WORCESTER, Massachusetts — King Richard I the Lionheart of England and Ayyubid Sultan Saladin of Egypt charge toward each other on horseback. The combat is over before it’s begun: A helmetless Saladin reels from a spear wound.
This gripping scene comes from a pair of ceramic tiles that once adorned a prominent English abbey in the 13th century. Their maker (or makers) employed considerable artistic license: The collision never actually happened.
Legendary foes Richard and Saladin did not personally meet when their armies opposed each other in the Third Crusade, which aimed to recapture Jerusalem for Christendom. And, contradicting the images in the tiles, Saladin survived the encounter with the West and held on to Jerusalem.
What the images do reveal is not a collision, but a coalescence. Crusaders came home to England bearing gifts from the Holy Land, including silks from the Byzantine and Islamic powers of the region. These intricate works left a palpable impact on Western European artisans. In fact, when a floor design was commissioned in England to commemorate a new crusading venture, it was replete with images from Middle Eastern art.
This is the thesis of “Bringing the Holy Land Home: The Crusades, Chertsey Abbey, and the Reconstruction of a Medieval Masterpiece,” a new exhibit at the Iris and B. Gerald Canter Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross, on display in the United States through April 6.
“A lot of people tend to think of Western Europe as being very insular and navel-gazing,” said the show’s curator, Holy Cross visual arts professor Amanda Luyster. “You look at these objects, bringing in hybridity, there’s a whole lot of interculturalism in the object collection.”
Visitors will encounter other ancient artifacts reflecting a cultural interchange between East and West, including Islamic metalworks, Byzantine icons and the oldest Crusader-era bible in existence, the Morgan Bible.
Commissioned in France around the same time as the tiles, the bible features Old Testament figures such as Gideon and Samson anachronistically portrayed in crusading garb. Text was eventually added in three languages — Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian — reflecting the manuscript’s later life: In the 16th century, the pope gifted it to the Safavid Empire in Persia, where it was annotated by a Jew. The exhibit 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 formerly decorated the floor of Chertsey Abbey in southern England — or more precisely, it’s a group of these tiles known as the combat series. Their most famous feature is the showdown between Richard and Saladin, but they also contain such seemingly unrelated scenes as a biblical Samson tearing apart a lion, and a classically-attired hunter on horseback battling another lion. Luyster posits that these tiles are actually a series about the Crusades with influences by Middle Eastern art and culture.
“It became clear to me that Richard and Saladin are really the key part of the mosaic, and all of the other images here are in a supporting role,” Luyster said.
The series contains “really nice parallels to Islamic and Byzantine textiles,” she said. “People fighting lions, men on horseback fighting battles… all of this you also get from Islamic and Byzantine silks. When the crusaders came home to various places — I have records of them coming back to England — they brought… textiles with this kind of iconography.”
The artisans who created the Chertsey tiles applied an English approach to Middle Eastern aesthetic traditions.
“Previous scholars did not understand how fighting lions could be part of the [Crusades] narrative,” Luyster said. “The crusaders went to the Holy Land and fought and slew animals with bows and arrows. There’s a really long biblical history of lions in the Holy Land,” including the story of Samson.
“God is the source of Samson’s strength. It inspired Richard and his soldiers,” who considered themselves “approved of by God to go on and take land over in the Eastern Mediterranean,” she said.
Even the design of the series reflects Middle Eastern art and its incorporation of roundels, or circular panels, within a grid pattern. A proposed reconstituted version of the series is shown on a wall of the exhibit.
“It’s the first attempt to reconstruct a whole bunch of fragments,” Luyster said.
The Chertsey tiles initially piqued her interest in 2000, when she went to England on a fellowship during graduate study at Harvard University, where she received a PhD.
According to Luyster, the tiles were designed for King Henry III and Queen Eleanor of England, who had planned to launch a crusade. Scholars, including Luyster, contend that the original destination for the artwork was Westminster Palace, but they wound up at Chertsey Abbey, strategically located 20 miles west of London on the Thames River. Water travel was crucial to medieval transport, and locations such as Chertsey became important stopping points at night. The abbey even had a section where prominent visitors such as the king and queen could conduct secular business on sacred grounds.
The year 1250 was a bad one for the crusaders. King Louis IX of France — also known as St. Louis — had just gotten captured in a bid to win back Jerusalem by striking at Egypt. Crusading hopes 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 propaganda machine, the fundraising machine.”
The tiles were not painted, but rather made from molds using clay, said Luyster, with the molds being carried from the initial place of the tiles’ commission, which was London’s Westminster Palace.
Later, in the 15th century, Chertsey Abbey suffered from the rule of King Henry VIII and his dissolution of the monasteries. By the 19th century, it had long since been destroyed, yet excavators found traces of its former glory, including the tiles.
According to Luyster, in the 1970s, the British Museum attempted to reassemble the tiles, yet the effort omitted an important component — 85 separate fragments of Latin text that once ringed the images. Aided by fellow Holy Cross faculty member Neel Smith, who is both a classicist and computer programmer, Luyster looked for words that the fragments could fit into. “RICA” seemed like a fragment of “RICARDUS” — “Richard” in Latin — while “HAS” could have been part of “HASTA,” Latin for “spear.” The project led to word possibilities for about half of the fragments.
“I felt confident doing so,” Luyster said. “There are no guarantees. I welcome revisions.”
And, she noted, “Reconstructing what the full tiles would have looked like was a big step forward from the previous state of knowledge. For the first time to me, it was all about the Crusades.”
As Luyster worked on the exhibit, she addressed the many challenging connotations of the Crusades, including with regard to Jews. One of the tiles shows a grievously wounded non-Christian soldier. He wears a cap that Europeans forced non-Christians to wear, including Jews. The Crusades were marked by violence against 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.
Decades later, Henry III pursued repressive policies against the kingdom’s Jews, culminating in the Statute of Jewry. Issued in 1253, just a few years after the commissioning of the tiles, the statute restricted contact between Christians and Jews and compelled the latter to wear a distinctive badge.
In a recent phone conversation, The Times of Israel asked Luyster about the impact of the Crusades on Jews, including in York.
“So much of the early deaths committed by the Crusaders and other European Christian people were Jewish people living in European towns and cities 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 headfirst. That kind of crusading violence is very hard for me to talk about.”
Another difficult conversation centered around contemporary connotations of the Crusades. A Jesuit Catholic university, Holy Cross has incorporated the Crusader as its mascot since 1925. More recently, there have been concerns about how Muslim students on campus would perceive it. In 2017, the school held a discussion about changing its mascot. Holy Cross ultimately decided to keep the name “Crusader,” but it discarded the accompanying image of an armed knight.
Although the Crusades were marked by violent intercultural collisions, Luyster hopes visitors to the exhibit can also see the connections made between East and West — where, she said, the scenes in the tiles are “really embedded in a much greater narrative, much of it taking place in the Holy Land.”
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