JERUSALEM – Wall paintings recounting the Crusader history of Jerusalem were recently exposed by chance 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.
Saint-Louis Hospice, an impressive two story structure built in the Renaissance and Baroque styles, is situated next to the Jerusalem municipal building and the bustling IDF Square, outside the Old City walls and opposite the New Gate. The hospital was founded in 1896 and is named after St. Louis IX, King of France, the leader of the Seventh Crusade 1248–1254 CE.
Today, parts of the building are not opened to visitors because it still 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. It 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 died there in 1925.
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 among 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.
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 the 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 he, together with his 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 is spectacular; the enormous halls and endless rooms of the hospital are illuminated with the Crusader history of Jerusalem.
The Turks took possession of the building during the First World War . 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.
In the wake of the discovery, The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) 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.
Interest was recently renewed in the lost and concealed wall paintings when they were revealed once again. These magnificent paintings are a piece of history and a rare work of art. Funds are currently needed for their conservation, exposure and documentation.
The IAA stressed that there is no intention of turning the hospital into a tourist attraction so as not to disturb the work of the hospice.