A little-known Jerusalem philanthropic institution opened its doors Wednesday and offered a rare opportunity to gaze upon dazzlingly colored paintings of Crusader knights decorating the walls of a hospice for the infirm.
St. Louis French Hospital is a hospice run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who have tended to the sick in Jerusalem since 1852.
Today it stands across the train tracks from the New Gate, adjacent to Jerusalem’s City Hall. It’s partly funded by Israel’s Health Ministry, and admits Jewish, Christian and Muslim patients alike, most of whom are suffering a terminal illness.
Sister Monika Dullman, director of St. Louis French Hospital, said that the cash-strapped institution struggles to pay for additional beds in order to provide final comfort for its patients. She eschews the term “terminal” to refer to her wards, preferring to call them “people in the last period of life.” Some receive palliative care, others are comatose, others are just elderly and too infirm to leave.
Ordinarily the hospice is off-Iimits to the public. But in a rare exposé, St. Louis Hospital and the Israel Antiquities Authority allowed reporters into the building to look at the magnificent images painted over 100 years ago. Along its main corridor and stairwells are intricate secco paintings (in which pigments are mixed with eggs) of chivalric crests and geometric designs painted by the French count. The floor-to-ceiling painting in the hospice’s main upstairs corridor shows the insignia of the Crusader knights who captured and ruled Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187; famous names such as Godfrey de Bouillon, Bohemond and Tancred appear alongside full-sized images of armored European warriors.
During the First World War, Ottoman Turks took over the French hospital for use by the military. The commanders obscured the Christian symbols by coating the wall of the corridor in impenetrable black paint. After the war, when the British took over and the nuns were permitted to return to work, Comte Marie Paul Amédée de Piellat — a French noble who had funded, designed and decorated the building when the hospice moved outside the Old City walls – stripped the paint and restored the images to their former glory. Opposite the massive family tree, in a stairwell graced by a statue of St. Joseph — the patron saint of the monastic order that runs the hospital — a large section of wall was damaged by a burst pipe in 2009. The water exposed the original secco design painted by De Piellat, a tasteful geometric pattern in blues, reds and yellows. Sister Monika said she believes that the remainder of the stairwell is likely covered in similar designs, but that they are hesitant to begin removing the more recent coats of paint.
De Piellat also designed the ornate chapel in the hospital’s west wing, and decorated a previously unknown former storeroom facing the Ottoman walls of the holy city. The chapel features De Piellat’s elaborate tessellation employing a brilliantly colored floral design and stained glass windows filled with Catholic saints. One saintly image of St. Francis of Assisi, Sister Monika explained, has a bullet hole through the Italian holy man’s heart — a wound inflicted on the artwork during the 1948 War of Independence. In the former storeroom and office, just off the chapel on the hospital’s west wing, the now vacant room features walls covered in medieval crests and seals belonging to the cities and chivalric orders of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. In a niche on its western wall stands a statue of King Louis IX of France, the canonized saint who led the ill-fated Seventh Crusade against Egypt in 1248. Over his cloaked shoulders are the obverses and reverses of the seals of the fabled knightly orders: the Templars and the Hospitallers. It is after the medieval French king that the hospital is named. Sister Monika said that the nuns recently cleared the storeroom out and invited the IAA to examine the artwork covering its walls earlier this year.
Amit Reem, the IAA’s medieval expert in Jerusalem, said that De Piellat painted historically accurate recreations of medieval insignia, and that the paintings have immense historical value. “There is plenty of historical work to do here,” said Reem, but the problem is funding, of which there is none. “Without restoration or preservation work, in 20 years it won’t be here.” Unless properly treated, the paint will peel from the walls, fade and decay, he said, and a little-known historic treasure of Jerusalem will be lost. “We have no funds from the hospital, we have no funds from the congregation, from the sisters [of St. Joseph], because the funds we have we must put in renewing for the quality of life for the patient,” Sister Monika said. “So we have no funds for this.” For now, ahead of Pope Francis’s first visit as pontiff to the Holy Land (when he will stay next door to St. Louis’s at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center) the hospital tries to minimize damage and preserve the artwork so that perhaps one day it can be restored. If the restoration money is found, the IAA will likely digitize the paintings for the public to enjoy without disrupting the day-to-day care of patients in the hospice.