Wall paintings recounting the Crusader history of Jerusalem were recently exposed when the sisters of Saint-Louis Hospital, near the Old City of Jerusalem, were organizing the storerooms. In addition, a burst water pipe in the building revealed drawings that were concealed beneath modern plaster and paint. The paintings, drawn by the hospital’s founder, depict Crusader knights in armor wearing swords and note, among other things the French knights’ genealogy.
In the wake of the discovery, Israel Antiquities Authority conservators came to the hospital and assisted the sisters with ‘first aid’ in cleaning and stabilizing some of the wall paintings. The paintings are in the style characteristic of monumental church decorations of the nineteenth century, with close attention to small details and motifs drawn from the world of medieval art.
Saint-Louis Hospice – an impressive two story structure built in the Renaissance and Baroque style – is situated next to the Jerusalem municipal building and bustling IDF Square, outside the Old City walls and opposite the New Gate. The place is named after St. Louis IX, King of France (the leader of the Seventh Crusade 1248–1254 CE) and was opened to the public in 1896. Today, parts of the building are not opened to visitors because it serves as a hospital and hospice for the chronic and terminally ill.
The hospital is run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition. This order treats the sick regardless of religion, age or sex. Besides the sacred work performed there, the inside of the building contains a fascinating historical narrative and an artistic treasure.
The hospital was founded at the initiative of a French count, Comte Marie Paul Amédée de Piellat, a man of many accomplishments, an intellectual and devout Christian who visited Jerusalem a number of times in the second half of the nineteenth century, and passed away there in 1925.
The ancient landscape of the Holy Land and Jerusalem in particular, were deeply etched in de Piellat’s personality and strengthened his Christian faith. De Piellat was shocked by the meager Catholic presence in Jerusalem and was concerned about the increasing power of the Greek Orthodox Church and its representatives in Jerusalem – the Russians. It should be mentioned that in the late nineteenth century the great powers fought amongst themselves for the control and religious hegemony of Jerusalem.
The count decided to act and between 1879 and 1896 he constructed the hospital which replaced a smaller, more modest facility in the Christian Quarter inside the Old City walls. He subsequently established another enormous and spectacular compound nearby – Notre Dame de France, a hostel designed to serve Christian pilgrims and provide for their needs.
The particular area the count selected for constructing the hospital was not accidental. De Piellat considered himself a descendant of the Crusaders, as well as the last Crusader. He wished to continue the work of those Latin kings, knights and nobility who were in Jerusalem some nine hundred years before. Therefore, he chose to locate the hospital in the historic area where the army of the Norman king Tancred camped, before it, together with Tancred’s allies, breached Jerusalem’s city walls in 1099 CE and vanquished the city by storm and brutality.
De Piellat, who was also an artist, adorned the walls of the hospital and its ceiling with huge paintings portraying Crusader knights in their armor and wearing swords. Alongside these giant figures he painted the heraldry (symbols/signs) of the French knights’ families, wrote their names and noted their genealogy. He also added the symbols of the Crusader cities, symbols of the military orders and monastic orders. The sight was spectacular; the enormous halls and endless rooms of the hospital were illuminated with the Crusader history of Jerusalem.
The Turks took possession of the building during the First World War (1914–1918). They covered the breathtaking frescoes with black paint. At the end of the war the count returned to the hospital in his old age. De Piellat devoted the rest of his life to removing the black paint and re-exposing the frescoes. He passed away at the hospital in 1925.
Interest was recently renewed in the lost and concealed wall paintings when they were revealed once again in all their glory. These magnificent paintings are a piece of history and a rare work of art. Funds are currently needed for their conservation, exposure and documentation. It should be noted there is no intention of turning the hospital into a tourist attraction in order that the humble and quiet sacred work done there may continue.
1–6. De Piellat’s paintings adorn the walls of the hospital.
7. Previously unknown frescoes painted by de Piellat were exposed in the wake of a burst water pipe.
8. The room that was used as a storeroom. Other paintings by de Piellat were discovered while reorganizing it.
Photographic credit: courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority