To Unify and Distinguish: The Making of “Crusader” Art

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Mahoney_LisaBy: Lisa Mahoney, DePaul University, National Endowment of the Humanities Fellow

The crusades to the Holy Land defined all of western Christendom during the 12th and  13th centuries, even if this was not continuous and did not affect all of Christendom at the same time. In the Holy Land, however, once cities had been conquered and loca sancta “freed,” the military component of this enterprise was superseded by other matters—the creation and maintenance of a new, identifiable community despite the cultural dissimilarity of its members and the remove of their origins.  Although an endeavor never articulated in available journals, guides, or historical accounts, that is, in tidy passages that can be excerpted and pointed to, I contend that it was the central factor determining artistic production in the Latin occupied territories. 

The goal of my work while in residence at the Albright was to show that attending to this desire for a discrete group identity and the project of pictorial-language-building that necessarily accompanied it allows us to better understand the art of the Franks. This includes, for example, depictions of the Umayyad Dome of the Rock, which figure so prominently in Frankish artistic productions.  Such references to an Islamic structure have traditionally been understood as a simple extension of Late Antique pilgrimage art, where representations of the Holy Land strategically merged details of a biblical past with details of the contemporary landscape.  But when considered alongside the broader material culture, these particular topographic references present themselves as one facet of a larger project of Christianizing Jerusalem—not to ensure that the pictorial record and visual encounter matched, as originally, or at least not exclusively—but to lay claim to Jerusalem, the city that was consistently the heartbeat of the Frankish state, even if it was not always in that state’s control.  This also includes the use of Byzantine artistic conventions in the picturing of newly embraced eastern saints.  In this case, a style associated, for example, with the contemporary loca sancta, joins regionally specific subject matter in the interest of efficacy—an eastern style made the eastern subject matter work.  And, finally, this includes the use of Islamic artistic forms, which have traditionally been understood as always and purely decorative artistic features.  The often-strategic placement of these forms, however, suggests that they point to the inspiration for the larger programs to which they belong.  Paradigmatically, Islamic forms similar to those found in nearby Umayyad monuments surround large sections of charged text in the nave of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and as such seem to constitute a response to the Islamic prohibition of images in religious contexts that the Franks encountered in their new Mediterranean home.

Each of these examples represents a solution to long-standing interpretive problems in the realm of Frankish art.  And one gained by taking seriously the idea of a beginning to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and by seeing that the creation of art was a means by which attendant statements of identity might be expressed—an identity of shared ideology that unified its members and distinguished them from non-members.  It is for this reason that the Franks could not simply continue to employ the artistic traditions from which they came, nor could they simply adopt those with which they were confronted in the East.  Indeed, an attentive look at the art of the Franks reveals the collective and culturally specific concerns of this recently developed and still developing kingdom, and argues that a carefully engineered mingling of artistic forms was the proper means of communication in the eastern Mediterranean.


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