West-East Bidirectional Influence of Art and Architecture during the Crusades



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By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

“A man of eighty,” wrote Lord Byron, “has outlived probably three new schools of painting, two of architecture and poetry and a hundred in dress.”  Byron’s sentiment would certainly ring true for most periods of human history, including the medieval period of the crusades that began seven centuries before he wrote those lines.  Western Europe was nearly a century into the High Middle Age period when Pope Urban II called the first crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095.  This was the time of the medieval renaissance – referenced by 20th century historian of French and English medieval art, Joan Evans, in The Flowering of the Middle Ages – with an explosion of invention and advancement in invention, technology, culture and commercial pursuits.  Painting, dress, and literature developed and were influenced on a local and regional basis.


The Flowering of the Middle Ages, Joan Evans

The primary influence the crusaders took with them to the Levant was architectural.  Two architectural styles emerged in Western Europe during the time of the crusades – Romanesque from approximately the 11th to late 12th century, and Gothic from the 12th century to well past the end of the last crusade.  These two styles were used in church design and construction.  William the Conqueror, ultimately seizing England in 1066 following the Battle of Hastings depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, helped to usher in another form of architecture that would change the landscape of medieval Europe – castles.  With Romanesque architecture being in place by 1095 and Gothic soon to follow, the influence of Western European structural design and castles was set to follow them to the Holy Land, and they would bring back certain architectural influences from the Levant as well as manuscript elements that would contribute to an already-growing medieval renaissance.

Church building in the Levant must be addressed both before and after the arrival of the Crusaders.  Though Muslims had been tolerant of non-Muslims for some time, namely Christians and Jews as “People of the Book,” that tolerance and the amicable relations between them were beginning to show signs of stress.  Persecution of non-Muslims began to increase after the year 1000.  Muslims began destroying Christian and Jewish architecture, culminating in the ordered destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on October 18, 1009, by Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah.  Denys Pringle, a specialist on church art and architecture in the Levant during the crusades, wrote, “…by 1014, only a handful of church buildings, including the Nativity in Bethlehem and the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, were left standing within the caliph’s lands.”[1]  The architectural history of the Holy Land is one that is fraught with the destruction of churches and monuments and their reconstruction when conditions improved.  An example of this is the Anastasis, which was a rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


“Anastasis” Resurrection Fresco, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem / Wikimedia Commons

            This is a fresco, or wall painting, depicting the resurrection.  The church was constructed by Constantine about 325 CE.  It was later damaged during the Persian invasion of Jerusalem in 630 under Khosrau II, and finally ordered destroyed by Hakim.  Pringle referenced this cycle of damage and destruction as creating a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, upon which architecture crusaders would later build.  This was significant to the crusade architecture that developed.  The original buildings under Constantine were of course heavily influenced by Byzantine canons coupled with indigenous styles as was common to the familiarity of local people to provide easier acceptance for the sake of conversion.  Had those structures remained intact, there would have been little if any room and certainly limited ability under even the most talented builder’s hand for Western influence to be added.

With this “blank slate” in mind, it is evident in many structures the crusaders rebuilt that the remnants and fragments of churches destroyed before their arrival were used in the reconstruction of the entirety.  Such fragments were often not used in their original location.


Arco di Costantino (Arch of Constantine) / Wikimedia Commons

The use of “spolia” (the “spoils” of war) finds a long tradition, dating back to Roman times.  Constantine’s Triumphal Arch contains elements, such as a relief of Marcus Aurelius, taken from other monuments of triumphal emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. [2]  Spolia was taken from ancient buildings and monuments, especially those that had been destroyed, in the Levant during the first crusade and influenced the rising cultural and architectural renovation of the 12th century renaissance in Western Europe.  This influence, however, involved the content rather than the structure of the buildings and monuments on which the spolia were included – appropriation to be more accurate.  Construction styles reveal a heavier influence from West to East.[3]

It is believed by some crusade historians that the same hand that constructed column capitals at the Church of Nazareth also constructed those at the Holy Sepulchre as well as the Romanesque abbey in Avignon.[4]  This would verify the same master constructing elements of churches in Western Europe also traveling and doing the same in the Levant.  Some disagree with this assessment and instead believe the capitals and columns to have designed by students of the initial masters.[5]   But this disagreement is irrelevant to the point at hand – the clear influence of Western European art and architecture upon that in the Levant during the first crusade.  Whether by the master himself or his students, the transfer of the influence is clear.


Church of Nazareth and Avignon Abbey Capitals / Wikimedia Commons

This influence was not intended to be merely temporary.  Column capitals were discovered buried in Jerusalem in 1908, and it is believed that they were concealed to protect them from Muslim destruction as the later crusades ended in dismal failure with holy sites being inaccessible to Christians and Jews until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.


Church of Nazareth Capitals, Jerusalem / Julianna Lees

Their concealment signals the belief that the crusaders completely believed their efforts to conquer and retain the Levant would end in success, at which point they could be reestablished.  These capitals with raised relief images also call to mind Western European design.

The influence of Western groin and rib vaulting can be seen in the Cenacle – the “Church of the Apostles.”  This affect is actually a generational one – that of the West finding its roots in ancient Rome under Theodosius I and transmitting it thence to the Crusader States upon the launch of the crusades.[6]  Indeed, this generational influence is seen in the very same structure from beginning to end.  The church was built by Theodosius I around 382 CE on Mount Zion but was destroyed in 1009 by Hakim in his campaign against Christians in Jerusalem.  The date of its reconstruction is a matter of debate.  The Cenacle contains a technique known as “tas de charge,” in which the lowest points of an arch are horizontally embedded into the wall behind them to reduce the width of the space spanned by the rising blocks above it in an arch and to support the arch.[7]  These were not part of the original church built under Theodosius but were instead part of the reconstruction of the church after it was heavily damaged.  The church contains groin and rib vaulting indicative of late Romanesque and early Gothic Northern Europe.

GroinVault02  GroinVault03

Groin Vault Illustration (left), Wikimedia Commons / Groin Vaults in Cenacle Upper Room of the Last Supper, Century One Photo

The 12th century renaissance again makes its presence known here.  Hugh Plommer wrote, “…the three mouldings down the centers of the Cenacle’s transverse ribs still suggest incisions down a single flat transverse arch, thus proclaiming their ancestry in transverse arches of the earlier twelfth century.”[8]  Walking into the upper room of the Cenacle clearly leaves the impression of entering the nave of a Gothic church.

After the first crusade, art and architecture in the Levant began to take on a life of its own – its own style and characteristics.  Crusaders had been exposed to Arabic techniques and incorporated them into the methods and techniques with which they were accustomed.  The word “accustomed” is used very loosely here given the rapidity with which Romanesque and Gothic styles emerged and progressed in Northern Europe, especially through the 12th century as the widely varied Romanesque styles gave way to a more homogenous Gothic style toward the end of the century.[9]  Analysis of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem as well as Crusader wall-painting of the mid-12th century yields the influence indigenous work on the Western styles brought by the Crusaders.


Damascus Gate / Wikimedia Commons

The Damascus Gate – the main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem – is a three-layer structure in the sense that it was originally built under Hadrian in the 2nd century CE under Roman rule and stands today much as it was constructed in 1537 under Suleiman the Magnificent, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  Between the Hadrian remains and the current building were found the 12th century remnants of what crusaders called St. Stephen’s Gate because of its proximity to the Church of St. Stephen and the place claimed to be that of his martyrdom.[10]  The crusader gate was begun in the late 12th century, while the column of St. Margaret in the Church of the Nativity had been constructed under Justinian I in 565 CE.  At that time, Byzantine influences melded with local tradition to facilitate conversion, and now during the crusades they were both adapting to the 12th century world view of the crusaders and influencing it.  Christians indigenous to the Levant had different traditions and styles, and those were reflected together with the Romanesque influence brought by the crusaders.[11]  The transfer of architectural and artistic methods and techniques between East and West during the crusades in many instances must be viewed with Constantinople as an intermediary influence given the Byzantine Empire from which it sprang.  Romanesque art and architecture was prevalent during the 11th and 12th centuries in Western Europe, and with Abbot Suger at St. Denis in Ile-de-France began to give way to a consciously-borne canon in Gothic cathedrals and figural representation by the mid-12th century.  Thus, when the first crusade launched in 1095, Northern Europe had widely-varying Romanesque methods and techniques to offer in influence in the Levant with the arrival of the more realistic representations of Gothic architectural sculpture.  Building portals in the Levant often had pointed designs before the arrival of the crusaders, and Muslim architecture in Spain may have contributed to the emergence of such arch types in Western Europe prior to the crusades.  But they began to take on features of a Western European nature, such as layered depth.[12]

