Art of the Crusader Period

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The art created during the Crusades shows the changes that were implemented, as well as the concepts and styles that were kept from the early Byzantine Era. These changes can be seen within the styles, imagery, and icons that were created during this time. Although the Crusades brought about many changes in leadership and religion the one thing that remained constant was the creation of art. One image or icon that has been used in numerous ways for centuries is Madonna and child. This image can be seen throughout the thousand years of the Byzantine Era and well beyond. Although the icon itself has not changed the way it was created and the style in which it was done has changed throughout time.

“The First Crusade broadly consisted of two expeditions. The so-called People’s Crusade seems to have consisted of an array of peasants, some townsfolk, and a mixture of brigands, ruffians and vagabonds, but also, it should be noted, a significant sprinkling of knights, who were led by Peter the Hermit. This was followed shortly after by another sizeable force of fighting men, knights and foot soldiers whose leaders were some of the most important magnates in Europe.” These four armies from different Western European regions, were led by Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois and Bohemond of Taranto. They all left Byzantium in August of 1096. These groups of men arrived in Constantinople where they were met by Alexious who ruled over any land gained by the Turks. After joining Alexious the crusaders and their allies attacked Nicea, which surrendered in late June of 1097. After the fall of Nicea the Crusaders and Byzantine leaders march toward Jerusalem, claiming it in its entirety by mid-July of 1099. The rulers during the first Crusades were Christian and enforced this religion where ever they went.

The Crusaders maintained their rule up until 1130 when Muslim forces began gaining power in their holy war against the Christians. By 1147 the second crusade began, and the Crusaders and Byzantine leaders began losing power and land to the Turks and Muslims. By 1187 the third crusade began with the Crusaders of Jerusalem trying to capture Egypt and but faced defeat by generals such as Shirkuh and Saladin. By 1191 King Richard I of England defeated Saladin and recaptured much of the land. This allowed for him to reestablish Christian control over much of the region. By 1192 Richard and Saladin signed a peace treaty which reestablished the kingdom of Jerusalem and brought an end to the Third Crusade.

The Fourth Crusade took place in 1198 when Pope Innocent III felt the power struggle within and between Byzantine and Europe was becoming to great. This concern drove the newest crusade to divert their mission and bring down the Byzantine emperor Alexius III, replacing him with his nephew Alexius IV, who became the new emperor in 1203. Alexious IV was strangled in a palace coup in 1204 after immense resistance to submitting the Byzantine church to Rome. In response to the emperor’s death the crusaders declared war on Constantinople. The end of the fourth crusade came with the fall of Constantinople. Through the end of the 13th century the crusaders aimed to combat any all enemies of the Christian faith.

The fifth crusade was started by Pope Innocent III before he died in 1216. The crusaders attempted to attack Egypt from both sea and land but were forced to surrender to Muslim defenders in 1221. The Sixth Crusade led to the peaceful transfer of Jerusalem to Crusader control, this treaty expired a decade later and Jerusalem was once again taken back by the Muslims. Louis IX of France spent 1248-1254 organizing a crusade against Egypt, this Seventh Crusade was a failure. By 1260 the Crusaders were struggling to keep power and a new dynasty known as the Mamluks began to form. The Mamluks took over much of the land and fought Louis IX in what was considered to be the Eighth Crusade. Louis died and Mumluks continued their conquest. In 1271 Edward I of England began the Ninth Crusade but accomplished very little, this crusade is considered to be the last significant crusade to the Holy Land. By 1291 the last remaining Crusader city fell marking the end of the Crusades.

Through all of these battles and changes of power art was still made and cultures continued to flourish. The Crusades allowed for new cultures and religion to take hold and mix with what was already known. Christianity and Western civilization extended its reaches and the Roman Catholic Church increased its wealth. The Christians used their religious history to justify colonialism, warfare and terrorism as well as the taking over of cultures and lifestyles. Though this seems devastating it made is so that a stronger collective cultural identity began to form throughout Europe. For those of the Islamic faith the Crusades were a brutal time where their faith and lives were put to the test. There was an increase in xenophobia and intolerance between not only Christians and Muslims but also between Christians and Jews and heretics and pagans. Though there was much devastation due to these wars there was also good that came from them. There was increase in international trade and an increase in the exchange of ideas and technology. In this paper some of that good will be discussed in terms of the art created during these times. Art tells a story of history and what life was like for those who came before us. One of the most well-known stories of this time is that of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Images of the two together date back well before the Crusades and well into that time period. In this paper images of Madonna and Child before and after the Crusades will be compared and contrasted for the similarities and differences that occurred during these times.

The image of Madonna and Child can be seen throughout the entirety of the Byzantine Era. This icon is redone and used over and over again, each time slightly different in style and form depending on when it was made and by whom it was created. One of the earliest remaining images of Madonna and Child is Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George. This panel painting was done on encaustic wood and is from the sixth or early seventh century, it was found in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. This painting depicts the Virgin and Child with a solder saint on either side, Theodore to the left and St. George to the right. Above these two saints are two angels whose faces are turned upward as if looking to God, while the light in the middle falls upon the Virgin.

