by Roderick Conway Morris

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Berthold Werner
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem

In the Holy Land: From the Crusades to the Custodianship of Holy Places

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 11 March 2000


Of the Muslims of Palestine, Burchard, a German pilgrim to Jerusalem in the late 13th century, wrote: 'They are very hospitable, courteous and kindly.' He was impressed by the austerity and piety of the Greek Christians, but when it came to those from the West he was damning: 'To tell the truth, our own people, the Latins, are worse than all the other people of the land.'

By the time of Burchard's journey, the last crusaders had been expelled from Jerusalem and would presently be driven out of Palestine altogether. And given that he was in the region when it was still an arena of east-west military conflict, his comments highlight the customary tolerance extended to local Christian communities and noncombatant pilgrims by successive Islamic dynasties, from the conquest of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 638 until the end of Ottoman rule in 1917.

Throughout these many centuries, persecutions of Christians were untypical and short-lived. The most notorious oppression of them was under the blood-thirsty tyrant, the Fatimid Caliph Hakim of Egypt (996-1021), at whose hands his co-religionists also suffered arbitrary maltreatment. (According to local tradition, Hakim was a worshipper of the planet Saturn, held regular conversations with the devil and was killed at the instigation of his sister when he dared to cast doubt on her chastity.) When marauding armies of freebooters from Central Asia sacked Jerusalem in the late 11th century and again in 1244, resident Muslims and Jews were also victims of their depredations.

Within a few years of the departure from the region of the last crusaders in 1291, the Franciscan order, which had been established there for most of the century, sought permission to return. This they were allowed to do in the second decade of the 14th century - their position being formally recognized by the Egyptian Sultan al Nasir in 1333 - since when they have maintained a continual presence.

The Franciscans' almost unbroken involvement there both during and after the Crusades is unique among Western religious orders and has left them with a rich archive of documents and collections of art works and artifacts. These have been conserved, since its founding in 1923, by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, an institution that has played an active role in archaeological excavation and research.

As part of their contribution to this year's jubilee, the Franciscans have sent several hundred pieces from their collections, most of which have never before been seen in the West, to the Palazzo Reale in Milan, for the show 'In the Holy Land: From the Crusades to the Custodianship of Holy Places,' which continues until May 21.

This varied exhibition offers a kind of virtual visit to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and other sites, including Bethlehem, Nazareth and Gethsemane, where the Franciscans play a role in the guardianship of holy shrines.

Among the earliest works on display is a series of stone capitols, carved around 1180 with lively biblical scenes, for the pillars of the no longer extant crusader cathedral at Nazareth, and a contemporary fragment of fresco from Gethsemane. A remarkable survival is a set of 13 bells dating from the late 12th or early 13th century (the ringing of bells was forbidden by the Muslim authorities) and an array of rare organ pipes from the same period.

The influence of Islamic art can be seen in a number of elaborate models of the Holy Sepulcher inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, a skill at which Muslim craftsmen still excel.

The part of the show devoted to illuminated manuscripts and documents is especially striking. Here is Clement VI's 1342 papal bull officially recognizing the Franciscans' position in the Holy Land following the deals they themselves had negotiated with the Muslim rulers. The importance of this decree becomes clear when one remembers that in 1229, when Emperor Frederick II occupied Jerusalem without firing a shot and forged a 10-year renewable truce with the sultan, having agreed to protect the rights of all religions, Pope Gregory IX would have none of it, accused Frederick of being 'a follower of Mohammed' and encouraged the emperor's son-in-law to seize Frederick's property in his absence.

The Franciscans have more than 2,500 documents in Arabic and Turkish, and there are several beautifully illuminated Ottoman firmans here, granting, confirming and updating privileges. (An earlier firman of 1446, from the Mamluk Sultan Kushqadam, contains an article guaranteeing the brothers' rights to buy grapes for making wine.) There are paintings from various periods, many, naturally enough, of St. Francis and his deeds. But the largest scale and most impressive is the cycle on the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, from about 1485, by Friedrich Pacher and his studio, which formerly adorned the walls of a chapel in the South Tirol.

There are also several historical curiosities, ranging from unexploded medieval ceramic hand grenades, unearthed on Mount Tabor, to the old door of the guest house at the Franciscans' St. Savior convent, on which many a lodger, both Catholic and Protestant, carved their names. English visitors seem to have been particularly partial to this habit, though Chateaubriand, Lamartine and Gogol, too, left their calling cards in this fashion.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023