SaintDenis01  Madrasa01

Basilica of Saint-Denis Portal (left) and Mosque of Madrasa Portal (right) / Wikimedia Commons

When speaking of architecture in the Holy Land as influenced and affected by the crusades, attention must turn to the utter explosion of castle-building that took place.  There was literally a “Starbucks on every corner,” so to speak, as crusaders built these fortifications, waystations, and royal residences all over the Levant.  In those structures is told the same story shown by the comparisons – new methods and techniques were introduced as a result of the culture and knowledge brought to the region by the crusaders (particularly effected by the 12th century renaissance), and they were combined with local styles.  The results were columns, capitals, arches, and more that were uniquely tailored to the environment in which they were built precisely because of those combined influences while retaining their uniquely Romanesque or Gothic identity.

Discussion of the introduction of crusaders on castle building in the Levant requires an analysis of the introduction of castles to Northern and Western Europe as well.  The use of stone fortifications has a long history dating back to ancient Rome, but castles as popularly recognized today were constructed all across England and other parts of Europe following Norman conquests.  Normans introduced castles to Europe in the form of the most basic design – the motte and bailey.  Prior to the crusades, warfare among nobles followed rules of chivalry and honor and rarely culminated in actual battle and bloodshed.  A manor would be sieged and pillaged as well as perhaps nobility kidnapped in hopes of gaining ransom for their return.  These structures were built for defensive purposes upon manmade mounds of earth on which a keep was built with an enclosed area beneath to which residents of the lord’s manor and other villagers could retreat.[13]  The lord of the village in which the castle was located lived in the keep and there held official meetings, entertainment for guests, and so forth.  Castle life in the Middle Ages was not a private affair.  Home life in general was not nearly as private as we consider it today.[14]


Motte-and-Bailey Illustration / Castles and Manor Houses

Beneath the motte, or earthen mound, was the bailey.  In addition to serving as a refuge in times of conflict, the bailey was used in times of peace for storage of grain and animals.  Because of the nature of medieval warfare being more a matter of pillaging and posturing, these initial castles were passive in their design and did not provide adequate defense against even a very small military contingent set upon serious destruction.[15]  The motte-and-bailey design was gradually replaced by the stone keep castle from around 1100 onward, which was a motte-and-bailey with the bailey and castle keep within the same wall instead of connected to each other by a bridge.  This provided a stronger fortification of stone rather than wood and held everything in one compact area, thus decreasing the space to defend.  The stone was erected with even weight distribution to prevent tower collapse, and the material was less expensive to acquire than timber.[16]  The keep was a tall tower to provide for downward weapon trajectory as well as an enhanced range of view already provided by the mound.


Donjon d’Arques (Château d’Arques) Castle Keep / Cathar Castles

The crusades introduced those who “took up the cross”, in response to Urban’s call, to a completely different sort of warfare with which many of those in especially younger generations were not at all accustomed – warfare in which blood was actually spilled and the enemy was truly an enemy.  As territory was successfully captured during the first crusade, the need of course arose to provide adequate measures to both retain and maintain it.  The passive motte-and-bailey structures of the Normans would not provide the necessary protection, and newer siege technology was challenging even the stone keep.  A new design was given birth in the Crusader States – the concentric design.[17]  It was this design that created nearly impenetrable walls as soldiers within were able to engage the enemy without.


Krac des Chevaliers / Wikimedia Commons

The most important and most symbolic of this design was the Krac des Chevaliers.  The siege weaponry that had become the norm for those laying siege to castles in the Levant did not prove successful against this new design and largely contributed to their successful defense of the lands upon which they were built during the first crusade.  The concentric castle was referenced as an active design because it allowed defenders to take offensive actions within the rings of walls circling the castle.  These castles sprouted across the region during the successful first crusade.  But newer ranged siege weapons were constructed that, during subsequent crusades, allowed the enemy outside the walls to successfully attack the inside castle without actually being inside.[18]  This provided the ability to attack the castle effectively without having to cross the walls until the fortifications were substantially reduced.

