Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 15, 2012
Jaroslav Folda Crusader Art: The Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, 1099–1291 Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2008. 176 pp.; 90 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (9780853319955)

In his preface to Crusader Art: The Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, 1099–1291, Jaroslav Folda asserts that the story of the art of the Crusaders is far less well-known than their history: “To tell the story of Crusader Art adequately,” Folda writes, “a richly illustrated book is required” (11). This slim but sumptuously illustrated volume fulfills that requirement. It is, in many ways, an encapsulation of Folda’s scholarly oeuvre in that it presents a survey of the most significant works of art produced in the Holy Land between Crusader conquests of Jerusalem in 1099 and the fall of the Latin Kingdom’s second capital, Acre, in 1291. At the same time, Folda’s study also reflects on the development and context of that art’s history.

What is known about this important subfield of Medieval art is in large part due to Folda’s career-long research and, in particular, his seminal volumes, The Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, 1098–1187 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Crusader Art in the Holy Land: From the Third Crusade to the Fall of Acre, 1187–1291 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). These monumental studies are supported by a detailed scholarly apparatus, including extensive references, a brief preface of color plates, and black-and-white images throughout. The 2005 book further includes a CD providing photo documentation in 505 black-and-white digital images of Crusader (and related) manuscripts, thus serving as an invaluable resource for scholars wishing to consult details of painting, paleography, and ornament. In contrast to these weighty earlier tomes with their exhaustive state-of-the-field treatment, the present volume provides a select overview of some of the most significant works of Crusader art. Though citations are few, illustrations are plentiful: nearly every image is reproduced in color, most are half to full page, and all images are integrated into the text so that the prose follows them closely. The main reference system consists of a limited number of endnotes and a very short “further reading” section divided into selected studies on the history of the Crusades, the art of the Crusaders, and exhibition catalogues featuring Crusader works of art. Scholars will still want to turn to the larger studies for more detailed discussion and consultation, but this volume is a well-illustrated and eminently readable encapsulation of Folda’s larger narrative of Crusader art.

The book opens with a preface and introduction that ask: “Why have an illustrated book on Crusader art?” and “What is Crusader art?” Here the contrast with the opening of Folda’s earlier two works is telling. Unlike the detailed account of the historiography of Crusader art with which the 1995 and 2005 volumes began, this book provides succinct definitions, reduced to a mere three pages. Here the content is positioned not in relation to the French colonial historiography but with reference to current historical fiction and film. Rather than an offshoot of European traditions, Folda treats Crusader art as multicultural: it “is not simply a Western European art and it is certainly not a colonial art; it is a unique, dynamic artistic development in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Eastern Mediterranean world. It is an art that in some sense developed simultaneously among and out of Christian traditions of the Greek East and the Latin West, and ultimately drew on Islamic and even Mongol traditions as well” (13). This argument has distinguished Folda’s career, and while more scholarly readers may be familiar with this position and its evidence from his earlier work, seeing a concentration of richly illustrated material set alongside a concise articulation of this claim helps it to resonate with a wider audience.

The remainder of the book traces the history of Crusader art in a series of three phases. The first chapter covers the period from the initial Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 to its loss to Saladin in 1187, condensing into 52 pages the bulk of the 1995 study, The Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, 1098–1187 (compare 40 endnotes of the present chapter to the 122 pages of notes of the earlier book). The abbreviated survey highlights the most important extant works from this period, including the Denkendorf True Cross reliquary, the Melisende Psalter, the Church of St. Anne, additions to and embellishments of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of the Virgin, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the sculptural fragments and column capitals from the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth, and the expansion of the residential and ecclesiastical structures on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. From this survey of the first generation of Crusader art, Folda concludes that the immediate attention of the first Crusaders focused on tombs for their leaders, coinage struck in their new lands, and the adornment of significant sacred sites. He sees a shift in this first phase of Crusader art from a European colonial art to a multi-cultural art produced from the interaction of Crusader settlers with local Greek orthodox artists and Byzantine art. This formal fusion in early Crusader art—a “unique union of East and West” (68)—served to celebrate the most sacred sites of the Holy Land.

Chapters 2 and 3 turn to the first and second half of the thirteenth century respectively, thus distilling the content of Folda’s 2005 study, Crusader Art in the Holy Land: From the Third Crusade to the Fall of Acre, 1187–1291. From the second phase of Crusader art, which begins with the loss of Jerusalem in 1187 and the establishment of Acre as new capital of the Latin Kingdom, Folda presents some of the most famous Crusader castles, including Margat, ‘Atlit, and the Crac des Chevaliers. A number of manuscripts (the Freiburg Leaf, the Naples missal, the Riccardiana Psalter, and the Egerton Sacramentary), icons (now at Sinai), and other objects are also represented. For the second half of the thirteenth century, what Folda calls the third phase of Crusader art, Louis IX’s famous Arsenal Bible produced in Acre and related illustrations (including the Perugia Missal) hold a justifiably prominent position, as do a series of Crusader icons including the Sinai St. Sergios icon, which is featured on the book’s dust jacket, and the celebrated Kahn and Mellon Madonnas. Despite devastating losses to the Crusader states, Folda shows that art continued to flourish in this period, evidenced not only by the continued Franco-Byzantine and Italo-Byzantine Crusader styles but also by the Parisian Gothic style.

In the epilogue, Folda elaborates most explicitly the arc of his generational model of Crusader art. The Western European-derived art of the first generation of settlers in the early twelfth century is transformed with the second generation of Crusader artists who were exposed to local artists and Byzantine manuscripts, mosaics, and frescoes. The result was a more complete integration of Eastern and Western European traditions. For Folda, Crusader art’s “fullest development” falls in the first half of the thirteenth century, with the revitalization of art produced in Acre. During this phase, icon painting comes into its own, and secular manuscript illumination, paralleling developments in Paris, complements bible production. With this introduction of secular illumination, the later art of the Crusader east remains tied to France and reflects its historical protagonists—kings, queens, and knights.

A central merit of the study is its combination in one volume of the significant Crusader artistic traditions of both the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This means that Folda is able to speak of larger art-historical developments in a way not possible in two volumes separated chronologically. By succinctly surveying the larger span of time, Folda traces key shifts of emphasis in Crusader art, from its genesis as a Western European-inspired art transported to the Holy Land, to a Byzantino-Romanesque celebration of the life of Christ in Palestine, to its fruition as a French Gothic mirror of Crusader deeds themselves. These three phases of Crusader art are elaborated through the three principal chapters. The fragmentary nature of the material will always render as somewhat speculative any coherent narrative of Crusader art. The narrative progression outlined by Folda, however, is as convincing as a narrative of Crusader art can be.

Folda is the authority on Crusader art. This celebration of the visual traditions to which he has dedicated his career is designed for a more general readership. While the academic reader will not find new or detailed information about the art of the crusades, even specialist scholars will be particularly interested in this vivid, succinct, and integrated narrative of Crusader art and its development.

Cecily Hilsdale
Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University

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