L'hôpital St. Louis reveals flaking paintings of Crusaders
Jerusalem, a city of 1,000 secrets, revealed one of them last week when for the first time ever the press were invited to view the secco paintings of Crusaders at the 19th century Hôpital St. Louis des Français – the long-term care facility and hospice for terminally ill Jews, Christians, and Muslims, located opposite the New Gate, which is closed to the general public.
The media tour, organized by Jerusalem District archaeologist Amit Reem of the Israel Antiquities Authority and hospital director Sister Monika Dullman of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, highlighted the frescoes painted by pious French aristocrat and Jerusalem benefactor Marie Paul Amédée de Piellat (1851-1925) – a figure who could be compared in importance in the Holy City during the early modern period to Sir Moses Montefiore except that he was on the wrong side of the Hebrew Bible – New Testament divide. The frescoes, depicting knights in armor and wearing swords, denote the genealogy of the French warriors during the Crusader period in the Holy Land from 1099 to 1291.
While some of the paintings were revealed thanks to a recently burst pipe and the necessity to repair the water damage, the decision to allow the facility’s historic and fragile frescoes to be photographed was taken out of worry for their future preservation.
“There’s a great concern that if the funds aren’t provided to conserve the secco, the works of art will disappear within a few years,” said Reem, pointing to evidence of the flaking and damage.
Monsieur le Compte Amédée de Piellat – a gifted artist – spent years painting his frescoes along the hospital’s corridors, chapel and stairwells. He worked in secco – a fresco technique in which pigments ground in water are tempered with egg yolk and then applied to plaster. While secco has the advantage over true fresco painting of allowing a longer working time and retouchability, it is not as permanent and the colors may flake off over time.
In 1874 Amédée de Piellat first visited Jerusalem. Touring the French hospital in the Old City established in 1851 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, he was appalled by the clinic’s unsanitary conditions. Two years later on his second visit to the city, he and his mother purchased the land opposite the northwest corner of the Old City that would become the French Compound. Not coincidentally the hill was the very site where French Crusader leaders Tancred and Godfrey de Bouillon and their chevaliers had besieged Jerusalem in 1099.
There in 1881 the count, who saw himself as the last Crusader, founded the modern facility which continues to function today as the 50-bed hospice St. Louis. The hospital is named after France’s King Louis IX, who lead the Seventh Crusade from 1248 to 1254, and rebuilt the walls of Caesarea.
Completed in 1896, the medical center was commandeered by the Turks in 1914 to become an Ottoman military hospital. The frescoes, deemed objectionable since Turkey was at war with France, were defaced. Amédée de Piellat returned to Jerusalem after World War I and painstakingly scraped away paint to reveal some of his murals. The remainder remain hidden by a layer of Turkish paint.
Hospital director Sister Dullman pointed out that St. Louis receives limited funding from the French government, Israel’s Ministry of Health and the country’s various health funds. “We try to survive and give the best treatment possible. We depend on volunteers.”
In 1987 the Dusseldorf, Germany-born nun arrived for a three-month stint as a volunteer. She returned full-time in 1999 after completing her theological studies.
Now the hospital director, she said her decades of experience has taught her that while she may never be able to relieve all pain, she can help patients during their last and most difficult moments. Sister Monika noted that Jesus spent his last night in the Garden of Gethsemane alone. What she can offer, said the recipient of France’s Legion d’Honneur, is her simple presence, so that those in her care will not be alone in their final hours of suffering. “I realized that the last thing I can do for someone who is suffering is not to run away.”