MelisendePsalter01  MelisendePsalter02

Melisende Psalter Cover (left) and Page (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the Romanesque and Gothic cathedral designs of churches that influenced newer structures in the Levant and the redesign of some of those pre-existing as well as the explosion of castles and the development of their styles, one form of artistic influence that primarily flowed from East to West was the illuminated manuscript.  Manuscripts of those taking up new residence in the Levant contained styles that had not to that point been seen in Western Europe.  The intermediary influence of Constantinople arises here.  The Melisende Psalter reveals both European and Armenian influence combined with Byzantine, painted in vibrant colors at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem between 1131 and 1143.[19]

One significant contribution to the medieval renaissance was the flow of knowledge from East to West.  As Muslims captured the Levant and Greek territory, they did not discard previous scholarship that had to that point been amassed by preceding cultures, including those in Egypt.  They did largely destroy art that depicted people because this is unacceptable in Islamic doctrine.  But the knowledge contained in the scholarly and literary works that they acquired was stored in libraries and shared with others in more peaceful times.  Some was also recaptured in Andalusia (modern Spain) during its reconquest as well.  This knowledge poured into Western Europe and promoted new methods in art and architecture as well as in political and social ogranization and bureaucracy, such as the formation of the Exchequer in England after Adelard of Bath brought the abacus back to England from Toledo.  Adelard also began translating Arabic texts for a Western audience to benefit programs in education and research.[20]  Along with this knowledge came increased scholarship and literacy.  A new script was also introduced, pseudo-Kufic (or Kufesque), that was based on the cursive Arabic script in which straight and angular strokes were used.[21]


Image of Madonna with Child and Pseudo-Kufic Script on Veil / Ugolino di Nerio (c.1315-1320), Wikimedia Commons

The crusades saw scholastic as well as artistic and architectural influence flow in both directions between East and West, such as in the form of Romanesque and Gothic influence in pre-existing and new church structures built in the Levant.  The most visible and widely-scattered form of Western influence in the East lay in the castles constructed by crusaders and a revolutionary new active design.  Manuscripts, including the influence of Arabic scripts, flowed into the West and helped promote the medieval renaissance that ensued simultaneously with the crusades.  The medieval period of the crusades is identified by that which it produced, spanning styles and designs as Byron would later suggest.


[1] Jaroslav Folda, Crusader Art in the Twelfth Century (Oxford:  British School of Archaeology, 1982), 262.

[2] Beat Brenk, “Spolia from Constantine to Charlemagne:  Aesthetics versus Ideology,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987):  103-104.

[3] Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy P. Mottahedeh, The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2001), 268.

[4] Denys Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (New York:  Routledge, 1998), 136.

[5] Folda, Crusader Art, 63.

[6] Robert Ousterhout, “The French Connection:  Construction of Vaults and Cultural Identity in Crusader Architecture,” in France and the Holy Land:  Frankish Culture at the End of the Crusades, ed. Daniel H. Weiss and Lisa Mahoney (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 77-97.

[7] Pringle, Churches, 276.

[8] Hugh Plommer, “The Cenacle on Mount Sion,” in Crusader Art of the Twelfth Century, ed. Jaroslav Folda (Oxford:  British School of Archaeology, 1982), 139-166.

[9] Xavier Barral i Altet, “Religious Architecture During the Romanesque Period in Catalonia,” Catalan Historical Review 4 (2010), 35.

[10] Adrian J. Boas, Jerusalem in the Time of the Crusades:  Society, Landscape and Art in the Holy City Under Frankish Rule (New York:  Routledge, 2001), 53.

[11] Jaroslav Folda, Crusader Art in the Holy Land:  From the Third Crusade to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1-20.

[12] Robert A. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise:  A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 113.

[13] Walter of Oxford, “The Life of Bishop John of Thérouanne and the Bishop’s Pastoral Activities (1130),” in Medieval Narrative Sources:  A Gateway into the Medieval Mind, eds. W. Verbeke, L. Milis, J. Goossens, Vol. 34 of Mediaevalia Lovaniensia (Leuven:  Leuven University Press, 2005), 77-90.

[14] Ian Barnes, The Historical Atlas of Knights and Castles:  The Rise and Fall of the Age of Chivalry (New York: Cartographica, 2007), 228-241.

[15] J.E. Kaufman and H.W. Kaufman, The Medieval Fortress:  Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages, (Cambridge, Da Capo Press, 2004), 108-115.

[16] Barnes, Knights and Castles, 212.

[17] Barnes, Knights and Castles, 214.

[18] Kaufman, The Medieval Fortress, 136.

[19] “British Library Online Sacred Texts,” accessed April 8, 2012, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/melispsalter.html

[20] Charles Burnett, Adelard of Bath Conversations with His Nephew (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998), xi-xx.

[21] Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1992).