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23.11.03 Luyster (ed.), Bringing the Holy Land Home

23.11.03 Luyster (ed.), Bringing the Holy Land Home

Amanda Luyster’s edited volume, Bringing the Holy Land Home: The Crusades, Chertsey Abbey, and the Reconstruction of a Medieval Masterpiece, originally accompanied an eponymous exhibition in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) that closed in April of this year. Like the exhibition, the volume under review here celebrates the thirteenth-century “Chertsey tiles” that once decorated a floor in Surrey’s Chertsey Abbey. These tiles are in fact hundreds of ceramic fragments in disarray, casualties of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in England between 1536 and 1541, long appreciated as a precious albeit incompletely understood survival of a rarely preserved medieval art form. Now, thanks to Luyster and her team’s efforts to digitally reconstruct a substantial and consequential section of these fragments, they can also be appreciated for the evidence they provide of monastic visual culture, on the one hand, and cultural exchange, on the other.

It is to the latter project that Bringing the Holy Land Home contributes especially. As one might expect, the longest and first essay is Luyster’s, “The Chertsey Tiles: Reassembling Fragments of Meaning,” which introduces the digital reconstruction in question. Among the most noteworthy advances here is the picture of a significantly intact floor that comes into view, one consisting of twelve reconstituted roundels of image and text within an ornamental field. Although the original placement of each roundel is difficult to ascertain, the net result is still a rich and dazzling display of bright white inlay on a red clay ground. The twelve roundels themselves depict combat of different kinds: men loose arrows and wield lances, swords, and hammers against both pictured and implied human or animal foes. Luyster understands such scenes to be the byproduct of contemporary crusading engagements in the eastern Mediterranean, “where lions live and where great deeds are done” (68). Better yet, Luyster associates the floor’s layout and iconography with Byzantine and Islamic textiles and, thereby, makes the connection between Chertsey Abbey and that charged geographical material. Her emphasis on these connections over against the apparent isolation of England, an island thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean basin, and of Chertsey Abbey in particular, a rural monastery some twenty miles outside of London, is powerful.

The remainder of the volume fills out the larger historical and cultural context to which this floor belonged. It does this primarily through meaty essays treating broad themes. Suleiman A. Mourad’s “A Clash of Civilizations?” introduces the Crusades via textual sources, drawing out the many and varied accounts of negotiation, alliance, and tolerance they include. Mourad presents these not as “isolated examples” of interaction within a field otherwise dominated by violence and animosity, but rather as regular, representative, and sanctioned. Mourad’s aim is to disrupt the essentializing picture of Christians versus Muslims that dominates the study of the Crusades. In so doing, Mourad brings to mind the many kinds of ephemeral exchange that belonged to this historical moment. David Nicolle provides the volume with a “short history” of the Crusades. This essay begins with Urban II and the Council of Clermont but quickly zooms out to look at a layered history of conflict that has belonged to the medieval Mediterranean writ large and across confessions. Concluding sections deal with the historical figures of Salah al-Din and Richard the Lionheart, whose legendary confrontation occupies two of the Chertsey Abbey tiles, and thirteenth-century crusading endeavors, the immediate context within which those tiles were made. Euan Roger’s “So Much National Magnificence and National History” takes inspiration from an eighteenth-century quotation bemoaning the erasure of Chertsey Abbey from the English landscape. Its project, accordingly, is recreating the abbey’s history from its seventh-century foundation to its sixteenth-century dissolution. What emerges is a vivid picture of a powerful monastery that benefitted from royal favor whose monks lived according to Benedictine Rule and whose abbots accompanied embassies to distant courts. Within this picture, the Chertsey tiles can be appreciated as a relic of the building campaigns that once announced its status and as a reminder of the unexpected contexts for cross-cultural exposure that belonged to monasticism.

While the first three essays lay out historical contexts, the seven that follow lay out art historical contexts. Richard A. Leson’s essay on “Epic Sensibilities in French Art of the Crusader Period” shines a spotlight on Richard the Lionheart, in many ways the star of Chertsey’s floor. This spotlight takes us to France, where Richard had land and vassals, and to representations of military prowess that once inspired text and image there. Leson emphasizes the role played by such optimistic and “hypermasculine” imagery within a culture marked by crusading ambitions and, more important, crusading losses, especially among the elite. In terms of the Chertsey Abbey tiles, this analysis makes important connections across courts and across secular and religious arts. Cynthia Hahn attends to the subject of relics and reliquaries in “Re-creating the Holy Land at Home,” where she sketches a helpful history of interest in such objects and underscores the ways in which their movement and ultimate distribution was affected by the Crusades. Most important, however, Hahn’s analysis shows that those relics and reliquaries connected with military engagement in the Mediterranean had a special status as embodiments of a sacred geography and as “testaments to crusader victories.” Given the connection between Eastern objects and the Chertsey tiles proposed in this volume, the observations made here are clarifying.

The same can be said of Elizabeth Dospěl Williams’ “The Mobility of Fabric” and Eva R. Hoffman’s “Crusaders in Jerusalem.” Williams provides a substantial introduction to Byzantine and Islamic textiles, laying out among other things the types that could be encountered in medieval Eurasia and the role the Crusades played in moving examples of these lightweight and compact materials throughout Europe, their demand driven by the technology on which they relied and their courtly associations, and their value indicated by contexts of use, by reuse, and by imitation in other media--such as the Chertsey ceramic tiles. Hoffman takes a broader view of the kinds of works met in the Mediterranean during the Crusades. She sets up a tension between the rhetoric of Muslim idolaters that fueled crusaders and the reality of appreciating Muslim culture on the ground. Evidence for this is found especially in luxury wares such as metalwork, rock crystal, glass, and ivory, which, like relics and reliquaries and like textiles, were valued both for their craftsmanship and for their ability to evoke the sacred geography in which they were made and victories real or symbolic. Along the way, Hoffman brings helpful considerations of market adaptations and viewer agency into the mix. Sarah M. Guérin’s “Oliphants and Elephants” turns to the ivory industry, both as raw material and finished works. Her lens, accordingly, is the import, which allows for illuminating discussions of sources, the movement of goods, and the properties that made ivory synonymous with sumptuousness. This focus on a kind of portable object that also recalls the Chertsey tiles in design and subject matter adds consequential geographical and commercial considerations to the conversation. In the end, we appreciate ivory’s ability to announce a deeply “interconnected world” and, more concretely, worldliness.

Scott Redford’s essay, “A Cupbearer Crosses Cultures,” addresses the “zodiac” tiles that were also found at Chertsey Abbey. Here, within the Labors of the Months, a feasting scene evokes the cupbearer (saqi) motif that appears so often in medieval Islamic art. This single figure inspires a discussion of glazed ceramic ware, ubiquitous in the Mediterranean regardless of confession or social status, and of glazed flooring, ultimately demonstrating that there are additional ways of connecting the abbey tiles to a Mediterranean context. In “Citizens and Invaders,” Paroma Chatterjee looks at the exposure to Byzantine sculpture that was also occasioned by the Crusades. This exposure is well documented in the chronicles of Niketas Choniates and Robert of Clari, which Chatterjee uses both to recreate the public monuments of Constantinople and to understand responses to them. In this comparison between the local (Choniates) and non-local (Clari) reception of these works, what becomes apparent is a difference in depth of understanding, of course, but also a common admiration. Clari’s wonder at the number and size of monuments and at the variety of materials that reflected light and colored interiors and skylines is set against destructive practices--looting, reusing, or destroying depending on material and monument type. This final essay helps us appreciate the enthusiasm for small objects, which, while provoking this same wonder, were much easier to move, but it also reminds us that cross-cultural encounters had a dark side and that the combat subjects in the Chertsey tiles were not toothless.

The above has focused especially on the ways in which the essays in Bringing the Holy Land Home work together to illuminate and nuance the intrinsically connected medieval world within which the Chertsey tiles were created. I have not done justice to topic-specific discussions of history, geography, practices, and relationships. I have also not done justice to the shorter essays with which the volume concludes. These treat specific objects, presumably those that appeared in the exhibition, although whether we learn here about all the objects that were in the exhibition or a representative selection is unclear. Regardless, these focused entries continue the scene-setting and interpretive work of the volume, combining the close looking and careful historical situating demanded by the object entry genre.

As one would expect of a volume that accompanied an exhibition (I hesitate to use “exhibition catalogue”), its essays have been written for an interested but not necessarily academic audience. The arguments here are not entirely new, but because they are inspired by the Chertsey tiles and, more specifically, by the charge to explain why these tiles look the way they do, their accomplishment as a group is. As such, Bringing the Holy Land Home contributes to other scholarly endeavors that understand works as products of a larger world of material and literary culture, of complex historical contexts, and of inherently permeable borders. More specifically, it contributes to endeavors that see the Crusades not only in terms of belligerents and military agendas, but also in terms of productive contacts both transient and material, and the far-flung locations such contacts could affect.