At first glance this piece seems flat and compressed but upon closer inspection one can see the spatial recession that is taking place. This painter used the classicizing style that was inherited from Rome. The faces and bodies within the piece are modeled and detailed. The bodies and heads tilt and pose in different angles. The skin and muscles are done with fine detail and show the ease at which the bodies have been created. One can see a shadow that is being created by the throne that the Virgin is sitting in towards the bottom, as well as folds in her dress which create the illusion of depth and space. At the top of the painting the architecture is also receding which helps to create and close off the space within the piece. This painting also brings in the idea of hierarchy with how the bodies are displayed. The angles are highest up and they are not touching the ground while the saints are below them, fully erect with one foot upon the ground and the other lifted as though they are in motion, the saints gaze is calm and direct, they are looking out ward as if viewing the audience. The angels gaze is upward towards God and they are painted in light colors and are slightly transparent giving them a holy or other worldly appearance. The Virgin sits upon a thrown with her feet above the ground, her gaze is to the side and away from the viewer. The way this composition is laid out shows a hierarchy in the way earth and heaven are seen. There is a suggestion of cosmos, of the world, of Earth and of “real” people. The heavenly aspect would be the angels, while earth would be the saints, Madonna and Christ would be in the middle of the two as both heavenly and worldly, while the audience who is looking upon the piece represent earth.

The image of Madonna and child can still be seen during the Crusades and well after. Two of the most famous pieces from this time are Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels in Medallions (Mellon Madonna) c. 1260-1285 and Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne c. 1260-1280 . These images are considered to be some of the most important cultural images found in western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In both images Madonna sits upon a large thrown with Christ on her lap. Both are dressed in detailed flowing robes with many folds and highlights. The first image shows Madonna in purple and blue robes, which have a hood that shrouds her face. She sits upon an elaborate wooden throne with a rest beneath her feet. She holds the Christ child on her lap, he is dressed in a red and blue tunic and holds a scroll in his left hand while doing a blessing gesture with his right. The Christ child also has a halo surrounding his head. Above the two figures are two medallions each with an angel inside. The two angels can be seen from the torso up and have robes and halos on and are holding scepters. Both angels are looking down upon the two figures while Christ looks up at Madonna. Madonna is looking outward towards the audience, she uses her hand to gesture towards Christ, this gesture can be seen as Madonna indicating that Christ is the way. In Madonna’s lap Christ can be seen doing a blessing gesture towards the Madonna. The throne upon which they sit resembles an oversized, ornate chair.

The second image, although very similar to first still holds important differences. This image like the first, depicts virgin and child together upon a thrown but in this image the seat upon which they sit is different. The thrown is elaborate and ornate like the first but in this image, it is round, two-tiered and wraps around the virgin, while also taking up most of the background. Both virgin and child are draped in flowing robes with intricate folds and highlights, but the style and colors used are different than what is used in the first image. The virgin is draped in red and blue while the Christ child is dressed in salmon and blue. This particular image uses thin repeated lines to show highlights and detail. The Christ child holds a scroll in his left hand while supporting it on his lap and presents his right hand in a blessing gesture. Similar to the first image are the two medallions above the virgin’s head which contain images of two angles, both holding scepters and spheres in their hands. Another difference in this image besides the thrown is the halo surrounding the virgins head. This halo gives the virgin added meaning, it presents her as not only the mother of Christ but also as someone who heavenly and slightly more important than those around her.

When comparing the Madonna and child from before the Crusades to the ones that were created after the some of the differences are immediately apparent. The Crusades brought about a new combination of byzantine culture and expectation with new western ideas and styles. Stylistically the first Madonna and child are not as intricate and tend to look flatter than those that came after it. The two Madonna and child pieces from after the Crusades are much more detailed and have more highlights and shadows, allowing them to appear more three dimensional. These second pieces show colors that were introduced by the west along with hyper ornamentation of the thrones and new techniques like stippling. One of the most common arguments given as to why these to pieces are not considered to be solely byzantine is the way the colors are done. It may seem like a small thing to notice but because the colors were mixed instead of layered it becomes more obvious that these pieces were created at later time. These differences come from the change in style that occurred as the Crusades progressed. These changes in style tended to happen because of changes in culture and religion as different emperors and rulers took over different lands. Depending on who was ruling in that area would determine what artists were present at that time and what kind of art they were creating. Changes in religion meant that different aspects of each religious story became more or less important.

The Crusades lasted for over two hundred years and brought about destruction and pain to many people. Between assassinations, the rise and fall of multiple religions and the constant take over and loss of land it is safe to assume that change would happen. Shifts in culture, lifestyles, religion and religious practices all caused changes within the art that was created. One of the most prominent images and icons of the byzantine era was that of Madonna and child. This image was created for over one thousand years and continues to be created today. Madonna and child can be seen in many countries in a variety of styles and mediums and have held an important place in art history for centuries. These three pieces are an important part of both history and art and tell us a story of the past and how the changes society goes through changes the media created during that time.

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Art of the Crusader Period. (2021, Mar 19). Retrieved from

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