In the Holy Land, clashing Crusaders and Muslims led to a fruitful cultural exchange
WORCESTER, Massachusetts – King Richard I, the Lionheart of England and Ayyubid Sultan Saladin of Egypt lead each other on horseback. The fight is over before it begins: Salad Reel helmetless from a spear wound.
This haunting scene comes from a pair of ceramic tiles that once belonged to a prominent 13th century English abbey. Its maker (or makers) took considerable artistic license: The collision didn’t actually happen.
The legendary enemies Richard and Saladin did not meet in person when their armies opposed each other in the Third Crusade, whose aim was to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity. And, contradicting the images in the tiles, Saladin survived contact with the West and continued on to Jerusalem.
What the images reveal is not collision, but integration. Crusaders came home to England bearing gifts from the Holy Land, including silks from the Byzantine and Islamic powers of the region. These complex works left a visible influence on the craftsmen of Western Europe. Indeed, when a floor design was commissioned in England to commemorate a new crusading enterprise, it was filled with images from Middle Eastern art.
This is the thesis of “Bringing the Holy Land Home: The Crusades, Chertsey Abbey, and the Reinvention of a Medieval Masterpiece,” a new exhibition in the B. Gerald Canter Gallery and Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross, on display through April 6.
“A lot of people tend to think of Western Europe as very insular and very eye-catching,” said the show’s curator, Holy Cross visual arts professor Amanda Luyster. “You look at these objects, which brings in hybridity, there’s a lot of interculturality in the collection of objects.”
Visitors will encounter other ancient artefacts that reflect cultural interchange between East and West, including Islamic metalwork, Byzantine icons and the oldest Crusader-era Bible, the Morgan Bible.
Commissioned in France around the same time as the tiles, Old Testament figures such as Gideon and Samson are anachronistically depicted in the Bible as a crusading banner. Finally a text was added in three languages — Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian — reflecting the manuscript’s later life: In the 16th century, the Pope presented it to the Safavid Empire in Persia, where it was annotated by a Jew. The exhibition also addresses troubling questions about the Crusades, which were marred by atrocities against both Jews and Muslims that remain a sensitive issue today.
The star of the show is the Chertsey tiles that once adorned the floor of Chertsey Abbey in southern England – or more accurately, a group of these tiles known as the battle series. Their most famous feature is the confrontation between Richard and Saladin, but they also contain scenes that are unrelated, such as the biblical Samson tearing apart a lion, and a classical hunter on horseback fighting a lion. another. Luyster argues that these tiles are a series about the Crusades influenced by Middle Eastern art and culture.
“It was clear to me that Richard and Saladin are really the central part of the mosaic, and that all the other images here play a supporting role,” Luyster said.
The series includes “like Islamic and Byzantine textiles,” she said. “People fighting lions, men on horses fighting battles… all this you will also find from Islamic and Byzantine silks. When the crusaders came home to different places — I have records of them coming back to England — they brought… textiles with this kind of iconography.”
The craftsmen who created the Chertsey tiles applied an English approach to the aesthetic traditions of the Middle East.
“Students previously did not understand how fighting with lions could be part of it [Crusades] narrative,” Luyster said. “The crusaders went to the Holy Land and fought and killed animals with bows and arrows. There is a long biblical history of lions in the Holy Land,” including the story of Samson.
“God is the source of Samson’s strength. He encouraged Richard and his soldiers,” who they considered “approved by God to go ahead and take land in the Eastern Mediterranean,” she said.
The design of the set even reflects Middle Eastern art and its incorporation of roundels, or circular panels, within a grid pattern. A proposed remake of the series is displayed on the exhibition wall.
“It’s the first attempt to reconstruct a complete set of fragments,” Luyster said.
Chertsey tiles first piqued her interest in 2000, when she went to England on a fellowship during graduate studies at Harvard University, where she received her PhD.
According to Luyster, the tiles were designed for King Henry III and Queen Eleanor of England, who were planning to launch a crusade. Scholars, including Luyster, argue that the original destination for the artwork was the Palace of Westminster, but ended up at Chertsey Abbey, strategically located 20 miles west of London on the River Thames. Water travel was vital to medieval transport, and places like Chertsey became important overnight stops. There was even a section in the monastery where distinguished visitors such as the king and queen could conduct worldly business on sacred grounds.
The year 1250 was bad for the crusaders. King Louis IX of France – known as St. Louis also – just engaged to win Jerusalem by beating Egypt. Crusading hope turned to England. In this atmosphere, the tiles were commissioned.
Henry and Eleanor “wanted to have an English-led crusade,” Luyster said. “They couldn’t fund it… they started the publicity machine, the fundraising machine.”
The tiles were not painted, but were made from molds using clay, Luyster said, and the molds were transported from the original location of the tile commission, which was the Palace of Westminster in London.
Later, in the 15th century, Chertsey Abbey suffered from the rule of King Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. By the 19th century, it was long since destroyed, but excavators found traces of its former glory, including the tiles.
According to Luyster, in the 1970s, the British Museum attempted to reassemble the tiles, but the effort left out an important component — 85 separate fragments of Latin text that once called the images. With the help of fellow Holy Cross faculty member Neel Smith, who is both a classicist and a computer programmer, Luyster looked for words that could fit the fragments. “RICA” appeared to be a fragment of “RICARDUS” — “Richard” in Latin — and “HAS” could be part of “HASTA,” Latin for “spear.” The project resulted in word possibilities for about half of the fragments.
“I felt confident doing that,” Luyster said. “There are no guarantees. Reviews are welcome.”
And, she noted, “Recreating the look of the entire tiles was a big step forward from the previous state of knowledge. For the first time for me, it was about the Crusades.”
As Luyster worked on the exhibition, she faced the many challenging connotations associated with the Crusades, including regarding Jews. One of the tiles shows a badly wounded non-Christian soldier. He wears a cap that Europeans forced non-Christians, including Jews, to wear. The Crusades were marked by violence against the Jews in Europe and the Holy Land. In 1190, during the Third Crusade, there was a massacre of Jews in the English city of York.
Ten years later, Henry III pursued open-handed policies against the Jews of the kingdom, culminating in the Statute of the Jews. Issued in 1253, just a few years after the tablets were commissioned, the statute restricted contact between Christians and Jews and forced them to wear a distinctive emblem.
In a recent phone conversation, The Times of Israel asked Luyster about the impact of the Crusades on Jews, including in York.
“So many of the early deaths by the Crusaders and other European Christians were Jews who had been living in the towns and cities of Europe for generations,” Luyster said, including “bodies in a well in northwest England — toddlers and siblings from the same family,” identified as Jews from DNA sequencing, “Jews whose bodies were thrown down there first. That kind of crusading violence is very difficult for me to talk about.”
Another difficult conversation centered on the contemporary signs of the Crusades. It is a Jesuit Catholic university, and has incorporated the Holy Cross as its mascot since 1925. Recently, there have been concerns about how Muslim students on campus would view it. In 2017, the school had a discussion about changing its mascot. The Holy Cross eventually decided to keep the name “Crusader”, but shed the image of an armed knight that accompanied it.
Although the Crusades involved violent intercultural clashes, Luyster hopes that visitors to the exhibition can also see the connections made between East and West – where, she said, the scenes in the tiles ” really rooted in a much larger story, much of it. taking place in the Holy Land.”