque art in the twelfth century and Gothic style in the thirteenth, Byzantine traditions also impacted it heavily. Indeed, Frankish art incorporated elements of Armenian, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox artistic traditions, and, to a lesser extent, Islamic and even Mongol traditions.[ii] These were melded together, resulting in a unique and distinctive artistic style.

The two features that most effectively define Frankish art are its ‘multicultural’ and ‘pious’ aspects. The multicultural facet originated in the diverse traditions that influenced it, as described above. The pious factor evolved from the location where it was produced. Most Frankish art, particularly in the twelfth century, was intended to embellish Christianity’s holy shrines or provide visitors with keepsakes from their pilgrimage. Whether bejeweled reliquaries or tin ampules for poor pilgrims to carry holy sand and holy water home, most early Frankish art had a religious component.

While this was particularly true of objects made for the transient population of crusaders and pilgrims, even items made for daily use by permanent residents — pottery, cutlery, saddles and shoes — often incorporated Christian symbols. Perhaps this was because, for more than 400 years, the native Christians were denied the right to display these symbols and were now proud to do so. Or maybe it was because the settlers who stayed in the Holy Land were particularly devout, an interpretation suggested by estimates that as much as 50 per cent of the immigrant population in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the early decades was composed of clerics. On the other hand, art historians and archaeologists have categorised objects as Frankish in many cases based on the symbols; those period items lacking Christian, Muslim or Jewish symbols cannot be classified — yet may actually be Frankish. Ultimately, ‘the attempts of art historians to ascribe icons and artifacts to a definite ethnic-cultural and geographic setting, namely ‘Latin’, ‘Byzantine-Orthodox’ or ‘Islamic’, has created rigid mental molds and artificial barriers. These obscure the dynamics of artistic creation and their connection with production and consumption patterns’.[iii] Art in the Holy Land was dynamic, with techniques and motifs passing fluidly from one community to the next, particularly in the twelfth century.

By the thirteenth century, the pious element in Frankish art — and life generally — had become more diffused; secular art from this period is also more plentiful. For example, while most books produced in the Holy Land in the twelfth century were devotional works (e.g., prayer books, saints’ lives, psalters, gospels), by the thirteenth century, romances, histories, travel logs and law books were also being produced. On the one hand, the disproportionately high number of religiously devout residents declined as a proportion of the overall population as the Italian communes and the native ‘poulain’ population grew. On the other hand, with the loss of the great Christian shrines at Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, the focus of the inhabitants appears to have turned more towards commerce, entertainment and luxury.

[i] Jaroslav Folda, Crusader Art: The Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, 1099-1291 (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2008), 13.

[ii] See note 10, Folda, Crusader Art, 13.

[iii] Jacoby, David, Aspects of Everyday Life in Frankish Acre, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, (undated paper), 96.

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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